Daniel W. Drezner

Peter Bergen on Afghanistan

Peter Bergen on Afghanistan

As a follow-up to my last post on Bush’s commitment to democracy promotion, it’s worth pointing to this New York Times op-ed by Peter Bergen (link via Andrew Sullivan, who characterizes Bergen as “by no means a Bush-supporter.”). The highlights:

Based on what Americans have been seeing in the news media about Afghanistan lately, there may not be many who believed President Bush on Tuesday when he told the United Nations that the “Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom.” But then again, not many Americans know what Afghanistan was like before the American-led invasion. Let me offer some perspective…. As I toured other parts of the country, the image that I was prepared for – that of a nation wracked by competing warlords and in danger of degenerating into a Colombia-style narcostate – never materialized. Undeniably, the drug trade is a serious concern (it now compromises about a third of the country’s gross domestic product) and the slow pace of disarming the warlords is worrisome. Over the last three years, however, most of the important militia leaders, like Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum of the Uzbek community in the country’s north, have shed their battle fatigues for the business attire of the politicians they hope to become. It’s also promising that some three million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. Kabul, the capital, is now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, with spectacular traffic jams and booming construction sites. And urban centers around the country are experiencing similar growth. While two out of three Afghans cited security as their most pressing concern in a poll taken this summer by the International Republican Institute, four out of five respondents also said things are better than they were two years ago. Despite dire predictions from many Westerners, the presidential election, scheduled for Oct. 9, now looks promising. Ten million Afghans have registered to vote, far more than were anticipated, and almost half of those who have signed up are women. Indeed, one of the 18 candidates for president is a woman. Even in Kandahar, more then 60 percent of the population has registered to vote, while 45 percent have registered in Uruzgan Province, the birthplace of Mullah Omar… What we are seeing in Afghanistan is far from perfect, but it’s better than so-so. Disputes that would once have been settled with the barrel of a gun are now increasingly being dealt with politically. The remnants of the Taliban are doing what they can to disrupt the coming election, but their attacks, aimed at election officials, American forces and international aid workers, are sporadic and strategically ineffective. If the elections are a success, it will send a powerful signal to neighboring countries like Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, none of which can claim to be representative democracies. If so, the democratic domino effect, which was one of the Bush administration’s arguments for the Iraq war, may be more realistic in Central Asia than it has proved to be in the Middle East.

UPDATE: Do check out Alexander Thiel’s more pessimistic op-ed on the same page. This fact is certainly disturbing:

Kabul’s Supreme Court, the only other branch of government, is controlled by Islamic fundamentalists unconcerned with the dictates of Afghanistan’s new Constitution. On Sept. 1, without any case before the court, the chief justice ordered that Latif Pedram, a presidential candidate, be barred from the elections and investigated for blasphemy. His crime? Mr. Pedram had suggested that polygamy was unfair to women. These clerics are trying to establish a system like that in Iran, using Islam as a bludgeon against democracy.

Reading these two side by side, there’s actually less disagreement that one would think. Shorter Thiel: “We could have done Afghanistan better than we have.” Shorter Bergen: “Compared to the way things were, there’s still a vast, vast improvement.” UPDATE: Matthew Yglesias raises some issues with Bergen. And a comment on Matt’s site confirms something I had suspected — Bergen missdates an Asia Foundation poll that I had blogged about here. Bergen says the poll was taken in July, but that’s only when it was publicly released. The survey was conducted in February and March.