A Failing Cause

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Paula Bronstein / Getty Images

Vote bank A worker with ballot boxes at the Independent Election Commission warehouse in Kabul the day after the Sept. 18 polls

When it comes to democracies and their leaders, an aphorism by the 18th century French philosopher Joseph de Maistre is often invoked: "Every country has the government it deserves." De Maistre was referring to divine retribution, or reward, for a nation's collective actions. These days, God is usually taken out of the equation, but the sentiment is the same. If the people don't exercise their democratic voice judiciously, they deserve what they get, or so goes the thinking.

Afghanistan should be the exception. On Sept. 18, Afghans braved bombings, violence, ambushes and threats to cast their votes for members of the lower house of parliament. While preliminary results won't be in till Oct. 9 at the earliest, an estimated 4 million ballots were cast, about half a million fewer than in last year's presidential election. This even though, on the eve of the poll, 18 election workers and two candidates were kidnapped, many districts were littered with "night letters" warning of certain death to anyone seen voting and Taliban leaders declared that any ink-stained finger (a sign of having voted) would be chopped off. Hospitals in Kabul offered free medical treatment to anyone injured on election day, and nearly 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police, backed by 150,000 foreign troops, were dispatched to protect voters on their way to the polls.

But for what? Reports of widespread fraud surfaced even before polling stations closed for the day. One district received the specially designed, transparent and tamper-proof ballot boxes, but no ballots, indelible finger ink or even pens. In another district, say election monitors, journalists and local observers were locked out of the polling station for several hours so that biased election officials and supporters could fill out ballots in bulk for their candidates.

Many stations never opened at all. In some areas, would-be voters milled around the pre-designated centers wondering if their ballots were being filled out elsewhere. They said that the lack of security cited for closed stations was a made-up excuse by regional warlords stuffing ballot boxes for their chosen candidates. In the days leading up to the election, says candidate Mahbouba Seraj, who was running in the remote eastern province of Nuristan, "Men were coming up to me with bags of voter-registration cards for sale." The prices ranged from $5 to $10 a card. "I said, 'Why are you doing this? You are taking a voice away from your own people.' They just went on to sell the cards to my rivals."

When Seraj, a first-time candidate, registered this summer, she told her hoped-for constituents that she would never buy their votes, but would work for their trust. Now, after having observed the chaos unfurling throughout Nuristan on election day, she realizes she was naive. "It was total anarchy. Everybody was trying to manipulate this election."

With more than 2,500 candidates running for 249 seats (in Kabul alone, the ballot listed more than 650 names) and untold millions being spent on campaigning, it's not hard to imagine that the prize — a seat in a largely toothless governing body — comes with more than the $2,000 monthly salary and a security detail. One of the unintended consequences of widespread reporting of corruption in the Afghan government is that increasing numbers of Afghans want a slice of that pie. Parliamentarians can abuse their position to consolidate personal power, expand their business opportunities and sell influence. Monitoring is weak.

Unchecked corruption is a sign of a government that has lost its moral compass, one that does not hold serving the people as its highest priority. It also reflects deep-seated pessimism about Afghanistan's future. Long-term commitment is too risky when the Taliban are closing in, the Americans are pulling out and the government itself has given up all pretense of responsible decisionmaking. A parliamentary seat certainly doesn't guarantee corruption — many candidates, like Seraj, ran out of a genuine belief in democracy and a desire to help. But it can be safely assumed that a candidate willing to spend $10 a vote intends to recoup the loss once in power.

Afghans can hardly be blamed for short-term thinking. Their Western benefactors are setting the example. For the past nine years, the U.S. has been fighting in Afghanistan as if the mission could be accomplished within the next six months. This has led to alliances of convenience with regional power brokers who have preyed upon the very populace that the U.S. military is trying to win over to the Afghan government's side. In the name of security, the U.S. has all too often looked away when those allies engage in drug smuggling, corruption and human-rights abuses. Meanwhile, the U.S.'s NATO partners are exploring fast-track talks with the Taliban in search of a quick deal that would hasten the withdrawal of their troops from a deeply unpopular war back home. Such a deal could mean sacrificing significant gains in Afghanistan by women and civil society.

Afghanistan will continue to be a bleeding ulcer — to paraphrase the former U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal, who was talking about one of the country's recent battlegrounds — until the West starts making the difficult decisions. That does not mean, necessarily, a continuing military engagement or an immediate withdrawal. Nor does it mean ditching President Hamid Karzai, no matter how unpalatable he is. The coalition will have to work with him and his government until democracy in Afghanistan is strong enough to allow Afghans to make informed choices about their own leadership. That is when democracy will truly flourish. Karzai's critics fear, however, that Afghans may never get that chance. They claim that Karzai and his cronies have rigged votes across the country in order to load the new parliament with loyalists. (While the Karzai administration acknowledged there were polling irregularities, it praised the election as a success.) A weak parliament is less likely to hold the executive accountable and more likely to rubber-stamp changes to the constitution, such as extensions of term limits and accommodations with the Taliban. If that is the case, it will be a slap in the face of those who risked or gave their lives to enable Afghans to choose their own government.

What's required is the strengthening of institutions that build security from the ground up. It means adhering to rule of law, no matter how inconvenient. It means holding Afghan partners responsible for their actions and scrupulously ensuring that foreign aid goes to the communities for which it is intended — not the pockets of local warlords who claim to get the job done quickly, no questions asked. And most important, it means investing — for decades — in education. "At the base of democracy is education," Seraj says. "If people cannot read or write, they cannot make informed decisions." An educated populace wouldn't stand for vote-rigging, she says, and informed citizens wouldn't be so ready to sell their votes. "By bringing in democracy too soon we are opening the doors to corruption even wider than ever." The implications of institutional corruption, Seraj warns, are manifold. If the people lose faith in government, they will more readily side with regional power brokers. It's not just the Taliban and other insurgent groups that stand to gain from widespread frustration, but leaders of ethnic militias, thereby risking a return to civil war.

Afghans have been asked repeatedly to put their trust in a system of government that has repeatedly failed them. They deserve better. How long will they wait? In 1996, the Taliban took Kabul and the rest of the country with the blessings of a population fed up with violence and corruption. Perhaps more apt than de Maitre's line is its inverse: Every government gets the country it deserves.