Democracy is hard to promote
Former ambassador assesses world situation
Peter Galbraith, of Townshend, former ambassador to Croatia, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations serving in Afghanistan, and a former Vermont senator and candidate for governor, led a packed discussion last week.
"An Assessment of Democracies Around the World" was part of a fall series on Democracy Under Siege at the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College.
Asked to discuss three countries where democracy is fragile but could be strengthened, Galbraith chose three he is closely familiar with — those in Afghanistan, Iraq and East Timor.
"One of the core issues is whether an outside power, particularly the United States, is capable of promoting democracy," he said.
In that respect, he added, "I would count Afghanistan and Iraq essentially as significant failures, certainly failures of U.S. policy, and East Timor as a success."
In Afghanistan, Galbraith said, the U.S. and its allies made a classic mistake by instituting what they wanted and what might make sense in the West for "what the people wanted."
After the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, the Taliban, which had sheltered Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda before the 2001 attacks, were swiftly routed from Afghanistan by the joint efforts of the Northern Alliance of tribal groups in that nation and supporting NATO air power and special forces.
At that point, with the Northern Alliance dominant and the Taliban defeated, the U.S. had a choice, Galbraith said. But instead of saying, "You go do what you want to do," the U.S. "engaged in a process to substitute our vision of what Afghanistan should be like."
Hamid Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, one faction in Afghanistan, was named in 2001 to lead what was envisioned as a centralized government.
"He was an attractive guy who had never held a job in his life, and his first job was to be president of Afghanistan," Galbraith said.
Under the political arrangement that developed, he said, "all power was concentrated in Kabul, and there, almost all power concentrated in hands of the president."
Yet, "this in a country that was one of the most ethnically divided and geographically diverse countries in the world," he said.
Galbraith said that Afghanistan, even under former kings until the 1970s, was only loosely under central control.
A parliamentary system, in which each party could control a number of cabinet seats in a power-sharing government, might have been a better choice, he said.
With all power dependent upon winning the presidency, corruption of the elections and institutions like the police forces was a near certainty, Galbraith said.
He described as an example the 2009 presidential election, when U.N. observers were stymied by the addition of unobserved phantom polling places that "voted" overwhelmingly for the president.
A basic point, he said, is that we "substituted electoral structures of our own making" for whatever structures the Afghans might have developed, and the U.S. has now spent "close to a trillion dollars since 2001" without establishing peace or a stable government that might foster economic development.
"In some ways we committed the error we often do: We did the things we know how to do, rather than what works," he said.
In addition, the international groups that came to Afghanistan to invest in projects also tended to do what they are good at doing, he said, but not necessarily what works in that part of the world.
Examples, he said, include building roads to allow subsistence farmers to take produce to market, which then became locations for corrupt police officials to set up roadblocks to exact bribes in order to pass through.
Despite efforts to train police officers, "entrenched corruption" remained a severe problem, Galbraith said, never allowing the residents of a given area to feel secure and helping to defeat counter-insurgency operations by the military when no stable local government could be established to take over.
"In a system of entrenched corruption, he said, "police, rather than being a force for security, became a source for insecurity."
Galbraith also cited the example of military leaders being allowed to designate funding toward projects but having little understanding of the ultimate effects in Afghanistan --- yet then judging their own "success" by the number of schools built for girls, which were later closed by the Taliban, or miles of new roads constructed.
The Iraq experience
In Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, "we thought we could create a unified state," and similar problems resulted, Galbraith said.
The country was made up of Shiite branch of Islam, accounting for roughly 60 percent of the populaton; 20 percent members of the Sunni branch, and 20 percent of the Kurd ethnic group, he said.
Sunnis had dominated the country since the 1920s, while conservative Shiite religious parties were close philosophically to Iran, and Saddam had pressed an eight-year war against Iran during the 1980s and well over a million people died.
The Kurds meanwhile had been brutally treated under the former dictator, he said. And after the U.S. ended decades of rule by the Sunnis and opened the government to elections, the Shiites gained control.
An insurgency understandably began among the Sunni against the new Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, which they saw as the enemy. And the U.S. and NATO occupation forces were caught in the middle of that bloody struggle.
"America had the idea it could create a country of Iraqis, and it has not worked out," Galbraith said.
"There was no shared sense of national identity," he said, in a nation that was essentially cobbled together by the European powers and the U.S. after World War I.
Ironically, he said, the Iraqi elections were largely honest, but the three major groups voted for their own interests and divisions remained or were exacerbated.
In East Timor during the early 2000s, where Galbraith was director for Political, Constitutional and Electoral Affairs for the U.N. Mission and one of four non-citizen cabinet ministers in East Timor's first transitional government, the intervention was successful, he said.
East Timor, located in the Indonesian archipelago, was a colony of Portugal until 1975, he said, while Indonesian was under the Dutch until the late 1940s. Indonesia occupied East Timor after it became independent, but in 1999 offered an autonomy vote, apparently certain that would be rejected because of many structural improvements that had taken place in East Timor.
When the vote was for independence, on their way out of the country, Indonesian forces "literally destroyed everything," Galbraith said, including 90 percent of the buildings and public services like electricity.
The U.N. Security Council approved a nation-rescuing effort with full authority to make changes, Galbraith said, including establishing a form of government and creating a civil code.
"The original plan was to form a government and turn in other to them," he said, but instead a cabinet with four international members and four citizens made those fundamental decisions.
That included "creating from scratch a civil service" and producing "a whole series of laws," he said.
He said he recalls working on a plan to create a national parks system and setting aside parcels or tracts, including some beach areas he liked, and setting up a network that essentially survives today.
In this case, Galbraith said, the country was not fiercely divided ethnically, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the residents were allowed to play a meaningful role in setting up a new government, "and the international community was united and "going in the direction that East Timor wanted."
If there is a lesson for such democratic challenges, Galbraith said, it is that "you can intervene, but what you can't do is impose your own model."
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien.
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