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Painting Democracy on Afghanistan

Interviewee: Thomas H. Johnson, Director, Culture and Conflict Studies, Naval Postgraduate School
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
October 23, 2009

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After weeks of high-level diplomacy between Washington and Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to a November 7 runoff election with his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. World leaders, from U.S. President Barack Obama to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, praised the decision. But Afghanistan expert Thomas H. Johnson of the Naval Postgraduate School says the runoff election-agreed to after intense lobbying from U.S. officials-will not produce a legitimate leader in the eyes of Afghan voters. Instead, Johnson says, the runoff could further destabilize the country, especially if Abdullah wins. "There's almost an American arrogance here thinking that we could come in and install Jeffersonian representative democracy on this country," Johnson says. He says the Obama administration should seek to rely more on Afghan systems of governance which, while unrecognizable to Western institutions, have been "able to resolve disputes such as this through consensus" for centuries.

Before President Karzai's decision to stand for a runoff on November 7, there had been much discussion as to whether the Obama administration needed to wait to move on its strategy until the election results were official. Is a credible Afghan government a prerequisite for Washington to move forward?

The big quote is "democracies make elections, elections don't make democracies." This is especially the case in Afghanistan, which we've tried to paint democracy on over the last eight years since the Bonn Agreement [which created the country's post-Taliban government in 2001]. In many respects, talking about the strategy and reevaluating the strategy before we have final election results is missing the larger point. This election will not make the winner legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people because democratic elections aren't a source of legitimacy in Afghanistan and Afghan politics. The current debate is primarily a reflection of U.S. cultural and political mirror-imaging on Afghanistan. [In pushing for a runoff, the Obama administration] may have opened up a can of worms. I was in Afghanistan and saw the fraud three or four months ago. I knew this was going to be a fraudulent election. If by chance Abdullah Abdullah won a runoff, that's the makings of a civil war in the country. I'm not sure that all of these variables have come into place in the decision calculation in Washington right now. There's no question that Karzai had a fraudulent election, but one, either way these results will not make a legitimate ruler and two, the possibilities of an overturn of the Karzai regime has implications that are very problematic. I do not think this election is going to result in a legitimate leader one way or the other.

Afghanistan has long relied on other forms of decision making, like jirgas and councils. It sounds like you're suggesting the Western definition of democracy does not translate to Afghanistan.

[The Obama administration is] grasping at straws to try to find legitimate political players in Afghanistan that they can work with on the political side as well as the military side.

Anybody that knows the history of Afghanistan will recognize the fact that they've practiced pure Greek democracy at the village level for two millennia. There's almost an American arrogance here thinking that we could come in and install Jeffersonian representative democracy on this country. It's also extremely important to recognize that the entire election fiasco of August has [set] any type of movement toward democracy back in Afghanistan. What do you think the Afghans are thinking about who went to the polls, in some cases risking their well-being and the well-being of their family? Now they're waiting to hear what's going to happen two months later. My final point is that if we're going to have a special election for city council in Boise, Idaho, you couldn't pull it off in two weeks. What makes America and Washington think that they could have a credible rerun of this election process in a two-week period?

Many analysts thought Karzai would refuse calls for a runoff. Any idea why he changed his mind?

I said publicly on numerous occasions that there'd be no way there could be a runoff election and that Karzai would claim sovereignty and wouldn't allow the UN election commission to play such a role. Of course, his independent election commission was completely handpicked. I was surprised [at his decision to agree to a runoff]. I can't speak with authority, but I would imagine that there was some pretty big arm-twisting going on behind the scenes by the United States, ISAF [International Security Assistance Force], and NATO. This is all being done under the assumption that this is going to create some type of legitimacy for the winner of this runoff election. That's where I have basic problems.

What was the better approach here?

In the ideal world, I would have liked to see more of an emergency loya jirga [a temporary council traditionally made up of representatives from Afghan tribes and opposing factions used decide matters of national significance]. I would have liked to see an emergency loya jirga with 1,500 to 2,000 delegates representing all of the major players and parts of the countries to have them resolve this the way they traditionally resolve these types of problems in the past. When push comes to shove, we should have relied on the historical processes that Afghans relied on in the past.

