Thirteen years later

Last Sunday the last British combat troops left Afghanistan, and so a chapter of our history ended. Looking back, it is weird to realise that I do not remember, as I do with Iraq, the beginning of the war. In 2001, I was 6 years old – just conscious enough to be able now to recall 9/11, much too young to have any concept of what was happening in its aftermath.

And yet, the war in Afghanistan featured heavily in my growing awareness of the world around me. Almost every news bulletin I watched during my childhood or teens seems to have featured another death or injury, another debate about whether the international forces were doing more harm than good, another question about whether we would ever be able to leave behind a country stable enough to keep going.

The jury is still out. On the plus side, little girls can now go to school, and no one gets their hand chopped off for stealing (or not stealing) a loaf of bread. The Taliban has been seriously weakened, although not, as the Americans would have us believe, to the point of defeat. I don’t think many would be willing to put money on the Afghan army being able to keep the insurgency where it is now, but at least Kabul seems safe. There is little chance of another take over.

Yet in blood-soaked Helmand, and in countless other areas, especially in the wilderness near the Pakistani border, the rule of law is still a distant ideal. Tribal leaders still hold more power than the central government, itself hardly an emblem of hope. It took three months this summer for a new president to be announced, after each side made claim and counter-claim of election fraud. At least the venal ex-President, Hamid Karzai, is no longer in power, but the deal which settled the deadlock (with one candidate, Ashraf Ghani, becoming President, while the other, Abdullah Abdullah, Prime Minister) leaves the government, and the country, divided. The democracy which the West claims to have brought to Afghanistan is little more than a charade.

Was it worth the nearly 3500 ISAF fatalities, not to mention the countless civilian casualties? I honestly do not know; it is impossible to say what could have been if there had been a different response to 9/11, if George Bush had not declared a war on terror.

I wonder if, in 2001, when I was still learning how to spell, anyone seriously thought troops would still be in Afghanistan when I was at university. It would be pleasant to think that now the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are over, we could put the war on terror to bed too. But now Western planes are again flying missions over Iraq, and Syria too – more limited action, yes, but still with no end in sight.

Obama in the lead?

The recent killing of America’s ambassador to Libya after a crowd set fire to the Benghazi embassy in protest against an American film said to criticise the prophet Mohammed does not bode well for the teetering new country. But ramifications may also be felt miles away in Washington, particularly on 6th November – election day. Americans will want to know how Obama will react to what will be seen as an attack on America itself.

So far Obama has been measured in his response; promising to prosecute those criminally responsible for his ambassador’s death while staying out of the debate about the film. This is a sensible approach and one I hope the American electorate will support. In fact, this spell of trouble in the Middle East may help Obama. Americans will see that their President can stop a situation escalating and will have to accept that a Democrat will be able to exercise more soft power in the Middle East than a Republican.

But that’s not the only reason for the Obama machine to remain hopeful. History shows us that the benefits of incumbency are huge and that re-election is statistically probable. On top of this historical precedent, Mitt Romney – the Republican candidate – is not seen as a nice guy by the general population, and his own party is suspicious of his changing opinions and apparent liberalism. Indeed, as Governor of Massachusetts, he once implemented a version of Obama’s health care reforms – to which he is now vehemently opposed. He is known as a ‘flip-flopper’.

But Obama can not celebrate yet. As a Democrat supporter, I still see much cause for concern. Obama has ended up being in favour not because he has been successful, but because so many people abhor the Republican party. He has become known as a great orator who talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk – four year’s later Guantanamo is still holding prisoners without charge. Some of his failings are undoubtedly of his own making, but more are down to a militant Republican Congress and a never-ending financial crisis.

As Bill Clinton knew, the key to political success is the economy. This is the case even more so when people are worried about their jobs and trying to pay their mortgage. Unless the unrest in the Middle East escalates dramatically, the economy will be the deciding factor in these elections. This is Obama’s main problem. Although voters don’t like Romney, they trust him with the economy because of his plans to cut the debt and his history in the business world. Luckily for Obama, Romney is thought to be responsible for a huge number of job losses. And jobs matter in America – more than any other economic indicator.

In a cruel coincidence of dates, the third quarter’s job figures will be released a few days before the elections. If they are good, Obama will be set to win. If they disappoint, Romney’s main fault won’t appear so important. Worryingly, the job figures are normally revised upwards a week after their original release – after the election. Obama and his supporters will be hoping that this time the statisticians get it right the first time.

Two steps forward, one step back

Democracy is an illusive thing. A pure form of it has not existed since the glory days of ancient Athens – and even then women and slaves were excluded from the metaphorical electoral roll. The modern world’s democratic bastion – America – does not elect its President via direct universal suffrage, but a complicated electoral college system that few Americans understand. Even when states are notionally democratic, journalists and opposition politics can wind up in jail, while minority rights can be abolished on a whim.

So two conclusions can be drawn. The West’s expectation that a democratic Middle East will emerge in the next few years is at best naive. And our calls for democracy are actually a call for liberal-democracy, a specific form of the idea which is not always attractive to non-Western nations. Nevertheless, the Middle East is getting there – slowly.

As my last article showed, Egypt is a prime example of a country using democracy to counter Liberalism (although the Muslim Brotherhood professes otherwise). The powers of the new President are undefined due to a lack of a constitution. The army is ruling by decree, creating a new feeling of antagonism between civilians and the military. People are once again taking to the streets. It seems Egypt’s journey will be along a long and winding road. But there is a true Liberal success story in Tunisia. Although the presidential elections returned a victory for the mildly Islamic Ennahda party, in the words of a BBC correspondent this was because Ennahda represented ‘honesty in public life’ not religious zeal.

