Perhaps it’s because we like to reinforce our own prejudices with positive reaffirmations or perhaps it’s because the media does not know how to tell a complex story simply, but the weekend’s presidential election in Afghanistan was not the democratic triumph we have been led to believe. Yes, they were elections, but this was somewhat short of "two turnover test" that has been incorrectly applied to the notion of "democratic consolidation".
The most positive news to come from the elections was that there was relatively little violence on the part of the Taliban. This meant that most voters who wanted to participate could do so.
Indications are that the voter turnout was in excess of 50%, which might look good set against the United States' own abysmal electoral participation but falls well short of the enthusiastic 80%-plus registered in other new democracies. There has also been much celebration of the fact that around a third of the voters were women, which otherwise indicates how poor the status of women is in this still deeply traditionalist country.
Of the 11 presidential candidates, none was expected to come out as a clear winner with 50%-plus of the vote, meaning the elections would go to a run-off between the two leading candidates. Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the candidate most favoured by the West, in part because he is a known figure, having run against Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections, and in part because he is photogenic and speaks English well.
However, unlike 2009, the half-ethnic Pashtun-half Tajik Abdullah was not a frontrunner this time around. The winner is expected to be a full-blooded Pashtun, which while not of an absolute majority in their own right is still Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
Of the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is an American-educated academic and former finance minister who spent much of his adult life outside Afghanistan. He appears competent and the least corrupt of the leading candidates. The other lead candidate is Zalmay Rassoul, who is backed by outgoing Hamid Karzai, and may be implicated in some of the allegations of profound corruption that have swirled around the Karzai camp.
Other candidates include religious figures, some close to the Taliban and a smattering of warlords. It will be several days, perhaps weeks, before it is known, however, who will head into the run-off.
Early reports suggest that the 2014 elections were not as compromised as the 2009 elections, in part because there were very few election observers left in the field to actually monitor the elections. Even so, there have still been numerous reports of irregularities and a lack of ballot papers in some areas, notably where Abdullah has the strongest support.
The run-off election, with massive opportunities for patronage available to the winner, is likely to see more serious electoral fraud. If reports continue to say that the situation has improved since 2009, that perhaps less reflects that the electoral process is a good one and more that the 2009 elections were, according to all of the electoral observers there then, the most corrupt and compromised in the history of election observation.
A large part of the Afghanistan political equation, though, is the Taliban, which conformed to an increasing political type by not disrupting election day itself. They know this is not the main game.
As the international presence in Afghanistan winds down, both in military and aid terms, no matter who is elected as the new president, they will have to negotiate directly with the Taliban. And the Taliban has shown that any such negotiations will, increasingly, be on their terms.
Afghanistan has had elections, which is positive, even if the process only partially fulfilled the criteria for being truly democratic. However, any suggestion that the "two turnover test" means anything more than forestalling the inevitable is to reflect a poor appreciation of Afghanistan’s conflicted history or fractured political dynamics.
When a war does not have a defined objective that can be equated with victory, it is easy to fudge its definition of defeat. This is the case in Afghanistan.
The US' "peace with honor" in Vietnam was, by any measure, a defeat. The Vietnamese won their unified state and the US won nothing. In Iraq, also, continued waves of terrorism and a slide back into civil war was not by any measure a success, Saddam Hussein's death notwithstanding.
Now the US is proposing peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai also saying he is looking forward to negotiating with his "brothers". Whether or not there a "peace agreement" is negotiated, Afghanistan’s future is only as certain as the allied withdrawal scheduled for December next year.
Foreign troops will depart, the Afghan National Army will collapse, and Afghanistan will revert at least for a while to a bloodier and more retributive version of what it was before the allied invasion. At least some Taliban will be out for vengeance, and there will be a continued commitment to assist their Islamist brothers, be they al-Qaeda, any one of a dozen of Pakistan’s domestic Islamist terrorist groups or more than 30 Pakistani trans-national terrorist organisations.
For himself, Karzai will not remain long. No matter what assurances he might receive before the allied withdrawal, he is seen as an illegitimate, deeply corrupt and fairly brutal US puppet, which is a broad but not inaccurate summation of his political qualities.
When the Soviet Union left the "bear trap" of Afghanistan in 1989, its puppet, president Mohammad Najibullah, clung to power for three years of civil war before hiding in the UN mission headquarters for a further four years. After winning the civil war, the Taliban took Najibullah from the UN, castrated him and then dragged him behind a truck through the streets, finally hanging his corpse from a lamp post.
Najibullah also tried a process of "reconciliation". But Karzai will be keenly aware of Najibullah’s fate, and his travel agent will be lining up many departure options.
With the date of the allied withdrawal so public, the Taliban has in effect already won. It is just waiting for the clock to tick over.
As with the Soviet Union and Najibullah, the US will support the Karzai regime, at least for a while. But that assumes Afghanistan’s soldiers don’t immediately desert in the face of the obvious. At best, those identified as the Taliban’s enemies will be hoping to be able to make good an escape before the door slams shut.
