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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Afghan success in the new 'great game'
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent

The fact that an election has taken place in Afghanistan has to be counted as a major success in the new "Great Game" which is being played out in parts of Asia.

In places where the British, Russian and other empires once vied for influence, the new "game" seeks to establish stable and reasonably democratic governments in order to provide a long term solution to the threat from Islamic extremism.

Counting centre in Kabul
Afghanistan could serve as an example for Iraq
The elections are also a huge relief for the Bush administration. After all, Afghanistan was the initial target in the "war on terror" declared by President Bush after 11 September 2001. It was the home not only of the Taleban but of Osama Bin Laden.

For the policy of intervention to work properly, the toppling of the Taleban had to be followed by the installation of a moderate government.

US foreign policy has moved on since the days when Washington did not care that much who ran a country as long as they were not communists. "He's a son of a bitch but he's our son of a bitch" is no longer the basis for supporting a foreign government.

Boost for Bush

These days, the equation is more complex. The neo-conservatives who run American policy have a belief in the power of elections and the re-ordering of society.

While Afghanistan has gone better than had been feared, Iraq has gone worse than had been hoped
Mr Bush himself, despite his former refusal to contemplate "nation-building", now makes numerous references to "freedom" and "liberty" in his campaign speeches. Senator Kerry's language is rarely that vivid.

So the holding of the election will provide Mr Bush with justification in the critical last weeks of a close presidential campaign in which foreign policy has played an unusually prominent role.

He has hailed it as "a really great thing", and can be expected to make much more of it in the days to come.

Taleban 'absence'

He will use Afghanistan as an example for Iraq. However bad Iraq looks now, he will argue, it can improve, as Afghanistan has.

Elections do not solve such problems, but without elections they probably cannot be solved
But while Afghanistan has gone better than had been feared, Iraq has gone worse than had been hoped.

In Afghanistan, the Taleban, though still active, have not proved to be a national threat. A US general remarked with satisfaction and some scorn that they did not "show" during the election.

The warlords are still around but if they can be changed into peacelords, their threat is diminished. Afghan's other problems, of opium and reconstruction, will have to be tackled.

Elections do not solve such problems, but without elections they probably cannot be solved.

Iraq is different

Iraq is much harder. The insurgent threat is greater and the electoral process is more protracted. Even the elections due in January are for a transitional government only. There is not due to be a fully constitutional government in Iraq until the end of December next year.

President Bush and his supporters will contend that Iraq is not impossible.

In his latest monthly column for the Washington Post, Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace took that view.

"For the past few months it has become common wisdom that the war in Iraq is lost, based on what any historian will tell you is far too little evidence to make such a final judgment," he wrote.

"Now, the United States could conceivably lose in Iraq. But the odds are against it, and it is certainly far too early to make that judgment."

What has happened in Afghanistan will help that argument but it will not by itself ensure that it comes true.

Afghanistan was the starter. Iraq is the main course.


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