Lipsticking Pigs in Afghanistan?

Two events over the weekend have dominated news from Afghanistan. One involves voting in the presidential election, results of which will not be final for several weeks but which have aroused much passionate rhetoric anyway. The other is the not very surprising conclusion by the  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the situation is going from bad to worse and that the only apparent solution is–gasp!–more American troops to save the day. In both cases, attempts to put the best possible face on events has borne a strong resemblance to lipsticking the pig.

First, the Presidential elections were held on Saturday. The issues going in were how many Afghans would vote, how effective the Taliban would be in suppressing the vote, whether the elections would be held fairly, and, of course, who would win. Each question was and remains a matter of controversy open to wildly different interpretations.

The first two questions are related: the more people voted, the less Taliban influence could be inferred, and vice versa. Early results have elicited contrasting interpretations. Apparently, about five million Afghans voted, out of 15 million registered and an overall population of 33 million. There was apparently great regional diversity: basically, very few people voted in the Pashtun, Taliban-dominated south, whereas there were comparatively large turnouts in parts of the country with a non-Pashtun majority (notably areas formerly controlled by the largely defunct Northern Alliance). The percentage of Afghans voting will certainly not send thrills up anyone’s spines, at one-third resembling the turnout for American local elections. Where the Taliban was not in control to threaten retaliation, it was better, but the very low turnout in Taliban-controlled elements suggest the Taliban is a force. I have not seen estimates of turnout from Helmand Province, the Taliban stronghold which the Marines sought to liberate to allow a large voter participation: the numbers of voters from Helmand should tell us quite a bit about the effectiveness of our strategy in the country.

The third and fourth questions are also related. There are already indications of voting irregularities, and Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai’s principal opponent who apparently lags in the vote, has accused the government of massive vote fraud. Sounds a lot like Iran. Two points might be noted. Karzai is a Pashtun (although one with whom rural Pashtuns do not much identify), voting was very low in Pashtun areas, and yet Karzai is apparently winning. Abdullah, on the other hand, is of mixed ethnic background (Pashtun father, Tajik mother), is closely associated with the Northern Alliance (he was their foreign minister for a time), voting was relatively high in those areas, and he is apparently losing. Draw your own conclusions. As to the winner, it will clearly not be western-style democracy.

While all this was going on, the military side of the war was proceeding along its increasingly Vietnam-like course. Mike Mullen announced on Sunday morning talk TV that the war continues to go poorly, that the Taliban are getting better and better at what they do, and that unless things change, the situation could become even more dire. The solution: more American troops! Moreover, expect General Stanley McChrystal (whose role has an increasingly William Westmoreland-like feel to it) to come back to the United States, hat in hand, and ask for more troops. Do not expect him to specify how a few more (e.g. 10,000 or so) will make any real difference, because a) they won’t make any real difference, and b) he knows it but wants to form the foundation for yet some more troops a little way down the road. Anyone who can find a happy ending in all of this is welcome to share it with me.

Are we putting lipstick on a pig that is inherently homely and is getting uglier by the minute? In other words, are positive interpretations about what is happening and what we are doing honest appraisals or wishful thinking? Politically, does this election, regardless of who wins, signal a real movement forward for Afghanistan, or is it mere kabuki for the American television audience? Probably a little of both, but which part predominates? Militarily, what would it really take for the United States to make a significant difference in the war in Afghanistan? Are 10,000 troops going to make a difference, or is a more realistic number more like 250,000? Once again, the answer is probably somewhere in between, but probably toward the high side.

In the end, it is my fear–and reluctant conclusion–that yes, we are slapping the Revlon lip gloss on the pig, and while it may make the pig look a little prettier for awhile, it will eventually wear off, and underneath, we will still find a swine.

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