Of those who do manage to flee, more than a few will end up as "irregular arrivals" in Australia. One wonders if the new minister for immigration will still be using the line that they should not be seeking asylum as there is no more war in their country, which is used for some Iraqi and Sri Lankan refugees.
For the architects of the Afganistan war, however, the withdrawal will be cloaked in something akin to "peace with honour". They will know, however, that regardless of what agreements might or, more likely might not, be reached with the Taliban, there will be no peace in Afghanistan until one side -- undoubtedly the Taliban -- has again cemented its rule over the country. There will be no "honour" in any of it.
But by then, the West’s regional security concerns in that part of the world will have locked onto Pakistan. Afghanistan is so last year; Pakistan is the focus of longer-term strategic planning.
If you had to guess the number one spot for terrorism worldwide, what would you guess? Afghanistan?
According to a new document from the defence and security intelligence and analysis group IHS Janes, first prize for terrorist attacks belongs to Syria. Putting aside the pedantic untidiness of who the terrorists actually were, Syria certainly suffered a lot of grief over 2012, with 2670 attacks, more than 10 times the number of attacks in 2011. No aspect of the war there is going well.
There would be a reasonable expectation that, putting aside this definitional anomaly, Afghanistan would slot securely in at number two, given the war still rages there. But the number of terrorist attacks in Iraq has increased 10% to 2296 following the conclusion of the war.
As more than a few pundits have observed, if the war in Iraq was a success, you’d hate to see a failure. Coming second in motorcycle racing is referred to as being "first of the losers", which seems particularly apposite in this context.
In a recent conversation with a foreign affairs colleague who was a survivor of one of the Afghanistan attacks, I suggested that Pakistan was really the centre of the anti-Taliban war now, rather than Afghanistan. The terrorist attack figures in Pakistan bear that out, with 2206 attacks, also up around 10% on 2011. Pakistan is a seriously dangerous place, and not one to be visiting any time soon for a holiday.
Try as Afghanistan (or some people there) might, it did not make the podium, in part due to an overall decline in attacks, from 1821 to a much more modest 1313. One might assume that this reflects the success of the International Security Assistance Force strategy there and the ultimate defeat of the Taliban. Or one might be a little more realistic and assume that the Taliban is dropping the tempo of its attacks until after the ISAF withdraws next year, at which time it will return in full force.
India is a surprise inclusion at fifth place, with almost three times as many attacks as Somalia in sixth, just ahead of Israel, which also suffered an increased number of attacks, in seventh place. Israel only just outpaced Thailand, which comes close to averaging an attack a day. Almost all of these attacks are in the troubled Muslim south.
What the HIS Janes figures show is that, if there really is a "war on terrorism", it has not been particularly successful. Overwhelmingly, things got worse, globally, rather than better.
If there is a positive side to any of this, at least very few terrorist attacks occurred in developed Western countries, which is where we live. We are safe, so long as we are careful about where we travel, for the time being.
It is reasonably widely accepted that Osama bin Laden was able to stay in the Pakistan town of Abbottabad because he had the protection of Pakistan’s military, in particular its powerful Inter Services Intelligence organisation. It would have been all but impossible for bin Laden to have stayed in one place in Pakistan without the ISI knowing, implying it at least tolerated his presence. More likely, the ISI’s involvement was more active than mere tolerance.
The question is, then, no longer whether bin Laden had the active support of the ISI but why Pakistan’s premier intelligence organisation – from a country which is long-time ally of the United States – would host the US’s number one enemy on its soil. At risk is not just the defence relationship with the US but, more importantly, the major strategic deterrent to Pakistan’s principle enemy, India. It also risks the important, $7.5 billion, US aid budget to Pakistan.
For every Australian tired of bad news – disasters, political disputes and public people behaving badly – here is some good news. While nobody was noticing, late last year Australia pipped Norway to achieve the highest standard of living in the world.
The leaking of more than 91,000 US military intelligence files on the war in Afghanistan via the whistleblower website Wikileaks has, in all, told us some of what was known, much of what was suspected and all of which was feared by citizens of the states that are contributing to the war.
What might have been hoped for in yesterday’s newspapers was at least an outline of the leaks’ key findings, as reported internationally. This is of particular relevance given the Australia is a party to the war and sustains – and causes -- casualties.
Some of the key elements of the Afghanistan Wikileaks include that, at more than 91,000 documents, it vastly overshadows the 1971 Pentagon papers (a little over 4000 documents) and provides a near complete synopsis of how the war has been conducted between 2004 and the end of last year.
You wouldn’t expect a surgeon to recommend Chinese medicine to his patients. His advice usually involves a scalpel and some nasty cutting. Similarly, it would be surprising for military men to advocate political solutions to global conflicts. It’s not their area of professional expertise. By default they lead with their strongest suit – organised violence - not geopolitics or diplomacy.
Like economists and market forecasting, the consistent failure of military options in the modern world is rarely a deterrent, or even disheartening, for men with guns. Victory is always only just another battalion or squadron away. However, after eight long and costly years, it is increasingly obvious to most Australians that there are no military solutions to Afghanistan’s complex social and political problems. The Taliban, even without aircraft, satellites or armour, are unlikely to be defeated by either Western troops or their local proxies.