Ben Rowswell, Canada’s representative in Kandahar, spoke at the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies this week. Here’s a rough summary of what he had to say:
The second round of Afghanistan’s presidential election, to be held November 7, is an “acid test” for the country’s democratic development. Citizens of failed states tend to approach the first election after the fall of a dictatorship with a lot of hope. But instability is typically resilient, and by the time the second election comes around cynicism flourishes. “It’s not just a question of who’s going to be in office, but if the system of governance itself worth pursuing,” says Rowswell. “We’ll see which the Afghans pick. I think the verdict will be mixed.”
Rowswell says that for many Afghans outside Kandahar city, the government is just an abstraction. It has very little impact on their lives. Of those Afghans who did vote, many didn’t believe their ballots would have any effect. However, despite the extensive fraud during the first round, Rowswell says the fact that a runoff has been forced may strengthen Afghans’ support for the democratic process. “To have a president forced to go to a second round by institutions he doesn’t control was a surprise for Afghans. The lesson they are taking from this is that maybe their votes do count.”
[I’d argue here that it wasn’t Afghanistan’s electoral institutions that forced Karzai to agree to a second round, but rather his international allies and backers, primarily the United States, who turned the screws and forced Karzai to give in and admit the sham of his apparent first round re-election.]
Rowswell says that Afghanistan’s civic and military institutions are not yet strong enough to operate on their own. “We know what happens if those institutions fall – those vacuums are filled by men with guns. The results are chaos. And chaos in Afghanistan has a demonstrated track record of extending beyond Afghanistan’s borders.” In other words, Rowswell believes that a surgical counter-terrorism approach that neglects nation building is less likely to succeed. (I discuss this debate in a little more detail in an earlier post.)
On support for the Taliban, he says that Kandaharis may fear the Taliban but most still do not want them to return to power.
On counter-narcotics efforts, Rowswell says there is now recognition that crop eradication doesn’t work and has created a lot of resentment. Instead, he advocates work on developing legitimate agriculture.
He says a political settlement will eventually need to include reconciliation with at least some elements of the Taliban, but so far he sees little evidence that many Taliban are interested in such a process. “The key question for reconciliation is reconciliation with whom? It is difficult to assess the readiness of the Taliban to reconcile. This is not a movement that is known for its moderation or its ability to compromise.”
Finally, on the arrival of more American troops in Kandahar province, Rowswell says this has allowed Canadians there to focus on a smaller area and therefore be more effective.