Voting begins today, to elect the president of the country, and officials in the provinces. There are 15 million registered voters. The last presidential election was held in 2004, when eight million Afghans (70 percent of the eligible voters) turned out.
Afghanistan is a country in transition from tribalism and feudalism to democracy. It's a bumpy ride. Most Afghans still rely on a tribal organization for protection (from other tribes, bandits, and enemies within their tribe). The great ancient empires arose on the wreckage of tribal and city state organizations they replaced. It's over five thousand years later, and some of those tribal societies still survive. In Afghanistan, the tribes not only survive, they also put up a ferocious fight to halt new ideas that threaten to replace them. The Taliban stand for the old ways, and come right out and call democracy evil and un-Islamic. This doesn't make sense to most Afghans, who understand how democracy works, and are quite enthusiastic about it. That can be seen from the turnout for the elections that took place since September 11, 2001.
While many tribal leaders (elders or heads of wealthy families, some of them, sort of, elected) oppose democracy because it shifts power to a central government, warlords (very wealthy and powerful individuals, sometimes leaders of their own tribe, but who have established their own local power, including their own army) see democracy as an opportunity. Warlords are all about making deals, and using force when called for. Democracy makes it possible for a warlord to bully, bribe or cajole their way to much more power and wealth.
The Taliban is a form of religious warlord. More rare then the secular warlord, Taliban-like movements are not unknown in Afghan history. But the religious warlords, like the Taliban, don't last as long, because faith will only take you so far. You still have to eat and provide for your family. That costs money, and religion is an inefficient way to pay the bills. Back in the 1990s, the Taliban imposed taxes, but they really weren't into it, and they blew it. The current Taliban is not much better. The Pakistan branch has disintegrated into civil war (over who will be the new boss, after American missiles killed the last one, and many of his aides.) The Taliban are kept viable by cash from the drug gangs, who are OK with democracy as long as it's a weak democracy that is not strong enough to drive the heroin business out of the country. The drug gangs use the Taliban to keep the Afghan government weak. The Taliban themselves are going nowhere. They preach ideas that are alien to most Afghans and must use terror to gain any traction at all. That didn't work in the 1990s, and it's not working now.
In the midst of all this, the remnants of al Qaeda are trying their usual bomber tactics, which are supposed to terrorize the population into accepting radical Islamic leadership. In the last two decades, this approach has failed in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq. The true believers see Afghanistan as a new opportunity to make it work. Al Qaeda still has wealthy backers in the Arab world, for the terrorists are complaining less about money problems these days, and are able to buy all the explosives and other supplies they need to equip their suicide bombers. Apparently religious schools are now the best source of suicide bombers. While most of the kids resist the idea of killing themselves for the cause, there are enough such schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, to provide a steady flow of volunteers.
The drug gangs have bought lots of pre-election violence. But it has not seriously disrupted the vote. A greater threat is the growing use of fraud. Many tribal leaders and warlords have developed more elaborate frauds. The most direct one is to simply print counterfeit voter registration cards. Another angle, favored by conservative tribal leaders, is to have men insist on registering the women in his household (including some who do not exist, and cannot leave the compound to be verified), and then voting for them. If a bunch of these guys threaten a tribal uprising over the matter, the government gives in. For now.
On the face of it, the foreign troops and Afghan security forces should be sufficient to run the drug gangs out of the country in a few years. But in practice, the drug gangs are determined to stay, and are using their money, and tribal (and personal) influence to assemble a coalition of government officials that will get the foreign troops to leave, and then sort of legalize the heroin trade. Foreign governments (including most neighbors) have already told the Afghans that this will not be allowed. The heroin trade is too destructive (in terms of local addicts alone) to be tolerated. This sets up a battle that gets little attention, mainly because it's all about hidden conversations, lots of threats, and not many of the big explosions which the media prefers. The drug gangs can probably hang on for a few years, but if the opposition (the U.S., NATO, Pakistan and Iran) keep at it, the heroin trade will have to find a new home (probably one of the other Central Asian nations, but anyplace where poppies will grow will do).
August 18, 2009: The government asked the local and international media to stop reporting on all the terror attacks in Afghanistan. If these attacks were not reported, more people will turn out to vote. The media refused to cooperate. Violence is the most profitable type of story, and Afghanistan is a gold mine for this kind of stuff. If it bleeds, it leads, and pays off.