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What 'Democracy' Looks Like | The Nation

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What 'Democracy' Looks Like

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Critically minded Western observers are considerably more concerned about the fairness of the vote. A central issue is the role of the warlords. A recent Human Rights Watch report documents scores of cases of election-related intimidation by local jangsalaran, many of whom now have government jobs. According to the HRW report, even in Kabul local military and police forces "are involved in arbitrary arrest, kidnapping and extortion, and torture and extrajudicial killings." Throughout the country, intellectuals and journalists have been threatened with death for criticizing local leaders. Village leaders, or malikan, are reporting threats from local commanders if they do not deliver their village's votes for one candidate or another.

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Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

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In Khost, elders were told to vote for Karzai or have their homes burned down. In Wardak, commander Muzaffruddin, the local military official, told village elders that if they didn't turn out the vote for Karzai they should not expect help if anything bad happens to them. Meanwhile, unrelated to the election, the warlords continue to battle one another. In the last two months Amanullah Khan clashed with Ismail Khan in Herat, while Mohammed Atta and Abdul Rashid Dostum's men have skirmished in the north.

"These are the very same war criminals who destroyed Afghanistan," says John Sifton, HRW regional researcher and author of the report. "If Karzai cuts deals with these war criminals, if his Cabinet contains all the same old faces, people will turn away from legitimate politics and the power of the warlords will be further entrenched."

As a result, Sifton and others say, Afghanistan's government will remain fragmented and corrupt, while its economy will remain in ruins. A worst-case scenario could see the current cocktail of poverty, political frustration and low-level ethnic, communal and criminal violence exploding into large-scale warfare. Short of that, a government of jangsalaran could turn Afghanistan into a full-blown narco-mafia state: a gangster Shangri-La, with a seat at the UN and a few US military bases thrown in.

Fear of such outcomes caused some NGOs and diplomats in Kabul's nation-building scene to call for a delay in elections, but Karzai pushed to hold them in October. His critics speculate that the rush to vote in this still-chaotic situation was motivated not by a hyperactive concern for Afghan democracy but by President George W. Bush's own electoral concerns. With Iraq in flames, a "democratic" election in Afghanistan would make a nice foreign policy trophy. It may lose its sheen, however, if the world learns how it was purchased on the ground in Afghanistan.

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