Afghanistan and Iraq have both been battlegrounds in recent times. Many of the conditions in Afghanistan mirror those of Iraq. But even as the United States wins international support to delay holding elections in Iraq, it is pushing for elections to be held in Afghanistan in four months.
U.S. officials have said there is no electoral infrastructure to hold elections in Iraq yet, and have resisted pressure for early polls. But despite a similar lack of political infrastructure in Afghanistan, the United States is pushing for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held there in June as scheduled, although a delay in at least the parliamentary polls, say analysts, is looking increasingly likely.
Only one million of Afghanistan's 10.5 million voters have been registered to vote. As in Iraq, security remains a paramount concern, with many areas of the Afghan countryside still under control by warlords and their private militias. There are no political parties as such in a country that, like Iraq, has no history of direct, free elections.
Nevertheless, Afghan interim president Hamid Karzai wants at least the presidential election to be held in June, and the United States is striving to accommodate him.
Why is the United States willing to do in Afghanistan what it is not willing to do yet in Iraq?
Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA Middle East officer and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says the political landscape of Afghanistan is simpler than that of Iraq.
"I think in Iraq we're scared of the elections, and in Afghanistan we're not, at least not in the same way," he said. "Afghanistan is in many ways a much more elementary system because the building blocks for democracy are far less developed than they are in Iraq. I think you can make a very strong case that the Iraqis, simply by their actions, particularly the actions of the Shi'a and the Kurds, are more than ready to participate in the democratic process."
Ahmad Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and longtime observer of Afghan affairs, notes that Afghanistan also has ethnic divisions between Pashtuns and other ethnic groups, particularly Tajiks - and those ethnic fissures cracked open during the convention that ratified a new constitution in June. He says any rush to elections now, or holding the presidential poll ahead of the parliamentary ones, will hurt, rather than help, President Karzai's position.
"I fear that if you have an election in four months without settling down and without these political processes taking place, settling down these ethnic tensions that erupted in the December Loya Jirga, you're going to have a very polarized, ethnicized vote, which is not going to be credible, which is not going to help legitimize Karzai," he said.
Mr. Rashid adds that security cannot be improved by simply bringing in several plane loads of NATO troops for the elections. "The key to security is not flying in NATO troops," he said. "They key to security is disarming 100,000 militiamen who have become basically now criminals, you know, looters, plunderers, rapists. It is bringing these guys, disarming these people, and bringing them into the mainstream which will really ensure security, long-term security, and security for the elections."
Mr. Gerecht says the United States has to do more, especially in terms of security, if it wants successful elections in Afghanistan. "I do believe that the United States ought to do more," he said. "And it will be interesting to see if there is sufficient public attention in the United States to raise the ante on this. I think that inside the government there are definitely at least two minds. And certainly the overwhelming trend has been since the war in Afghanistan ended is to actually, I wouldn't say ignore it, that would be grossly unfair, but not give it the attention that some of the rhetoric that has come out of the administration would suggest."
Asked to rate both countries' prospects for democratization, Mr. Gerecht gives Iraq even chances, while Afghanistan gets a barely passing grade. "On Iraq, I think the prospects still remain decent. I think they're over 50-50," he said. "And any time you're dealing with the Middle East, over 50-50 is pretty good. I think Afghanistan has a chance of muddling through. It's not going to be pretty. It's going to require more commitment than the Americans perhaps, or certainly, have not been willing to commit so far."
A conference in Berlin next month is expected to decide on whether the Afghan elections need to be rescheduled.