An article by Assistant Professor of Political Science Vikash Yadav concerning the Afghan presidential elections was recently featured in the Nepalese magazine Himal Southasian.
The article, “Destiny versus Democracy,” focuses on American media coverage and American perception of the Afghan election and the ways in which the election is being spun by the media to reflect U.S. policy and interests.
“It is not surprising that the American media seeks to relate international events to domestic politics in order to garner viewer interest. The problem is that emotional and reductive reporting actually prevents Americans from being able to evaluate the relative success or failure of U.S. foreign policy and military strategy,” writes Yadav, who joined the HWS faculty in 2007, following teaching appointments at Mount Holyoke College and the American University in Cairo.
Yadav’s work is in the field of international relations with specializations in international political economy, comparative political economy and political theory. Regionally, his work focuses on the economies of South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from DePauw University, a master’s degree in social science from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Pennsylvania.
The full article from Himal Southasian follows.
By Vikash Yadav
The attention of Americans who are tuned to political issues is mainly focused on the raucous healthcare reform debate or the 24 hour news cycle story of the day rather than the on-going occupation of Afghanistan. While a Washington Post/ABC poll of 1001 Americans found this week that 64% were not confident that the election in Afghanistan would produce “a government that can rule the country effectively,” it is likely that the majority of Americans could not locate the country on a map and only a busload of individuals in the US would be able to name any of the major candidates involved in the election beside the incumbent, Hamid Karzai. American opinion is therefore at best impressionistic.
Similar to previous elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, the American media covers distant events primarily through the lens of security concerns. A few media outlets added human interest stories on the courage of women who dare to vote, the nobility of the soldiers protecting the voters, and a humorous segment on delivering ballots by donkey in this incredibly underdeveloped country. Nevertheless, the elections are portrayed mainly as a contest of strength between the Coalition and the Taliban and a test of courage for the civilian population. For example, a CBS Evening News journalist embedded with the Marines stated:
Their mission right now is to help some of Helmand’s 615,000 registered voters get to the polls, in spite of Taliban threats.
“From what we heard the Taliban said that if any civilians vote they will chop off their fingers,” Lance Corporal Anthony Correlli said, (CBS Evening News, “Marines in Taliban’s Backyard for Election,” 19 August 2009).
The narrative is rather familiar: The soldiers and civilians who die at the hands of ruthless insurgents are coded as martyrs for democracy; the civilians who vote are understood to be affirming the universal aspiration for democracy; those who do not vote are seen as being intimidated by the enemies of democracy. The narrative structure lends itself to innumerable emotional spin-off stories which are essentially profiles in courage or cowardice. An ABC News article on the morning of the election followed the script perfectly:
“The people should participate in the election,” says 38-year-old Zabiullah, who, like many Afghans, only goes by one name. He was one of the few shoppers at a bakery in downtown Kabul. “People need to be brave.”
But a group of Kabul residents interviewed a few feet from a suicide attack on British troops yesterday all said they would not vote.
“My father is injured in the hospital and my younger brother is missing — what should I do? Look for him, or vote?” one asked, (ABC News, “Afghanistan Elections: ‘People Need to be Brave.’” 19 August 2009).
At a more general level, the spectacle of an election is simplistically equated with democratic governance. And the relative success or failure in holding free and fair elections is brought home to assess the overall military strategy, political approval rating, and foreign policy of the American President and his political party. MSNBC News e-mailed US Ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, who attempted to connect the distant dots between the elections and US military objectives:
“This election is vital to strengthen the connections between the Afghan people and their leaders,” Eikenberry wrote. “Only by doing so will the violence that afflicts their country eventually be contained and will Afghanistan never again become a haven for international terrorism,” (MSNBC/AP, “Afghan Vote Could Aid War Effort but not End It,” 19 August 2009).
It is not surprising that the American media seeks to relate international events to domestic politics in order to garner viewer interest. The problem is that emotional and reductive reporting actually prevents Americans from being able to evaluate the relative success or failure of US foreign policy and military strategy.
For example, the US media narrative on women being empowered through voting masks the fact that nearly all of the major candidates, including the incumbent, support reconciliation with the Taliban. Thus, even those Afghan women who succeed in casting their vote will most likely be voting for candidates who are seeking to govern alongside the same insurgents who restricted their rights in the previous regime. If the goal of the American-led occupation has expanded to ensure the protection of women’s rights, then it is clear that images of burqa-clad women voting is insufficient without an awareness of the candidates’ actual policy positions.
Reductive and emotional reporting is predicated on the assumption of individual and collective free will. It ignores a serious discussion of the broader structural factors that severely limit the hopes for a stable democracy regardless of the number of elections or levels of voter turnout. The structural impediments include the failure to build strong state institutions, ongoing intervention by regional powers, systemic corruption, demand driven drug production, and massive income inequality. By portraying democracy as resting so heavily on the courage or cowardice of citizens and soldiers, the media ignores the ways in which the country’s destiny is overdetermined as a tragedy.
Vikash Yadav is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York.