Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Afghan Election: At History's Crossroads Stands A Single Canadian Traffic Cop

Momentous shifts in the course of human history can sometimes come down to some small drama unfolding in a far-off corner of the world. In this way, the weight of historical forces end up turning on chance events, luck, and the actions of lone individuals.

Grant Kippen is the head of Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission, and whether he likes it or not, his name is about to go down in the annals of Afghan history. As the Times put it just yesterday, "the country’s future now lies largely in his hands." So does the fate of the most worthwhile cause that Canada has undertaken in decades, the most ambitious undertaking in the history of the United Nations, the viability of NATO, the movement of the front line in a global Islamist war against modernity, and the cornerstone in the foreign policy of a new American president, Barack Obama, at a critical juncture in America's disillusioned and dreary sense of its place in the world.

Not to pile on the pressure or anything, but it just so happens that this is the way things have turned out. Lucky for us, Grant Kippen is a dedicated partisan in the struggle for global democracy, and a good friend of the Afghan people.

He's a University of Ottawa MBA grad whose brief vocation as a mandarin began in the PMO when Pierre Trudeau was the boss. He went on to serve as the Liberal Party's national director of organizing, but his commitment to the advance of democracy quickly led him to more grand horizons. Kippen, a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queens University, has worked for the National Democratic Institute in Washington, D.C., and he's worked as an elections analyst, monitor and advisor in Algeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, East Timor, Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, and the Ukraine. He's been busy mainly in Afghanistan in recent years. He knows his stuff.

Allegations of vote-rigging and widespread, wholesale fraud continue to mount in the wake of the recent presidential elections in Afghanistan, casting a dark pall of doubt and despair over the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, Jawed Ludin, Afghanistan's new ambassador to Canada, is quite right to admonish everybody to calm the hell down: "Any wholesale dismissal of the Aug. 20 election as failed or fraudulent would, at the very least, be an affront to the dignity of the millions who cast genuine ballots, not to mention the memory of the many security personnel, both Afghan and non-Afghan, who gave their lives to secure the election process."

In a similar vein, Michael O'Halleran and Bruce Reidel, whose analyses are as critical to the architecture of Obama's Afghan policy as you can get, point out that there was actually a lot to like about the recent elections, and there's a lot right about Afghanistan, besides. That there was a spirited and fractious election campaign among competent candidates at all is just shy of miraculous. The Afghan army is finally beefing up. So is the Afghan National Police. Afghans are not incorrigibly anti-American and backward-looking. Americans should take a damn pill and take the long view while they're at it:

"There is frankly too much talk of Afghanistan as the graveyard of empires, as land of a xenophobic and backward people who will always resist efforts to enter the modern world. Afghans fought against the British in the 19th century and the Soviets in the 20th century because these imperialist powers were pursuing their own agendas. Today, Afghans consistently show a desire for progress, and their support for the Taliban hovers just above 6%, according to an ABC News/BBC/ARD poll taken in February; support is essentially zero among the non-Pashtun majority of the population."

The British, the French and the Germans are positively aching for a runoff poll between the incumbent Hamid Karzai and his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, and that would be a good thing, given everything that's happened. But it's what the Afghan people want that counts, and in all likelihood, the question will not turn on whether Karzai has enough counted votes to pass the necessary 50-per-cent threshhold, but whether he has enough demonstrably clean and uncontested votes to do so.

And that's starting to look unlikely. Which puts Grant Kibben in the hotseat. So which way will he go?

He's already answered the question. Last fall, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit commissioned Kippen to draw up an analysis on the prospects for the development of Afghan democracy, and specifically to look ahead to the contextual and technical challenges that would be posed by the elections that are just now causing everyone to set their hair on fire.

Kippen's analysis was necessarily dense and rarified in spots, but the key passages were these:

"These elections can only be considered 'successful' if they are perceived as such by the Afghan population. Only then will this electoral cycle contribute significantly to the strengthening of democracy in Afghanistan."

"Measuring success through technical, Western standards will not be enough. Rather, the outcomes of these elections must be judged according to an Afghan perspective of legitimacy and credibility. It is vital that all parts of the country are given the opportunity to participate equally in the elections process; that candidates are provided with an equal opportunity to campaign for office; and that no stakeholder group can claim that they were not provided with the opportunity to participate."

"Only if these standards are met will the 2009 and 2010 elections mark a credible milestone in Afghanistan’s democratic transition. The international community has the opportunity to renew its commitment to a successful electoral process, and to support the momentum this process will bring to the ongoing democratisation efforts. While Afghans must take responsibility and accountability for the democratic transition processes now underway, the international community must remain a fully committed partner for many years to come."

"Afghanistan after one, and soon to be two, election cycles is a long way from a fully functional, representative democracy. It will take many more iterations, and committed leadership and engagement, to ensure that the complex democratisation process now underway succeeds."

Slow and steady wins the race. The people will win.

Elsewhere, Damian Brooks looks back on the way the Afghanistan "debate" in Canada has been confounded by mediocrity, adolescent partisanship and bloodymindedness, and wonders how it might have been:

"The Afghan mission should have represented the perfect opportunity to meld the compassionate idealism of the political left with the hard-nosed practicality of the security-conscious political right and stand firm in our commitment – to our own national interests, and to the people of Afghanistan. This should have been the one mission we could all agree upon. That support for such a potentially bi-partisan effort has been allowed to slowly decompose to such embarrassingly meagre levels is an indictment of Canadian leadership across the political spectrum."

All in favour signify by saying aye.



Blogger vildechaye said...

Nice article Terry. I agree with you and the author.

Someone who does not is George F. Will, who I've never had any time for (I don't like most right commentators, even when I agree with them), had a column in the Washington Post headed: Time to Get Out of Afghanistan. For what it's worth, he dismisses the NATO contribution and doesn't even mention the Canadian role in Kandahar. YOu can find and read the article here:
(I don't know how to hyperlink on this blog. Sorry about that.)

6:06 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...

Thanks, Vildechaye.

David Frum has written a good piece, from a conservative point of view, by way of a rebuttal to Will:

Even from the most isolationist and paleoconservative perspective, Will's reasoning doesn't hold: He fails to take into account the consequences of America, of all countries, chucking in the towel at the most important front line in the global struggle for democracy. The loss in American "blood and treasure" would be incalculably greater, in the medium term, to say nothing of the long term.

Frum, too, suffers from the same kind of pessimism and timidity that makes it so difficult for conservatives to articulate the righteousness of this cause. He'd "settle" for an Afghan version of Tajikistan. But he gets the point, at least.

6:34 PM  
Blogger Kurt Langmann said...

We created the Taliban as the West's (and Saudi's) multi-billion dollar antidote to the Soviet occupation. It has nothing to do with traditional Afghan values. It is foreign to their culture. Now that we did this (and deserted them when the Russkies left) we owe it to the Afghans to rid themselves of the anti-progessives. They never asked for it, after all. They only wanted the freedom to choose their own way.

11:06 PM  

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