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Democracy in Afghanistan is wishful thinking

In a feudal society that long picked leaders according to religion and tradition, the winner of today's election may be seen as illegitimate – simply because he is elected.

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As the world watches today's presidential election in Afghanistan, Americans would do well to ponder the lessons of Vietnam.

The similarities are striking. The Republic of South Vietnam also held elections during the US intervention there, despite an ongoing counterinsurgency. Before American troops got involved, both countries had won upset victories over European powers after a decade of fighting, only to slide into another decade of largely north-south civil war.

As historian Eric Bergerud has noted, the United States lost in Vietnam ultimately not because of its deeply flawed approach to counterinsurgency, as damaging as that was, but because South Vietnam never established a government seen as legitimate by a majority of its people. Experts agree that a government that 85 to 90 percent of the population perceives as legitimate is the sine qua non of counterinsurgency success. South Vietnam never came close to achieving such legitimacy, and neither, unfortunately, has post-2001 Afghanistan. In terms of incompetence and endemic corruption, Kabul is Saigon déjà vu.

That's why we shouldn't read too much into today's election. Even if it were to yield a high voter turnout, have relatively few irregularities, and produce a strong majority for the winner, it won't give the new government legitimacy.

The father of modern sociology, Max Weber, pointed out that governments draw their legitimacy from three basic sources: traditional, religious, and legal. The first two are self-explanatory; by "legal," Weber meant Western-style democracies based on popular representation and the rule of law. And in this sense, political failure in Afghanistan was baked into the cake in the 2001 Bonn Process.

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