As foreign secretary of one of the nations with troops in Afghanistan, David Miliband is fighting a battle on two fronts. There, British troops are trying to foster democracy and security at great cost. Back home, many ask whether the sacrifice is for a worthy cause. As the Afghan elections near, Miliband published his latest case for a British troop presence in Afghanistan, one of several op-eds to emerge from coalition nations in the past day. Here are perspectives from Britain, the U.S., Canada, and Germany, representing the top four NATO presences in Afghanistan.

  • The Elections are Crucial  "Whether military breakthroughs are translated into strategic success," wrote Miliband, "depends on politics--crucially the ability of the political system to incorporate people currently acquiescent to or supportive of violence." What are the chances of such success? Miliband outlined a number of challenges for the "new government," and on the success of the elections themselves was evasive, but optimistic:
Last month British troops, alongside Danes, Estonians and Afghans, fought to clear the Taliban out of Babaji, bringing security through extraordinary military effort to tens of thousands of Helmandis and allowing them the chance to vote. The Taliban are prepared to use the most violent and cowardly tactics to disrupt the poll. But the campaign has been vigorous and competitive. Candidates have campaigned across the country, not just in their own ethnic communities. More than 80 per cent of the population are following the elections closely. Ninety per cent are reasonably confident that they will be fair.
  • A Challenge  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her official statement on the upcoming elections, acknowledged that "the day will not be without its challenges." Like her British counterpart, however, she expressed optimism: "the Afghan people have seen unparalleled campaigning, debate and dialogue in their country."
  • The Polls Must Be Secure, stated Samina Ahmed in the German newspaper Die Zeit. "Ultimately," she wrote, "the elections' success will be decided by the Afghan people. Only when they can safely assume that their votes will actually count and make a difference can they be encouraged to vote." What is the price of failure? "If the impression arises that the elections were held unfairly, it could potentially lead to tension. That would further destabilize the already weak Afghan state."
  • Not Optimistic  Neither Corey Levine in Canada's Globe and Mail nor Christian Neef of the German international publication Der Spiegel are holding their breaths. Characterizing the "electoral mood" of a "country more familiar with the Kalashnikov than the ballot box" as one of "deep cynicism" and "hopelessness," Levine argued that, "after 30 years of war and suffering, [Afghans] are more than entitled to representative government. The problem is, there's little ability to deliver this." Levine further pointed out that while "it is generally viewed that the delivery of the mechanics of polling day will be successful," many polling stations are unlikely actually to open due to security fears, while even non-Taliban incidents of intimidation have been "extensively documented." Of Hamid Karzai's eve-of-election urge to the Taliban "not to close themselves off to the peace process," Christian Neef was flatly incredulous: "Peace process?" He asked, "What peace process?"
  • From Afghanistan: Little Good to Report  American newspapers have kept relatively silent thus far on the upcoming elections. The New York Times decided to let Afghans speak for themselves, publishing four views from across Afghanistan. The news is not good.
    • No Substitute for Justice  "A 'fair and transparent election,'" wrote Hassina Sherjan, "even if one were possible, would not be enough to set Afghanistan on a path toward stability." Why not? "Afghanistan's collective psyche is scarred, and when  emotional traumas are not dealt with properly, they inevitably lead to violence. Even a free and fair election is no substitute for justice."
    • Karzai Must Go  Atif B. described "demoralization and despair" in the city of Kandahar. "The one thing everyone agrees on," he reported, "is that it will not be possible to defeat the Taliban unless we have a responsive and accountable government." Hamid Karzai does not fit the bill: "Progress will begin only if he loses on Thursday."
    • Small Chance of That  Mirwais Ahmadzai from Kunar Province recounted tales of "night letters" of intimidation from the Taliban ahead of the vote. Even without these "threats," he noted, the people of the eastern provinces would be "plenty pessimistic," unexcited about voting for warlords and, in any event, convinced that "Mr. Karzai will win."
    • A Lone Voice of Hope  Ahmad Wali Arian presented the sole view supportive of David Miliband's and Hillary Clinton's talk of progress. He described a discussion with his relatives about the "candidates' platforms, promises, teams, and abilities. This was a huge change from the last vote, in 2004, when nobody was talking about ideas."
Finally, two Western commentators have some other concerns. "Suspiciously high levels of female registration have been reported," noted the London Times' Melanie Reid, "as men use women's cards for their own choices." Both she and Rachel Reid of the Washington Post also denounced the Shia Personal Status Law, widely seen in the West as an unacceptable Karzai compromise with extremism, with disastrous results for women's rights. The two Reids, however, came to different conclusions. "Although Mr. Karzai has effectively betrayed half of the population of his country by signing the personal status law," Melanie Reid wrote, and "despite the increase in rape, and the violence, and the daily dismay of being second-class citizens, the vast majority of Afghan women believe that there has been an improvement in general life. In the face of their optimism, we have to stick with them."

From across the Atlantic, Rachel Reid disagreed: "Many--including the U.S. administration--are uneasy about speaking out about this law so close to the presidential election. But that is just the response that Karzai hoped for. Afghan women want to participate in elections and have peace and security. The price for this should not be their rights."