The Afghan presidential elections went smoother than many had predicted. But if none of the eight candidates gets over fifty percent of the vote, there will be a second run-off in May or June. On the other hand, if one gets more than fifty percent the other front-runners might not accept it and the whole debate about fraud could begin.

It is said that the current president Hamid Karzai and his administration, the Americans and the West, are all likely to ‘advise’ on how Afghanistan’s future should be; notably who the president ought to be – even after three-quarters of the electorate have cast their votes.

Let us hope the meddling will not be too dirty, and that all stakeholders, the various individuals and groups who want power, will show restraint and only engage in peaceful debate. Indeed, let us hope the voters too, accept the election results, even if they suspect some rigging. Politics is rarely accurate mathematics; it is about the general views and trends of the majority as well as the minority.

For the time being, we should celebrate with the Afghans. The voter turnout was impressive, even higher than in Pakistan at the last election here, and higher than it normally is in many countries in the West. Seven out of twelve million eligible voters participated, and two million women voted. Yet, what about those who did not vote? Their views should also be sought and they should be included, in public debate and other ways. Hopefully, none of them would be ‘fifth columnists’, although there might be some justification for that after the state has cooperated with foreign occupying forces for thirteen years.

I believe that Afghanistan will do much better now that the Afghans get to be their own masters again. There was a turbulent decade with Taliban rule and internal fighting after the USSR occupation which in turn followed the turbulent ‘70s. In all, we are at the end of two-score years without normal rule, peace and development.

If peace and development can take root, it is not thanks to the foreign military forces , though they will try to take the credit. Instead it is thanks to the Afghans themselves, with support from immediate neighbours including Pakistan, which has hosted millions of refugees. Some of them have received good education and experience abroad, and will be valuable upon their return home.

There is certainly need for international financial support, not just for a few years, but a few decades, in order to help rebuild what the occupying forces contributed directly towards destroying. True, there was some development aid as well, with some success stories in education et al. But then, I never believe that occupation and military men can teach people peace and development. If anything, by way of example, it would be the opposite.

Furthermore, we should always remember that Afghanistan was invaded by the foreign superpowers for geopolitical reasons, not by ‘invitation’, as the USSR claimed, and not because Afghanistan had any role related to 9/11 as the US and the West claimed. It wasn’t to help Afghan women either, as is so often said.

Afghanistan was targeted simply because of its strategic place on the map. That is a sad reality. The Russians know it as well as the Americans. Afghanistan’s neighbours in the region know it, and most Afghans, of course.

I am not quite sure that all Europeans know why they have had soldiers in Afghanistan for the last thirteen years. Perhaps the Brits do, but most of the others are more naïve; somehow they seem to think they are helping a backward country with harsh conditions for women and men, using their own military alliance, NATO, for aggression rather than defence.

We have all been made to believe that the Taliban are evil and must be uprooted and thrown to the fire. Sometimes though, the Taliban are just conservative, traditional and nationalistic people who don’t want foreigners to run their land, neither directly nor indirectly, in values, views or modern actions. True, the Taliban were often brutal when they were in power. We have made monsters out of them while only a little fraction of them should be given such an outrageous name, which was an opportune justification for the foreign occupiers. We easily forget that most Afghans may hold ‘Taliban views’ in some area or the other, but we must not label them ‘Taliban.’ In future, I believe they will crumble and not be a political force, but there will be other ultra conservative Afghan men and women; and there will be unruly warlords in ‘Wild West’ towns.

Most people cling to the known rather than enter the unknown. Most Afghans, who live isolated in poor conditions certainly do that. There would be huge class differences and gender differences. Yet, there would also be limits to what leaders could do; a warlord could be overthrown if he went too far; a king in Medieval Europe could also be changed if he became too brutal. Many Afghans get impulses from outside; they travel, work abroad, live as refugees, and have transnational networks.

When we who consider ourselves liberal and democratic criticize the Taliban, unwittingly we criticize most of the structures in traditional Afghan society, with some variations from one ethnic group to the other, from one village or urban location to the next, and so on. But in most of the rural areas, where three-quarters of the Afghans live, life would be much the same for the majority. Even the women and the poor men support what they have in spite of its oppressive nature. Many would work for change, or dream of it- but they wouldn’t throw out all their traditions.

Alas, we foreigners, Westerners in particular, rarely take time to gain deep insight into the local cultures and traditions. We should remember that it is the people themselves that must make the change they want, not superficial ‘Besserwissers’ and technocrats from other countries. In Afghanistan, perhaps the future lies in great diversity, where communities are quite independent.

Again, I congratulate the Afghans on the elections – thus far. I hope they get a chance to sit in the driver’s seat now and take charge in their own land. It will be a difficult task, and there will also be turbulence. I hope foreigners and other powerful groups with their own agendas will be kept at bay. I hope in particular that Pakistan and Iran, with China and the Central Asian neighbours, even Russia, will do what is morally expected of them. Hopefully, in a few decades, Afghanistan will have become a relatively stable country en route to prosperity, built on the land’s own agriculture and industry. The Afghan people can do it with true help from Pakistan and others who will benefit from it. I hope that no superpowers or regional powers believe it is in their interest that Afghanistan stays unstable for the next fifty years. But if outside powers do, then the country would have no chance to get back on its feet, and presidential elections and other serious efforts would be futile.

 The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.

Email:atlehetland@yahoo.com