The second round of Afghanistan’s presidential election appears to have proceeded relatively smoothly on Saturday. Favorite Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in 2009, received 44.9% in the first round; his rival, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, had 31.5%. Results are not expected to be announced until 2 July.
Afghanistan is obviously still a wild and dangerous place, but recent reports sound a note of optimism that was hard to find a couple of years ago. If completed safely, this election will mark the country’s first ever democratic transition of power. As the BBC’s Lyse Doucet puts it:
Six months ago, there were predictions this election would not happen, that President Karzai would find a reason to stay in power, that the Taliban would keep voters away.
So far, it’s all turned out far better than many expected.
The possible success (to put it no more strongly than that) of democracy in Afghanistan invites comparison with the weekend’s bigger story, the rapid disintegration of the security situation in Iraq. Last Thursday Guy Rundle hyperbolically described the advance of the Sunni fundamentalist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as “the end of World War I, the Iraq War and the hegemonic west … something to tell your grandkids.”
Today’s Crikey editorial takes up the theme, responding to Tony Blair’s call for “a comprehensive plan for the Middle East that correctly learns the lessons of the past decade.” The editorialist is dismissive of the idea, calling it “part desperate attempt to salvage Blair’s own shattered reputation and part rallying cry for neoconservatives to revive the project of Western intervention in the Middle East.”
One of the common themes of opposition to the Iraq war – coming especially from those who could be described as moderate critics of the project – was the idea that the United States had “taken its eye off the ball” in Afghanistan by having its attention diverted to Iraq. While no doubt there’s a valid point to be made there, it always struck me as an awkward argument: if being the subject of US attention was a good thing, then Iraq was surely getting plenty of that, so wouldn’t that be to its advantage?
On current indications, there’s a case to be made the other way: that US neglect has left Afghanistan better off than if it had been subject to the more active intervention that was loosed on Iraq. But of course it would be risky to extrapolate too far. Another few years may easily bring surprises for either country, or for both.
Blair himself cannot help but address the question of the Iraq war, or, as he puts it, “how [recent] events reflect on the original decision to remove Saddam.” And much as it pains me to admit it, I think that, although in many ways his account is dishonest and self-serving, the fundamental point he makes is correct: the current trouble in Iraq would quite probably have played out in broadly similar fashion even if the US-led invasion had never happened.
Iraq has always been an artificial country; the three-way division of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds, with homelands straddling national borders and resources so unevenly divided between them, was always going to be an explosion waiting to happen. Civil war in Syria would be a trigger regardless of who was in power in Iraq, and if Saddam had survived this long he would have been just as vulnerable to the Arab Spring as Colonel Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad.
And while it’s possible that no Iraq war would have meant less destructive polarisation in Syria, there’s no reason to be confident on that score.
Last month I said that the group of Iraq war opponents to which I belonged was “those who said that while it might succeed in making Iraq a better place, it was still a criminal act and would make the world as a whole more dangerous by weakening the respect for law.” And with that as the starting point, Blair’s question is fundamentally irrelevant. Iraq may by this point have been yet worse off if Saddam had remained in power, but that still would not transform a crime into a good idea.
Unfortunately, that conclusion provides little guidance for what to do now about Iraq. It may still make sense to intervene against ISIS – assisting an established government is a very different action from overthrowing one. (It is an ironic bond between Blair and some of his fiercest critics that they both seem unable to grasp this distinction.)
But the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, if they tell us nothing else, should at least counsel humility.