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Demonstrating Democracy in Afghanistan

Pranjal Tiwari
Date Published: 
February 01, 2005
    The corporate media in the US fondly use the term ‘election season’ to build up to that grandest of spectacles which takes place once every four years. This year, flanking the domestic main event, we have seen — so we are told — free and fair elections taking place to finally express the will of the ‘newly liberated’ people of the world, in areas such as Afghanistan. Indeed, if we were to believe the words of power, we should be giddy with joy to find ourselves inundated with stories of democracy and freedom bestowed upon others from above by our benevolent rulers.

Looking at the facts, however, gives a perhaps more sobering picture. The October elections in Afghanistan were carried out during a year of ongoing war, when ordinary people were bearing the brunt of increasing violence in the country. In May, Kim Sengupta of the UK’s Independent described the attacks on civilians and infrastructure by warlords, insurgents, and US troops as a “continuing conflict in Afghanistan, a war of attrition taking place largely in the shadows with the focus of the world’s media firmly fixed on Iraq.” In July, levels of violence and insecurity in the country led a British parliamentary committee to conclude that Afghanistan “could implode.” Just one month prior to the elections, Human Rights Watch released a major report titled The Rule of the Gun describing patterns of rights violations and political repression. To hold an election in such a climate, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) said in a statement, was surely a “mockery of democracy.” This assessment could also apply in the sense that the elections led to an outcome — victory for the US-backed candidate — which was wholly predictable. Predictable, that is, at least since an October of three years ago when the first American bombs started to fall on Afghanistan and US foot soldiers prepared for a ground invasion to assume control over the country. In their coverage of the election in Afghanistan, words such as ‘fraud’ and ‘flawed’ were initially and gingerly brought up by some sections of the corporate media (who later generally concurred with US officials that any irregularities were inconsequential to the outcome). This concept of ‘flaws’ has lately come up a lot regarding elections in strategic areas of the world — Venezuela, Kosovo, and the Ukraine being other recent examples — and is an interesting and important one to consider from a distance. If we look at much of the corporate media reporting of another recent set of elections, in the Ukraine, we can see that mainstream Western critics did indeed mentioned the procedural irregularities in the election — but crucially they also extended their analysis to include Russia’s support for the incumbent as a major flaw. “President Vladimir Putin of Russia,” Alexander Motyl wrote in the International Herald Tribune, for example, “…has consistently supported the most reactionary forces in all the non-Russian states as part of a plan to extend Russian hegemony over the former Soviet space.” This analysis is certainly true. Yet few of these same journalists and media outlets — which alluded to the shadowy presence of Russia during the Ukraine elections — had taken their reporting of ‘flaws’ in Afghanistan beyond the issue of irregularities in the actual election process (e.g., buying of votes and other backroom deals). Few seemed to have applied the same standards as they later would with the Ukraine elections. Few factored in the reality of power within Afghanistan: home to US bases and tens of thousands of US troops, a US-installed puppet government ruling inside Kabul, and powerful local autocrats — who according to Human Rights Watch are “backed by the policies of the US and other international actors” — ruling outside of Kabul. In a true example of doublespeak, such US “support for the incumbent,” even more concrete than Russia in the Ukraine, was deemed not as a hindrance to elections and democracy by the media, but as a factor actually guaranteeing it. True flaws As RAWA’s election statement put it, “The president is being protected by US bodyguards, but who will protect the vulnerable innocent people from the bullets of the warlords?” The true flaws, then, are in the realities of power. As the Human Rights Watch report notes, “[m]ost Afghans want the warlords out of power, and are angry that Afghanistan’s political processes so far — including two Loya Jirgas (grand councils) in 2002 and 2003 — have simply been legitimizing their influence.” And as Jonathan Steele summarized in The Guardian in October: “What was meant as an expression of democracy becomes a device to resist, rather than promote, change.” All of this assumes, of course, that we are talking about democracy in any real sense. If we refer to the propaganda-term “democracy” as it has been used by US planners for decades, we can instead situate the October 9 election in Afghanistan into a well-practiced pattern of “demonstration elections” that have been carried out at various times in newly acquired colonies, giving legitimacy to the occupying power and the systems of control it wishes to establish. Such demonstrations of legitimacy have been undertaken by imperial powers throughout history. Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead provided us with a quick-reference definition of “demonstration elections” way back, appropriately enough, in 1984:

    Demonstration Election (n): A circus held in a client state to assure the population of the home country that their intrusion is well received. The results are guaranteed by an adequate supply of bullets provided in advance.

And Dick Cheney himself recently harked back to 1984 in more ways than one, demonstrating the power of the memory-hole by referring to El Salvador as a best-practice example of democracy exported. “Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador,” Cheney said during one of the 2004 vice-presidential debates. “We had a guerilla insurgency controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead. And we held free elections… today El Salvador is… a lot better because we held free elections... And [this] will apply in Afghanistan. And it will apply as well in Iraq.” That such a blatantly duplicitous statement can be made to a live audience and be met with little challenge says a lot about the rigors of our media and intellectual culture. That El Salvador has been cited as an example of things to come perhaps says a lot more, and certainly does not bode well for Afghanistan and Iraq, or indeed for ordinary people anywhere.