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?
"We are just poor people. We don't know about elections," says Gholm Nabi, an old man who lives in a crumbling Tajik slum called Daha Afghananan on the slopes of Kabul's TV Mountain. Above him the gray sky hovers over the eponymous mountain's bombed out TV tower and an old rotating restaurant lounge that is now a military base of the UN's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
"Someone comes and beats a drum and we just dance. We don't even know why," says Nabi. He works as a servant in a local mosque and says he is a religious man who trusts Allah and the holy Koran. He is registered to vote but does not know whom to vote for. "I will see the pictures on the ballot and Allah will guide me and hopefully I will vote for the one who will serve the people." When asked about the mounting evidence of possible vote fraud, Nabi just shrugs.
Further up TV Mountain, Latif Ahmad is looking for work. He is an itinerant laborer from Pakman, a rural town outside of Kabul. "Qanooni or Karzai, it doesn't matter. We are poor people and we will follow and respect our leaders," says Ahmad, referring to the second-place candidate Yunus Qanooni, who is Tajik, and to Pashtun front-runner Karzai. Ahmad has not registered to vote but says he might. Right now he needs to find a few days of work in Kabul before heading home.
A young middle-class journalist across town expresses a darker pessimism. "It's not like my vote will be counted, so why should I register?" he asks. "It is all prearranged for Karzai and America." Asadullah, a shopkeeper in the central city who recently returned from years in exile, is equally dismissive: "I have no voter card because there is no one to vote for. There are two types of candidates, mujahedeen whom we don't trust and foreigners whom we don't know. As a Muslim it would be shameful to vote in an election that is no good or fixed."
Later a Tajik cabbie and mujahedeen vet condemn the current president: "Karzai, Pashtun. Pashtun, terrorist, Taliban," he says in broken English. He fought with the famous mujahedeen commander Ahmed Shah Massoud and likes his fellow Tajik, Qanooni.
In a hamlet outside Shekhabad village in Wardak province, a few hours southwest of Kabul, migrant laborers recently returned from Iran and local poppy farmers express hope for a peaceful and prosperous future. Most say they are registered to vote but few show any interest in the outcome of the elections. Some in this Pashtun region say they will vote for Karzai simply because he was already in power; others said they might vote for whomever their old military commander, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf supports. Sayyaf's party, Ittehad-e-Islami, is not running a candidate but has traditionally allied with the Tajik dominated Jamaat-e-Islami.
At night in the Persian-carpet-lined visiting room of a large kala, a fortified family compound made of mud bricks, a dozen male cousins and brothers play cards and gamble deep into the night. The women of the family are all hidden away across a courtyard in other rooms on the ground floor. The election is not a natural topic of conversation, though the economy, local violence and the situations in Palestine and Iraq are.
Our host, Naim, was not a mujahedeen fighter during the anti-Soviet jihad. He complains bitterly about the "crimes" of the mujahedeen warlords. "Why doesn't the United States bring them to justice? People will condemn these commanders."
But when asked about the rumors that Karzai and US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad are cutting deals with these same men, he seems to contradict himself: "If the warlords are not given Cabinet seats or ministries they will go back to war. They have to be part of the government."
One of his cousins sums up the sentiments of the others: "It really doesn't matter who is president. All we want is peace and a better life. If the election is not fair, that's just the way it is. As long as there is peace. People here are too tired and afraid to care about elections."
Critically minded Western observers are considerably more concerned about the fairness of the vote. A central issue is the role of the warlords. A recent Human Rights Watch report documents scores of cases of election-related intimidation by local jangsalaran, many of whom now have government jobs. According to the HRW report, even in Kabul local military and police forces "are involved in arbitrary arrest, kidnapping and extortion, and torture and extrajudicial killings." Throughout the country, intellectuals and journalists have been threatened with death for criticizing local leaders. Village leaders, or malikan, are reporting threats from local commanders if they do not deliver their village's votes for one candidate or another.
In Khost, elders were told to vote for Karzai or have their homes burned down. In Wardak, commander Muzaffruddin, the local military official, told village elders that if they didn't turn out the vote for Karzai they should not expect help if anything bad happens to them. Meanwhile, unrelated to the election, the warlords continue to battle one another. In the last two months Amanullah Khan clashed with Ismail Khan in Herat, while Mohammed Atta and Abdul Rashid Dostum's men have skirmished in the north.
"These are the very same war criminals who destroyed Afghanistan," says John Sifton, HRW regional researcher and author of the report. "If Karzai cuts deals with these war criminals, if his Cabinet contains all the same old faces, people will turn away from legitimate politics and the power of the warlords will be further entrenched."
As a result, Sifton and others say, Afghanistan's government will remain fragmented and corrupt, while its economy will remain in ruins. A worst-case scenario could see the current cocktail of poverty, political frustration and low-level ethnic, communal and criminal violence exploding into large-scale warfare. Short of that, a government of jangsalaran could turn Afghanistan into a full-blown narco-mafia state: a gangster Shangri-La, with a seat at the UN and a few US military bases thrown in.
Fear of such outcomes caused some NGOs and diplomats in Kabul's nation-building scene to call for a delay in elections, but Karzai pushed to hold them in October. His critics speculate that the rush to vote in this still-chaotic situation was motivated not by a hyperactive concern for Afghan democracy but by President George W. Bush's own electoral concerns. With Iraq in flames, a "democratic" election in Afghanistan would make a nice foreign policy trophy. It may lose its sheen, however, if the world learns how it was purchased on the ground in Afghanistan.