How does this play in the Afghan street? It's been portrayed by Obama and Secretary of State Clinton as a victory for democracy.

The average Afghan in the hinterland regions-remember that this is a country that's primarily 75 to 80 percent rural-really doesn't have a real clear idea of what's going on. We continue to mirror image our solutions onto Afghanistan; because they've asked for a runoff election this is a great victory for democracy? I don't buy that at all. And if it was a great victory for democracy, why don't we try to have the election more systematically done rather than say, arbitrarily, that it's going to be within two weeks. I recognize that there are winners coming out and other dynamics, but if we were really serious about this why would it matter if we waited two or three months? The response for that is this is all outside the Afghan constitution. There's no procedure in the constitution for a lag structure like this before the next election and who's going to be running the show. But I'm really concerned that we think we can just pull off a new election in two weeks. Let's not forget that just a couple of years ago in 2005 when they had the Wolesi Jirga, the legislative elections in Afghanistan, the United Nations publicly stated that they were the most complicated elections in the history of man. Now this isn't as complicated as legislative elections in Afghanistan, but it's still a fairly complicated process. I'm very concerned that we say we can turn around and do this is two weeks.

This [runoff] election will not make the winner legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan people because democratic elections aren't a source of legitimacy in Afghanistan and Afghan politics.

Among the pieces of evidence cited as fraud after the August 20 vote are claims that entire precincts or districts voted for one candidate, in many cases Karzai. Couldn't that simply have been the will of the tribal structure in that region, and not fraud?

Probably most of that was fraudulent. One of the real problems with this election was that hundreds of polling places sent in ballots that were never opened to the public. But you're absolutely correct. I detailed the analysis of the presidential election of 2004 and found a high propensity of Afghans to vote along ethno-linguistic affinities: the Pashtun were voting for Karzai last time, the Tajiks were for [Yunus] Qanuni, the Hazaras were voting for [Mohammad] Mohaqiq, and the Uzbeks were voting for [Abdul Rashid] Dostum. I found very clear and convincing statistical evidence of that. I obviously haven't done that type of analysis on this past election, but for the ballots that weren't fraudulent I wouldn't be surprised if you see those similar types of dynamics.

I recently spoke with an election expert who monitored the first round of voting, and plans to return to monitor the November 7 runoff. His assessment was that it's all about security this time. What's more important in your mind, access to polling sites or producing a legitimate winner?

It's not possible to talk about legitimacy. I'm very dubious at this stage of Afghan history and "democratic" development that an election makes a legitimate leader. In many respects, that's not at all the case. We're just kidding ourselves to think that this next election is going to result in some type of legitimate Afghan leader. Max Weber, the famous sociologist, talked about three forms of regime legitimacy: traditional (which was often patriarchal or dynastic), religious, and Western/rational. For two millennia, Afghanistan or the area where Afghanistan now occupies, has determined legitimacy by the first two sources of legitimacy. That the United States, UN, and NATO think they can change this in a short period of time borders on delusional thinking. Let's not forget that it took 150 years if not longer for the United States to have universal women's suffrage. But for some reason we think we can have these types of institutions take hold overnight in a country that has never had a history of anything resembling Jeffersonian representative democracy.

So perhaps the runoff plan was simply a way to sell it to the U.S. public, to maintain support for the war?

That's part of it, but there's inertia going on here. We've developed so much of our strategy and certain policies based on historical assumptions. Some of these carry through with this administration. Of course, the second inaugural speech by George W. Bush talked about his legacy of developing democratic regimes worldwide. There's also inertia taking place here, and we haven't really sat back and reevaluated what some of our assumptions are concerning legitimacy and rule in Afghanistan.

But isn't that what the Obama administration is doing, reevaluating its strategy?

Obama gave his strategy in his speech in March, although some statements coming out of the administration seem a little different right now. To ultimately be successful in COIN [Counterinsurgency], you've got to have a regime that's viewed as legitimate by 80 percent to 85 percent of the people. I didn't say popular. It doesn't have to be popular, but it does have to be legitimate for COIN to succeed. That's the real dilemma that the Obama administration is facing. They're grasping at straws to try to find legitimate political players in Afghanistan that they can work with on the political side as well as the military side. That's been very difficult.

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