Robert Fisk: Democracy will not bring freedom

Friday 21 August 2009 00:00 BST

So they voted. But for what? Democracy? Certainly not "Jeffersonian" democracy, as President Obama reminded us. Yes, the Afghans wanted to vote. They showed great courage in the face of the Taliban's threats. But there's a problem.

It's not just the stitched-up Karzai administration that will almost certainly return, nor the war criminals he employs (Abdul Rashid Dostum should be in the dock at The Hague for war crimes, not in Kabul), nor the corruption and the hideous human rights abuses, but the unassailable fact that ethnically-divided societies vote on ethnic lines.

I doubt if anyone in Afghanistan voted yesterday because of the policies of their favourite candidate. They voted for whoever their ethnic leaders told them to vote for. Hence Karzai asked Dostum to deliver him the Uzbek vote. Abdullah Abdullah relies on the Tajik vote, Karzai on the Pashtuns.

It's always the same. In Iraq, the Shia voted in a Shia government. And in Lebanon, Sunni Muslims and a large section of the Christian community voted to keep the Shia out of power. This is not confined to the Muslim world. How many Northern Ireland Protestants vote for Sinn Fein?

But our problem in Afghanistan goes further than this. We still think we can offer Afghans the fruits of our all-so-perfect Western society. We still believe in the Age of Enlightenment and that all we have to do is fiddle with Afghan laws and leave behind us a democratic, gender-equal, human rights-filled society.

True, there are brave souls who fight for this in Afghanistan – and pay for their struggle with their lives – but if you walk into a remote village in, say, Nangarhar province, you can no more persuade its tribal elders of the benefits of women's education than you could persuade Henry VIII of the benefits of parliamentary democracy. Thus the benefits we wish to bestow upon the people of Afghanistan are either cherry-picked (the money comes in handy for the government's corrupt coffers and the election reinforces tribal loyalties) or ignored. In the meantime, Nato soldiers go on dying for the pitiful illusion that we can clean the place up. We can't. We are not going to.

In the end, the people of these foreign fields must decide their own future and develop their societies as and when they wish. Back in 2001, things were different. Had we hoovered up every gun in the land, we might have done some good. Instead, the Americans sloshed millions of dollars at the mass murderers who had originally helped to destroy the place so that they would fight on our side.

Then we wandered off to Iraq and now we are back to fight in Afghanistan for hopelessly unachievable aims. Yes, I like to see people – women and men – voting. I think the Afghans wanted to vote. So, too, the Iraqis. But they also want freedom. Which is not necessarily the same as democracy.

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