In Libya too there has been a successful outcome to last year’s blood-soaked civil war. Mahmoud Jibril, the interim Prime Minister, won election as the head of a liberal alliance. The Islamist party  came second here, in the country the West most worries about. Yet there are different problems here. The nature of the revolution has left the country brimming with armed men loth to give up their weapons after decades of oppression. Whole militias need to be rehabilitated into the army, but many value their independence. And there remains the threat of regional struggles. The East of the country saw the fermentation of the revolution, and its people were long ignored by Gaddafi’s regime. They have discovered a taste for autonomy and contest that the new Congress is biased towards Tripoli. A Sudanese-style split looks far off, but deals will have to be made sooner rather than later in Libya’s hopeful transition is going to keep to the right tracks.

The rest of the region is quieter. Monarchical regimes seem to have weathered the democracy-inducing sandstorm better than their Presidential counterparts. Yet one country still burns. Syria’s revolution has just been declared a civil war by the Red Cross, making official something everyone had already known for a long time now. Yesterday, after sixteen months of quiet simmering, Damascus finally exploded, bringing the fight to the regime’s doorstep. As ever, the death count rises grimly. The UN’s observer mission is simply hopeless and any further international action is at the mercy of China and Russia – both of whom are President Assad’s chums. Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Annan are spending more and more time chastising Presidents Hu and Putin for their inaction, changing nothing on the ground. Syria is an interventionists nightmare. The sectarian tensions Mr Assad’s rule has oppressed have emerged with a new strength, meaning that even if the regime falls the civil war is likely to continue. It seems the UN has been left scratching its head on this one.

Doubts on democracy

So the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi has beaten Ahmed Shafiq in Egypt’s Presidential elections. After decades of being forced underground during the years of the old regime, the Brothers have gained power in the first democratic elections in Egypt’s history. This is, obviously, a victory for freedom – the people gathered in Cairo’s now-infamous Tahrir Square clearly see it as such.

Elsewhere people will worry. The West will instinctively find it difficult to accept an Islamist government, even as it cheers the advent of democracy. But the West is irrelevant in this situation. The real worrying will be done by Egypt’s liberals, women and – particularly – its sizable Coptic Christian minority. The Brothers have promised to form a unity coalition with such liberals and has sworn to honour the rights of women and minorities – but, then again, they promised not to contest the election at all. Promises, it seems, can be broken.

What’s striking here is that many of those who are terrified of the Brothers had to vote for them. People were so mistrusting of Shafiq – the old regime’s last Prime Minister – that they ignored their fears and did the unthinkable. These are the people whose principles were so strong that they risked their lives last February to bring down President Mubarak, it is no wonder they refused to vote for his number two. They may hope, as I still do, that the burden of responsibility will force the Brothers to be more liberal than they were when an underground outfit.

The choice on offer – a Brother or an army man – is an indictment of the progress made since those jubilant days. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) which took over governance after Mr Mubarak’s fall has been extremely reluctant to return to its barracks after decades of controlling civilian life. It postponed the elections several times, and held back results with no explanation. In the build up to the announcement of Mr Morsi’s victory, the SCAF has issued decrees limiting the President’s powers and entrenching their own. This does not bode well – and it is still not certain that the ruling generals will retire peacefully. Somehow, I doubt they will. If this does indeed turn out to be the case, we may witness an ‘Arab spring 2.0’ – this time of a more bloody nature.

Even if the SCAF does bow out gracefully, Egypt is simply a mess. A constitution is yet to be written, while the Brotherhood-dominated constitunal assembly acts as a Parliament instead. No one knows what powers the new President will have, which is quite a big problem for the man himself. Democracy is a fragile thing – and, with all the uncertainties, it may be about to be dropped.

Here’s hoping everyone sticks to their promises.

France votes

As I write, my mum is in the queue at the consulate to place her vote in the French presidential elections. The choice is so unbelievably poor that she almost considered ditching Nicolas Sarkozy in favour of the fringe Francois Poutou, who has fantastically promised to simply cancel France’s debt. It’s been that kind of campaign.

Sarkozy, the incumbent, has had an awful campaign. At the end of the day, the French don’t like him. They like their head of state to be demure and serious, and therefore rather resent Sarkozy’s gallivanting at the beginning of his term. His recent sobering-up has done little to reverse this. To add to his mistakes, Sarkozy has fought the election by pandering to the anti-immigration right in the hope of winning over the supporters of Marine Le Pen. This kind of populism is just not attractive. Nevertheless, I’d vote for him. He is the tallest dwarf (ironically – he is actually very short) on economic policy, and has a working relationship with Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor. In times of crisis, France actually needs a centre-right president who will keep a grip on the fiscal situation.

Here’s why: on the left is Francois Hollande. He is full of promises – not least a wildly popular 75% top rate of tax – which would wreck France’s economy and public finances. He probably won’t implement all of these measures, but he will be compelled to do some of the things he says he will.

Today is the first of two rounds of voting – the second consists of a run off between the two most popular candidates. Unless there is an unexpected upset (e.g. a surge in support for Le Pen or the far-left Jean-Luke Melenchon) the run off should be between Hollande and Sarkozy. Hollande will probably win, unless a nation finally makes an acquaintance with common sense.

The sad thing is that the French don’t even really like Hollande. He is unbelievably dull, and has never held public office. The fact is that the pro-Hollande vote is really anti-Sarkozy. That’s no way to elect a President.