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Between the Lines

October 11, 2004

Afghans vote and seem to like it

The votes won't all be counted for weeks, but so far the first presidential election in Afghanistan's history appears to be a success. An international watchdog group pronounced them "fairly democratic" despite complaints of fraud from 15 candidates opposing the U.S.-installed president, Hamid Karzai.

Blogger Matt Yglesias has some initial thoughts on the good news, and comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq:

 Karzai is a more skilled leader than [Iraqi Prime Minister] Iyad Allawi.
 International involvement per se has a value beyond spreading the burden because it makes foreign involvement look less imperial.
 Afghans are less concerned about the Palestinian issue than are Arabs, which makes it easier for Americans and other Westerners to credibly pose as helpers.
 The motivation of the Afghan War was clear (al-Qaida attacked us and the Taliban was protecting al-Qaida) making Afghans less suspicious of our troops.
 Afghans got to try out the whole "civil war and ethnic conflict" thing over a prolonged period of time before the invasion, which has decreased the appeal of communal brinksmanship.
 The decision to allow the central government to be extremely weak lowered the stakes of conflict in Kabul encouraging various actors to compromise.
 Though it will be a big problem in the medium- and long-term, widespread poppy cultivation has provided Afghans with economic options despite a chaotic security situation and a desperately screwed-up infrastructure.
 Better cooperation between key regional actors (US, Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan) in Afghanistan than in Iraq, where the US, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey haven't been able to get on the same page.
 Zalmay Khalizad [the U.S. ambassador] is a better proconsul than Paul Bremer.

In addition, a major contribution to the success of the election was the utter ineffectiveness of the ousted Taliban in disrupting it.

Bottom line, Afghanistan and Iraq are different places, so it would be hazardous to draw the conclusion that a successful election in one indicates we'll have a successful one in the other.

Nonetheless, despite the miserable security situation in Iraq, there also is good news there that is often drowned out by terror bombings and the daily drip of American blood. Australian blogger Arthur Chrenkoff writes about them at length today in the Wall Street Journal. He finds civic enthusiasm for the scheduled January elections, notes that an Iraqi delegation is touring Indonesia (the world's largest Muslim country) to learn more about its gradual path from dictatorship to democracy and some progress on major infrastructure projects.

You can read it all here.

Unfortunately, lining up the good news doesn't eliminate the bad, as Dexter Filkins makes clear in this New York Times piece (free site registration may be required). By Filkins' account, it has become virtually impossible for reporters to do their job in Iraq, which decreases the likelihood that we'll get a coherent picture of what's going on there. Consider that Americans and, as we've seen repeatedly, other Westerners in other lines of work are bound by the same secuirty considerations and it's difficult to see how very much progress will occur unless Iraqis are able to successfully assume leadership of their own affairs.

Posted by tbrown at 01:11 PM


Politics and war

Meanwhile, the L.A. Times reports that the Bush administration is delaying any major push against insurgent strongholds until after Nov. 2:

"When this election's over, you'll see us move very vigorously," said one senior administration official involved in strategic planning, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Once you're past the election, it changes the political ramifications" of a large-scale offensive, the official said. "We're not on hold right now. We're just not as aggressive."

Unfortunately, from the troops' point of view, military action always has a domestic political component. Always has, always will.

But it doesn't make the grunts happy, as a Washington Post reporters on patrol with Marines at Iskandariyah finds:

The Marines' opinions have been shaped by their participation in hundreds of hours of operations over the past two months. Their assessments differ sharply from those of the interim Iraqi government and the Bush administration, which have said that Iraq is on a certain -- if bumpy -- course toward peaceful democracy.

"I feel we're going to be here for years and years and years," said Lance Cpl. Edward Elston, 22, of Hackettstown, N.J. "I don't think anything is going to get better; I think it's going to get a lot worse. It's going to be like a Palestinian-type deal. We're going to stop being a policing presence and then start being an occupying presence. . . . We're always going to be here. We're never going to leave."

**

Several members of the platoon said they were struck by the difference between the way the war was being portrayed in the United States and the reality of their daily lives.

"Every day you read the articles in the States where it's like, 'Oh, it's getting better and better,' " said Lance Cpl. Jonathan Snyder, 22, of Gettysburg, Pa. "But when you're here, you know it's worse every day."

Pfc. Kyle Maio, 19, of Bucks County, Pa., said he thought government officials were reticent to speak candidly because of the upcoming U.S. elections. "Stuff's going on here but they won't flat-out say it," he said. "They can't get into it."

**

Senior officers said they shared many of the platoon's frustrations but added that it was difficult for low-level Marines to see the larger progress being made across Iraq. Maj. Douglas Bell, the battalion's executive officer, said "one of the most difficult things about the insurgency is identifying the enemy."

Bell said it was frustrating for "every Marine in the battalion" to search for insurgents on a daily basis, only to be attacked repeatedly with bombs and mortars detonated or launched by an invisible enemy. "You want to get your hand around his frigging collar and kick his ass," Bell said. "But they slip away."

Bell said Marines offering dire predictions for Iraq were not taking into account the training of the new Iraqi security forces. He said the installation of the new Iraqi army, Iraqi National Guard and police across the country would lay the foundation for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

"That's how we're going to get out of Iraq," Bell said. "That's how America is going to get out of Iraq."

Anyone remember the ARVN?

Posted by tbrown at 01:06 PM




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