I know it is tempting to look at the revelations that apparently the Afghan elections were rigged by supporters of President Hamid Karzai and become frustrated or depressed. After all, Karzai is America's man, the Jefferson we plucked out of obscurity to restore democracy to that war-torn country. And yes, not only have we been fighting there at staggering cost for eight years but we are now upping the ante making it likely that Karzai will remain the spokes model for the efforts of what very well may be a force of over 100,000 U.S. troops before it is all over (in many years).
But I am a stuffed-ballot-box-is-half-full kind of guy, one of those cock-eyed optimists that FP is known for (see Peter Bergen's recent upbeat piece on Afghanistan or just tiptoe through the tulips of the AfPak Channel blog which I can now reveal to you will soon be made into a Broadway musical starring Zac Efron as Karzai and Vanessa Hudgens as his secret love who meets a tragic fate when she inadvertently reads a book). Some people see America seemingly fighting to advance the interests of a slime bag who neither shares our values nor is grateful for the young men and women we are sacrificing for him or his people. But I see the upside, at least five benefits from election results that might make others throw up a little in their mouths.
Here they are:
Reports that hundreds of fake polling places were established that seemed to produce hundreds of thousands of ballots that were of net benefit to Karzai, confirm that Afghanistan is making progress. While, if these allegations are true, they are not exactly indicative of what you might call fair elections, they are not only a big step forward from Taliban "good governance" practices but they are roughly as fair as democratic practices found in many far more advanced countries such as neighboring Iran. Further, they do make one group I can relate to feel much better: the cynics who predicted that this is what would happen. Cynics have been disappointed recently, especially by apparent signs that the world is creeping out of a recession and by President Obama's principled stand, despite almost maniacal opposition to continue to fight for much needed healthcare reform despite great political risks. Calling this election right eases the pain a bit.
Corruption. Oppression of women. Gainsaying U.S. efforts. None of these things seem to have sent home the message to the U.S. that Karzai is not the horse on which to bet ... or even a horse you want to have wearing your colors. But perhaps the discomfort surrounding this election, which is only likely to increase in the months ahead, will help cast the true nature of the Afghan leadership in a clearer light. It'll be ugly but U.S. planners ought to have their eyes wide open as requests are made for a greater investment that is likely to lead a longer-term commitment to AfPakia.
While Afghanistan is not a country known for the rock-ribbed strength of its institutions of civil society and social justice, we can always hope that this watered-down sip of democracy or possibly its foul aftertaste may energize opponents who actually are more committed to free and fair governance. Or perhaps it will motivate America and our allies to work harder to find people who are more credible in this regard. And give them money. Oh sure, I know that sounds like us fiddling the system much as Karzai has done but sometimes you have to break a few eggs, you know what I'm saying?
And since I'm sitting here listening to the optimistic music in my head (who knew Julie Andrews even cared about Afghanistan, but I could swear I could hear something about "rain drops on poppies and bright paper packages wrapped up with string") perhaps this latest instance of a bad regime cleansing itself with the legitimizing Purell of democracy might get the rest of the world talking about establishing a more formal set of enforceable international standards regarding what really makes a democracy. For instance, what country's people wouldn't benefit from international inspectors at every election? As an American ... and a New Jersey-American at that ... I for one would welcome all the scrutiny we could get. The key is that if you don't play by common standards you are actually denied privileges whereas now all you have to do is create a Potemkin democracy (roll out the ballot boxes, who cares what goes in them?) and you get global props. Oh sure, I know this would be uncomfortable for some people (Chinese, Venezuelans, Russians, Iranians, Zelaya-supporters, Floridians) but isn't that the point?
Even if the preceding reasons to be more cheerful about the outcome in Afghanistan don't work for you, there is always the fact that as America is convulsed by the health care debate, we are reminded that no matter how badly that turns out, in the end, AfPak will be worse. At some point this year, Obama will ultimately get a healthcare bill and it will include some important reforms (despite the best efforts of Republicans who are the ones who are actually convening the political death panels that will kill off reforms and in turn the people who need those reforms to survive). It won't be a total victory ... but compared to what we are likely to come out of Afghanistan with (thanks in part to "friends" like Karzai) ... it will look like Normandy, San Juan Hill, Appomattox, and Yorktown rolled into one with a Sousa march thrown in for good measure.
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David Rothkopf is the CEO and Editor-at-Large of Foreign Policy. His new book, "Power, Inc.: The Epic Rivalry Between Big Business and Government and the Reckoning that Lies Ahead" is due out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux on March 1.