Former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Sunday that he didn’t know if the United States was winning in Afghanistan. One certain sign of progress is the relative lack of reporting on the recent Wolesi Jirga (parliamentary) election. Had the balloting been a disaster - with wide-scale, strategically significant Taliban attacks, minuscule turnout and unbridled vote fraud - coverage would have been substantial and the prognoses negative. Sometimes, little news is good news.
According to the Pew Research Center’s PEJ News Coverage Index, stories about Afghanistan for the week amounted to only 3 percent of total coverage, and that was divided between election reports and more prominent stories about Medal of Honor recipient Staff Sgt. Salvatore Giunta. As was seen in Iraq, when the press attention stops, it means something is working.
Despite dire predictions of intensified Taliban activity in this election, the number of incidents declined compared to the 2009 presidential election. The International Security Assistance Force reports that insurgent-initiated attacks were down by approximately a third compared to the previous balloting and that there were “no sensational or high-profile attacks.” Most insurgent actions were of the hit-and-run variety, and only 1 percent of polling places experienced significant violence. In the capital of Kabul, there was only one attempted rocket attack, which calls into question the widespread notion in the American press that the Taliban can mount significant attacks where and when they want.
Turnout for the parliamentary election was lower than for last year’s presidential race - a phenomenon also common in the United States - but at about the level of the 2005 parliamentary ballot. Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) estimates 40 percent of the votes were cast by women, who in particular are under insurgent threat for showing any public signs of independence or freedom of action. This degree of participation is another indication of the progress being made in developing a democratic political culture.
Vote fraud is the default critique of Afghan elections, which have seen their share of outrages. In that respect, however, Afghanistan is a typical emerging democracy. IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said press outlets and some international observer groups “have been quick to imply the electoral process is unsuccessful based on allegations of fraud and misconduct.” He admitted such cases “are inevitable in the current security climate” but that they are being mitigated through the Electoral Complaints Commission process, in which egregious examples of fraud are investigated and corrected. This is one reason why Afghan election results take time to report, unlike the snap results here, which paradoxically increase the impact of fraud in close races. Once a winner is declared in an American race, it’s more difficult to bring corrective measures to bear.
Mr. Noor noted that in Afghanistan, “the process is not yet completed” and urged the press to “display restraint in their statements, in order to permit voters to decide on the legitimacy of the process as it continues to unfold.”
Regardless of the results of the 2010 election, the fact it was carried off with less violence, a respectable turnout and more accountability shows that Afghanistan continues to make progress along the path to sustainable democracy. It may never reach the ideal of the New England town-meeting model, but it may be close to what passes for democracy in Chicago.