If the time ever does come when we look back on our intervention in Afghanistan as a humiliating debacle, this past weekend may well be identified as one of the moments when the calamity became irreversible.
In the prelude to the 2004 elections in that country, I went around looking at the places where local people were being instructed in the principles as well as the mechanics of voting. It was like watching a very tightly furled bud beginning to burgeon and unfold. Officials of various international organizations had been hoping, for example, to attract a certain percentage of Afghan women to brave their former oppressors and come out to register; the facilities for this were overborne by the sheer number of women who spontaneously showed up. Minority groups that had been despised and butchered by the Taliban—such as the Hazara, a Shiite community with some cousinhood to Persia—were mobilizing to register. The press and television, entirely new to many Afghans, were showing some vivid scenes of democracy and some useful debates. On the actual day of voting, there was some complaint about the indelible ink for the fingertips being not so indelible as all that, but vast numbers of people braved the "night letters" from the Taliban and stood in line in the sun for the chance to cast a ballot. No procedural imperfection could quite destroy the impression that Afghans were acquiring the all-important idea of a free and competitive election.
The dreary, nasty farce of Aug. 20 has almost eclipsed that memory. A ridiculous, banana-republic style shenanigan produced, in its first round, an outcome that did not survive even the most cursory scrutiny. On the very first inspection of the polling stations and the ballots, it was laughably easy to discover polling stations that never opened but that recorded vast turnouts and ballots that had gone straight from the printing press into the pockets of President Hamid Karzai and his associates—one of whom, Azizullah Lodin, doubles as the chairman of the absurdly named Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.
That would be bad enough, were it not for the craven complicity of the U.N. mission in Kabul. Perhaps as much as $200 million of the international community's money was allotted to ensure that the Afghan people could vote, but when vast numbers of them did not or could not, and while many others of them managed to do so, in effect, five or six times, there was no alarm call from the responsible U.N. officers in Kabul. Or perhaps I should rephrase that: One officer did complain that there had been a) widespread fraud, and b) government collusion in same, and c) U.N. indifference that amounted to complicity. This was Peter Galbraith, a senior American diplomat who was then the deputy special representative of the U.N. secretary-general, that scintillating figure known in song and story as Ban Ki-moon. Galbraith complained that Kai Eide, the Norwegian head of the U.N. mission, had been indifferent to the flagrant bias shown by the local Afghan officials who were in effect spending the United Nations' money to buy votes for their political boss. Eide in turn complained to Ban, who immediately obliged by firing Galbraith. Thus we cannot quite say that nobody involved in this fiasco and fiesta of corruption has yet lost his job—it would be almost true except that the main whistle-blower was fired as the first order of business.
It wouldn't now matter whether there was a runoff or not, or a "contested" election—there can't be any sentient Afghan who believes that the process is anything much more than a cynical fix. It is not as bad as the recent trampling on the voting rights of the people of neighboring Iran, but we are supposed to have a slightly more elevated standard than that (and the mere comparison, of course, goes to show how high the stakes are).
The Taliban, one imagines, can barely credit their luck. They are opposed to voting on principle, as something un-Islamic, and they are especially and viciously opposed to voting by women, but now they don't need to stress that. They can simply help swell the chorus of cynicism and contempt.
The panic measures proposed to redress this dreadful outcome have in some cases been as bad as the original disease. Admitting far too late and far too grudgingly that fraud had necessitated a second round, Kai Eide left us faced with a choice between a hasty second vote overseen by the same crooks or a postponement until after the brutal Afghan winter—another free gift to the forces of ruin and fanaticism. Some also proposed a ramshackle "interim" government or a face-saving cobble-up between Karzai and his main rival Abdullah Abdullah (so nice they named him twice). All this represents an attempt to avoid facing the obvious fact that for months of this year, and with our money, the Afghan people were cheated and betrayed in their hour of most urgent need.
What will the big friends of the morally infallible United Nations say now, I wonder? And how will Congress and the president and the leaderships of the other donor and sponsor states account for what happened to the funding they authorized? I have written dozens of times about how none of the so-called parallels with Vietnam are any good (al-Qaida a foreign import to Afghanistan; no Vietcong threat to American cities; you know the rest), but there is one thing that did disfigure South Vietnam and is essential to avoid in any case: the commitment of American forces to a government that contrives to be both enriched and bankrupt at the same time and makes its own people want to spit.