The international intervention in Afghanistan that began after the attack on the United States on 9/11 has taken on many forms, some more successful than others. Coburn, a political anthropologist at Bennington College, and Larson of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, focus on elections, critiquing that effort not only in its Afghan specifics, but in its larger context, as part of other and similar international interventions.
The authors provide a detailed analysis of what went progressively wrong with the implementation of elections in Afghanistan, which were supported and funded by the international community. Democracy-promoting "workshops," for example, complete with flip-chart presentations attended by drowsy participants were largely pointless but, nevertheless, were favored by aid agencies because attendance figures produced an easily quantifiable result. Even more troubling is the authors' description of funding "spikes" for elections shortly before they occurred, which were offset by substantial underfunding between campaigns of efforts to sustain democratization.
Yet while the authors demonstrate the problems in international efforts to create a viable electoral democracy in Afghanistan, the images that emerge of its successes are at least as compelling. Campaign posters prominently featured both male and female candidates while the sight of former warlords competing for office alongside academics and average citizens presents a dramatic and hopeful contrast to what prevailed under the Taliban. That the wealthy and well-connected tend to win such elections is hardly unique to Afghanistan.
The authors' thesis that international efforts in Afghanistan and elsewhere should consider local conditions is certainly valid.
They correctly point out that "forms of responsive local governance have deep roots in Afghan culture." They conclude that by "promoting democracy, human rights, and development all at the same time in an unstable political setting, these combined projects now seem overly ambitious."
Their analysis would be more compelling had they explained how one or more of these goals could have been deprioritized at the outset. The reality is that the Western democracies who funded these efforts expected all three to progress together, and any approach focused exclusively on one at the expense of the others would seem equally doomed to failure.