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Obama, America and the Afghans: How an Obama Victory May Improve America's Image Abroad

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I reconnected with an Afghan friend of mine named Ahmad Idrees Rahmani who I hadn't seen since the 2001 war. He had recently completed a degree at Stanford and is setting up a new think tank called Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. We had a conversation in his office about the future of democracy in Afghanistan and Afghan perspectives on America. Afghan politicians are readying themselves for the country's second national parliamentary elections in fall of 2009. The Afghan vote will take place well into the first term of the next American president and will very likely pose a difficult test of any future administration's global credibility.

Idrees and I talked about the very healthy rivalry between the Hillary and Barack camps within the Democratic Party and how this pre-November tug of war is slowly improving America's international image. Idrees summarized his hopes by saying that if Barack Obama were to be elected the next American president, it would be much easier to convince the average Afghan voter that, yes, democracy is still a genuine and vibrant process. Obama may help to revitalize the still nascent democratic processes in Afghanistan by showing that elections in our "beacon of democracy" are themselves free and fair. A Clinton victory would not have quite the same stunning effect because, that while although having a female president would be remarkable in its own right, it could still be perceived by some as nuptial nepotism akin to the astonishingly corrupt Asif Ali Zardari who succeeded his slain wife Benzair Bhutto next door in Pakistan. Idrees has worked within U.S. government's Afghan efforts in various capacities over the last few year and is very aware of the immense political and military challenges the U.S. will be forced to contend with under the next administration.

Though virtually all of Afghanistan's neighbors are democracies in theory, few of them are full-fledged democracies in reality. The nation-states in Afghanistan's neighborhood are run by either corrupt familial dynasties (Pakistan, India), unelected theocrats (Iran, the previous Afghan government) or brutal autocrats (Turkemenistan, Uzbekistan). It is not difficult to see why many Afghans became disaffected after their initial 2004 elections in which it seemed that no other candidate stood a fair chance against Hamid Karzai. An indispensable component in the Bush administration's clumsy attempt at creating a viable client state, Karzai was viewed by many Afghans as having his victory predetermined by American political operatives inside their country.

The Bush presidency has not only been disastrous by its irrational actions but has been source of succor to the world's anti-democratic political actors who gloatingly point to its disingenuous, hereditary nature as inherently corrupt. An Obama victory in 2008 could potentially mean a more hopeful path toward a transparent Afghan election in 2009. In the eyes of the Afghans, if they see that Americans are capable of electing a man named Barack Hussein Obama as their leader, they may believe more vigorously in their own democratic aspirations. The United States may once again be leading by example rather than force in the world. And with over 30,000 American troops in harm's way in Afghanistan, the resurgence of democracy at home will indeed help the export of it abroad.