Officially, the upcoming October 9 presidential election in Afghanistan is set to be a great success. Some international observers point to widespread voter registration as evidence. Among a population estimated at 20 to 25 million, a total of 10.5 million Afghans have registered. That means most eligible adults are signed up to vote; President Bush even mentioned this statistic in his first debate with John Kerry.
But look closer and the picture changes. For example, I have two valid voter-registration ID cards and I am a foreign journalist. If a friendly party (like the one who gave me the cards) controls my polling station, I’ll be able to vote twice because there is no reliable system for verifying the identity of voters. In four heavily Pashtun provinces along the eastern border with Pakistan, more than 140 percent of the adult population is registered to vote.
In other words, despite the high hopes of many Afghans, this election, in which eighteen candidates are running for president, is shaping up to be a sham marked by fraud, corruption and widespread confusion about how secret balloting works. Nationwide, there is continuing low-level violence of all sorts, from robbery to Taliban attacks along the Pakistani border to interfactional fighting. Worst of all is the voter intimidation and quotidian terror meted out by warlords, known in Dari Pashto as jangsalaran. These former mujahedeen commanders rule most of Afghanistan through a collection of semi-private fiefdoms, which allow them to control much of the local smuggling, extortion, drug trade and now voting.
The Joint Election Management Body, a combined UN-Afghan government institution charged with running the election, is stacked with appointees of interim president and lead candidate Hamid Karzai, and thus open to charges of bias. But the elections are also plagued by straightforward technical problems; indeed, the JEMB’s job would be nearly impossible for any institution. One of its recent tasks was to enlist 100,000 mostly literate polling observers in roughly a month. A UN spokesman says this has been accomplished, but few in Kabul believe this.
As for foreign election monitors and media scrutiny, only 150 to 200 international observers will be at the polls, and most of them will be in cities. Many major media outlets, meanwhile, have prohibited their correspondents from even leaving Kabul.
Women, though allegedly registered in large numbers, are massively under-registered in several southern provinces, and throughout Afghanistan they will likely be forced to vote as their husbands and tribal elders dictate, especially if they do not understand that the ballot is meant to be secret.
Over the summer there were twenty-one attacks on election workers, and more than forty NGO employees have been killed, many of them working on election-related issues. The problem of providing security for polling and then transporting and counting the ballots is being left to the new Afghan National Army and the local police. Unfortunately, both of these institutions are largely controlled by regional warlords, some of whom are allies of Karzai, some of whom oppose him. Even the formal boundaries of electoral districts are unclear in numerous cases. In short, there is no rule of law in Afghanistan, and there is no security, so there can be no free and fair election. But what do regular Afghans think of all this?