To Americans, watching Muslims participate in free and fair democratic elections seems to be the 21st-century equivalent of converting them to Christianity. In American eyes, elections are the path out of tyranny and civil strife and toward legitimacy, good government, and peace. Elections help Americans justify and feel good about their sacrifices in blood and treasure on behalf of troubled and troubling Muslim societies. So it was in Iraq. And to a lesser degree, so it was last week when Afghans went to the polls to select a president.
The low participation also demonstrated that U.S. forces, as good as they are, could not afford the protection Afghans felt they needed to cast ballots in the face of Taliban threats.
No one in the Obama administration is crowing about the transformative power of that election. The turnout was less than 50 percent, far lower than the last election over four years ago. Then, a majority of voters on the first round chose Hamid Karzai, and it seemed a clarifying and unifying moment. Not so in this election, where neither President Karzai nor his former foreign minister and main opponent Abdullah Abdullah appears to have approached a decisive majority. Preliminary results announced Tuesday gave Karzai 41 percent of the votes processed so far, a slight lead over Abdullah. If Karzai does not have more than half of the votes when the counting is over, a runoff contest between the top two vote-getters in early October.
But few, if any, Americans or friendly Afghans are thrilled with the situation. Outside inspectors and the candidates themselves are charging widespread fraud and ballot stuffing and gross violations of womens’ voting rights. Some international observers are suggesting the level of electoral thievery could invalidate the results. Karzai and Abdullah both claim victory. American officials have asked them to stop for fear of inflaming their supporters to civil strife. The Americans are trying to explain to the candidates that they aren’t the same as the Republican and Democratic contenders for the Minnesota U.S. Senate seat, both of whom claimed victory for eight months. And one can only hope that Afghanistan’s highest court will not intervene to proclaim Karzai the victor as the U.S. Supreme Court did in proclaiming George W. Bush the winner over Al Gore. Americans would look askance if Afghans mimicked their own banana-republic justice.
The only ones gloating over this presidential election seem to be the Taliban. They wanted to suppress the voter turnout to demonstrate their power, and they largely did. In southern provinces, the percentage going to the polls fell to under 10. This was a deep wound to Karzai because these areas are overwhelmingly Pashtun, and he’s a Pashtun who expected upward of 80 percent of that vote. The low participation also demonstrated that U.S. forces, as good as they are, could not afford the protection Afghans felt they needed to cast ballots in the face of Taliban threats. And to some of those who, nonetheless, sported the purple fingers advertising their voting bravery, the Taliban carried out its threat to cut off those fingers.
It’s worth dwelling on the purple finger for a moment because Americans invested so much emotion in that symbol. The finger-dipping began with Iraq’s first real election about six years ago. To prevent extra voting, the fingers of those who had voted were dipped in supposedly indelible purple ink. Iraqis waved their purple digits wildly and proudly, and Americans seemed most gratified at their protégés' enthusiasm for democracy. With each passing election and with elections producing no miracles of political reconciliation or government performance, the voter lines thinned in Iraq. There were fewer and fewer purple fingers to proudly flaunt. Last week, the Afghans did a bit of flaunting, but some also pointed out a new use for a holy modern liquid called “bleach.” It turns out, these Afghans showed, that bleach could remove the purple, thus permitting enthusiastic voters to register multiple X’s for their guy.
Americans as well as the beneficiaries of American sacrifices are coming to realize that elections are not cure-alls, that they are a necessary ingredient for democracy but very far from a sufficient one. Nor are elections providing the basis for resolving nasty civil strife in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, elections in these countries could even prove counterproductive. The great majority cast their votes along ethnic, tribal, and religious lines. This, in turn, serves to amplify and aggravate differences of interest and power among the competing national groups.
The issue, of course, is what to do now, after such an inconclusive and possibly deeply tainted election with low voter participation, and now that the Taliban has made its power point. Where U.S. and Afghan officials seem headed is toward waiting, trying to keep charges and claims as low-key as possible, set up that October election between Karzai and Abdullah, and pray. Their expectation remains that Karzai will ultimately prevail and will then attempt to bring a slew of opponents into his already bloated government, give them each a piece of the poppy profits or a nice slice of American aid, and pray.
The problem is that Obama officials know well that this is not nearly enough to dig America out of the Afghan quagmire. These officials really do understand counterinsurgency warfare. They know this cannot be done without nation building, and that nation building depends directly and mostly on good and effective government. The central government in Kabul is corrupt and inefficient, and it inspires little or no loyalty among the people. The Obama strategy cannot work without a Kabul government that works. Last week’s elections were most certainly not President Obama’s fault, but they were a serious setback to the cause he now labels America’s “war of necessity.”
Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.