Afghanistan: 'An Inspiration to the Cause of Freedom'


Here is our government's official take on Afghanistan, circa March 2006:

The democratic process taking hold in Afghanistan is an inspiration to the cause of freedom, President Bush said in the country's capital, Kabul, today.

"I hope the people of Afghanistan understand that as democracy takes hold, you're inspiring others," Bush said while visiting Afghanistan for the first time. "And that inspiration will cause others to demand their freedom."

Bush said he was "enthralled" to see the progress being made in Afghanistan. As evidence of this progress, he pointed to the growth of an entrepreneurial spirit enabling Afghans to realize their dreams, to young girls going to school for the first time, to the country's free press, and to the standing-up of a well-trained military dedicated to the sovereignty of the nation…

Bush emphasized that the U.S. is committed to the "universal" value that all humans desire to be free. "And we know that history has taught us that free societies yield the peace," he said. "We want peace for our children, and we want peace for the Afghan children, as well."

Here is a recent news item of a sort that has become familiar in the last few years:

An Afghan journalist accused of distributing an unacceptable translation of the Koran should be put to death, says former Prime Minister Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai.

Former journalist Ghows Zalmay, who was also the spokesman for Afghanistan's Attorney-General, was arrested in November last year for distributing a translation of the Koran into Dari, one of Afghanistan's two official languages.

Ahmadzai, who ran in the 2004 presidential election against current President Hamid Karzai, told Adnkronos International (AKI) he supported the death penalty for Zalmay.

"Today Afghanistan is full of vices. Several Afghan restaurants serve liquor, despite it being illegal and on top of it, such material is distributed," Ahmadzai told AKI.

"I am in favour of his death."

The point is not to take a cheap shot at the Bush administration with a facile juxtaposition. (Well, that's not the only point.) Clearly, Bush oversold the "freedom" angle, perhaps because he mistakenly assumed that democracy inevitably leads to liberty. If most Afghans agree with Ahmadzai that death is an appropriate penalty for an unauthorized translation of the Koran, executing Zalmay would be democratic, but it would not exactly be "an inspiration to the cause of freedom."

Bush's second mistake, we have to hope, is that American security depends on the freedom of people in other countries. This, I gather, was the main rationale for the invasion of Iraq, which the Bush administration advertised as a pre-emptive strike against an aggressive dictator armed with weapons of mass destruction. Although I never supported that war, I did think that military action against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies in Afghanistan was justified. I did not realize it meant that the U.S. would be committed to transforming Afghanistan into not just a democracy but a liberal democracy, on the theory that "free societies yield the peace." Can't we settle for a regime that is less inclined to welcome anti-American terrorists, even if it continues to ban liquor and arrest heretics? And if that is in fact what our government is aiming for, how is this approach different from old-style realism?