The only time British newspaper readers hear about Iraq or Afghanistan is when there is a suicide-bomb. Scattered pieces of human flesh dominate our vision, and the sound of the burning jungles of Vietnam ripples in the distance. Yesterday Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, declared that he does not think direct elections in Iraq will be possible by the 30 June deadline for the handover of power to the provisional Iraqi government. More cause for despair.
Yet the slow, unsexy big picture offers more hope. Most experts believe that Iraqi national elections will happen this year, and the grotesque, racist idea that Iraqis cannot be democrats because they are primitive tribal people has already been proved wrong. Virtually unreported here, real local elections have been happening in Iraq since the liberation, just as national elections have been happening in northern Iraq since the end of the First Gulf War.
The results of these local elections are even more encouraging than I and my Iraqi friends would have dared to dream. There was always, buried deep, a slight but stinging fear that, given freedom, Iraqis would choose the Algerian option: the election of Islamic fundamentalists who would immediately dismantle the democratic process. Iraqi democracy, we fretted in our darkest moments, would consist of one man, one vote, for five minutes.
We were right to listen to the much louder optimistic voices in our own minds. Opinion polls, conducted by companies that have accurately predicted election results across the world, have all shown that fewer than 5 per cent of Iraqis want the Iranian option of rule by mullahs. The elections held so far have confirmed this. In Battha in Shia southern Iraq, elections were held this month. Far from selecting extremists, the Iraqis voted for moderate technocrats who could deliver good public services.
As Tobin Bradley, the US administrator who arranged the election, explains, "What we've found is that elections produce younger, more secular councils than the people we selected from the community [in the period before elections could be held], with fewer tribal sheiks and Islamic clerics. Voters want knowledgable people who can give them services."
The lesson is clear: trust the Iraqi people and they will produce a stable democracy. If the US government is sincere - the other great anxiety - about turning round its foreign policy and creating a democracy at the heart of the Arab world, then it should go for direct elections this year.
In Afghanistan, the picture is less easily resolved. The US did not conquer all of Afghanistan. They established a small central government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai, and left much of the country to tribal warlords. Human Rights Watch have documented the near-Biblical horrors happening in western Afghanistan, where Ismail Khan has established a dictatorial fiefdom over three provinces. Women are living in conditions as unspeakable as under the Taliban. They live bound in burqas, as though to be female were a wound. Local police often grab women and perform "virginity tests" on them (I can't bear to repeat the details - use your imagination).
Yet the cliché emerging in Britain - that the war in Afghanistan changed nothing - is untrue. Don't take my word for it: listen to Afghans themselves. A coalition of aid agencies, including Oxfam and Save the Children, recently commissioned a detailed opinion poll of Afghan people. They could only question people in the safe areas established by the international community, but the results were remarkable. A vast majority of Afghans there explain that they are far better off since the invasion. In the areas administered by the central government, 83 per cent feel safer than under the Taliban, 94 per cent say it is easier for children to go to school, 83 per cent believe it is easier to discuss political issues, and 73 per cent believe the forthcoming elections will bring positive change.
I'm often asked why I place so much weight on opinion polls from Iraq and Afghanistan. The answer is simple: the goal of the left has always been to side with oppressed people. These polls give us a chance to make sure that we are actually on their side, rather than arrogantly appropriating their voices in order to pursue a different agenda. If we do not approach these people in a democratic spirit - scrupulously finding out what they think and feel - who on earth will? Our job is to amplify their voices and pressure our leaders to give them what they want. We know they wanted the invasions; now they want democracy and security; I think decent people should back them in both. Am I missing something?
In Iraq, a majority of Iraqis call for a swift transfer of authority to a legitimate, democratic Iraqi government. The fanatical resistance currently targeting innocent civilians and causing the security crisis will only then be shown up for the anti-democratic thugs they are. It will be easier, in those circumstances, to persuade people to report them to the authorities and achieve real peace.
Afghans also stress the need for security. Today there is a real danger of regression. Taliban forces are regrouping, and the Provisional Reconstruction Teams set up by the US to help aid workers get into some of the most difficult areas are pathetically underfunded and understaffed.
The most basic elements of state consolidation have yet to happen. The Afghan army needs to be trained to take charge gradually of the whole country. Only rarely will warlords be induced to surrender their weapons through bribes and coaxing. (The $200m UN-sponsored plan to pay 100,000 militiamen to disarm is a good model.) The rest of the time, it will mean tragic, vicious conflict - but the alternative is no hope, ever, of democracy or human rights for all Afghans. The people of western Afghanistan cannot be left to the mercies of Ismail Khan.
But if we are serious about Afghan human rights, we must also end the appalling example of Guantanamo Bay, and not settle merely for the release of the five British citizens on their way home today. Guantanamo is a blatant reminder that the US government is far from inherently benign, as its leaders and media cheerleaders would have us believe. The Bush administration needs to be pressured to hear the voices of Afghans and Iraqis, both on the ground and back here.
It especially needs to be made to understand that the job in Afghanistan has only just begun. If it isn't, the achievements of 2001 will melt away (and, incidentally, the country will once more become an al-Qa'ida-infested swamp). If Bush and Blair's talk of liberation was anything more than propagandist babble, a redoubled commitment to Afghanistan and swift elections in Iraq are badly needed.
The danger is that the constant bad news will convince people of goodwill in the West that intervening at all - and overthrowing two of the most monstrous regimes in the world - was a waste of time. Iraqis and Afghans know that these wars were not fought primarily for their rights. They are nonetheless telling us that, for them, vast improvements and real hope have been born in the past two years. I side with them. The achievements since 2001 need to be built on, not derided.Reuse content