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Journal of Democracy 14.1 (2003) 82-99

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Afghanistan's Long Road to Reconstruction

Larry Goodson


Sweltering in the noonday sun outside Herat's grand Friday Mosque last May 20, I was excited to see democracy (of a sort) in action in western Afghanistan. Local dignitaries and members of the Loya Jirga (Grand Council) Commission addressed a crowd of more than six-hundred Afghans who had turned out to cast ballots in Phase I of their newly liberated country's two-stage voting process. In this first phase, they would choose members of the Loya Jirga, whose meeting a few weeks later would select Hamid Karzai as president of an 18-month Transitional Administration. As one of a handful of international monitors present for the Loya Jirga balloting, I too gave a short speech, telling the soon-to-be-voters that the whole world was watching Afghanistan, and that any of them who had a complaint could come to me, as a representative of the international community.

I have since been struck by the irony of my well-meaning remarks, which I delivered with great sincerity at various Phase I polling places in western Afghanistan. In truth, it would have been fairer for the Afghans to have told me, as a representative of the international community, that it was Afghanistan's 27 million people who would be watching us—watching and wondering if the world would stay involved this time and help their country to rebuild itself. My Afghan hosts were too polite to say any such thing, of course, but in fact Afghanistan desperately needs the substantial and committed involvement of the international community, especially the United States, if it is to have any hope of breaking out of the national deathtrap that more than two decades of ceaseless warfare have created. [End Page 82]

Not long after that hopeful day in Herat, I would witness the Loya Jirga itself bog down in ways that typified many of the problems besetting Afghanistan in the year following the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban movement that had ruled most of the country since 1996. But on 20 May 2002, candidates and their supporters from Districts 3 through 5 of the city of Herat seemed happy just to be voting. Over the next two days of the Phase I elections in Herat City I watched candidates campaigning openly, making signs, bringing in clearly underage supporters from outside their districts (a maneuver made easier by the scarcity of identity cards), and generally displaying a level of electioneering savvy which seemed to indicate that, given the chance, Afghans could "do" democracy at least as well as Floridians had managed in 2000.

The Fatal Fading of U.S. Interest?

Despite the many problems that marred the Phase I and II indirect elections, the hunger to have a voice was palpable and impressive. That this nascent experimentation with accountable government would be nipped in the bud at the Loya Jirga—the very institution meant to give democracy a chance to flower—was sad if predictable, but it brought home the reality that Afghanistan's transition even to stability (much less democracy) is highly unlikely. What is worse, after a largelysuccessful military campaign, the United States and the rest of the world may have only a limited window of opportunity within which to aidAfghanistan's transition. Moreover, they may be losing interest in doing so, which would almost certainly doom any chance that the country might have to break out of the cycle of state failure and violence in which it has been caught for the last quarter-century.

Afghanistan today faces enormous challenges brought on by long years of warfare including the Soviet invasion of 1979-89 and the multisided factional strife that raged throughout the 1990s. The fighting transformed traditional socioeconomic and political conditions, shattered the tenuous state-building project first begun in the late nineteenth century, and altered the regional and global environment in malign ways. Finally, the war removed the counterweights to the kinds of problematic local forces that have always been...