TCS Daily

"Otherwise, This Is Just a Success Story"

By Scott Norvell - October 12, 2004 12:00 AM

KABUL - It was a regrettably typical comment from an American reporter in this part of the world. "At least it's news," he said of the Afghan election scuffle over the weekend. "Otherwise, this is just a success story."

God forbid it be a success story.

But that's what it was here, no matter how hard the international media tried to spin it. There were no car bombs raining body parts all over the polling stations. There were no last-minute assassinations. There were no drive-by shootings. The best they could come up with for "news" was grumbling from hopelessly trailing opposition candidates about washable ink and threats of a boycott. The media's disappointment was palpable.

Turnout was described as "massive." Men in turbans and baggy sharwals lined up in orderly fashion to cast their ballots, many of them with uncharacteristically chipper looks on their faces. One guy I saw at a mosque in central Kabul actually had mist in his eyes. Women voted beneath tents at one poll near a block of wretched Soviet-era apartment blocks, lifting their burqas even in the presence of foreign cameras. In Bamiyan, home of the giant Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban, they stood in line to vote in the first snow of the season.

Exit polls conducted by the International Republican Institute concluded that Interim President Hamid Karzai easily won the 50-percent-plus-one he needed to avoid a potentially messy runoff vote. By Monday night, the grumblers in the opposition had all-but backed off their threat to boycott the results and Afghanistan seemed well on its way to joining the Democratic family of nations after the obligatory investigation by United Nations experts.

A ride to the ballot-counting center near Darulaman Palace, which was sorting instead of counting ballots until the electoral dust kicked up over the weekend clears, was a vivid reminder of just what that means. During the wars of the 1980s and 90s, west Kabul was decimated, and it still bears the scars. Buildings half-collapsed into piles of rubble abound. The once-grand homes of the Karta-e-seh, where I lived as a boy in the early 1970s, and beyond are shells still pocked with bullet holes and artillery wounds. Overturned Soviet armored personnel carriers litter dusty lots, and palace itself is in ruins.

Afghanistan has come a long way since the hellish days that produced the landscape of west Kabul, and the prevailing picture is not, as Madeline Albright and Robin Cook wrote in the International Herald Tribune last week, "deeply disturbing."

When Kabul came out of its election-time shell on Monday, the picture was instead one of a city reveling in the chaos of commerce. Real estate prices are rising, and the din of new construction is pervasive. Foreign investment is up. There are three times as many private cars on the streets as five years ago, and women can go shopping without getting whipped by thugs from the Taliban Ministry of Vice and Virtue for baring sockless ankles beneath their burqas. It is a chaos to which Afghans have been accustomed for centuries, one they are happy to have back.

Elections alone don't make a democracy, and Karzai has much work ahead. He is up against a culture of violence about as likely to give up its guns to soldiers from Kabul as a bunch of Wyoming ranchers would be likely to give up theirs to revenuers from Washington. Attitudes toward women engrained over thousands of years will not change overnight. Viable substitutes for the lucrative opium trade must be found, and a balance-of-power between central government and regional/ethnic leaders will not be easy to come by.

Despite their professed fondness for cultural relativism at home, certain critics of American foreign policy seem to think that unless someplace looks and feel like Boston or Brussels in short order then it must be deeply disturbed. But if we borrow a page from these critics' own book and look at the Afghanistan of 2004 relative to the Afghanistan of September 10, 2001, then the picture is not deeply disturbing. It is deeply heartening.

This may not be "news," but it should be.

The author is London Bureau Chief, Fox News.


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