Political Landscape

2010 Elections 10: The Case of Ahmadkhel


watch-the-box

Up in the mountains along the border between Paktia and Khost provinces, where proud and strong tribes live and Taleban and HIG fighters roam, lies the district of Ahmadkhel. It is named after one particular branch of the large Dzadzi tribe(*), funnily enough after the one which is smaller in number there. Another subtribe, the Hassankhel-Sekanderkhel, is much more numerous. And that exactly is the problem.

On the evening of 15 September, three days before election-day and I just had landed in Gardez, the phone rings and a local Afghan is at the other end of the line. He says he needs to talk. (He didn’t know that I am coming; he just tried and was lucky.) So I jump into the car and drive to his office which is located in one of the half-finished looking new ‘markets’ – multi-storey building housing shops, offices and storages with already crumbling stairs – that have mushroomed in Gardez.

There, I meet two dozen or so bearded and turbaned people crammed into derelict sofas and chairs who start talking in the distinctive dialect of the Dzadzi, with its rounded ‘o’ replacing the long ‘a’ (‘Dzodzi’, ‘tosi’ etc). They had come, they say, to complain that their particular area had been unjustly allocated much too few ballot boxes. ‘We got only five boxes for 80 villages’, they claim, ‘and Chergi Kelay [Chicken village], of the Hassankhel, has received the same amount alone. This is not just!’

All in all, Ahmadkhel has 19 polling centres with 42 polling stations. Of them, two PCs with five polling stations (no. 0806133, Kushtay Bagh, with two female polling stations and no. 0806134, Mirazi Kelay, with three male) had been allocated to Ahmadkhel centre, the place of contention. A few more, amongst them in the bazaar of Mushaka, at the road to Dzadzi Aryub and Tsamkanai, had been cancelled for security reasons. The rest went to the Hassankhel part of the district, as Ahmadkhel centre formerly an elaqadari, something like a sub-district, an administrative unit used under the monarchy and also under the PDPA regime. ‘How can that be’, the elders ask, ‘because Mushaka seems to be safe enough for the convoys for election material to pass?’

They have enlisted the support of a parliamentary candidate who is from their subtribe: Dina Gul Gharibmal; his takhalus [last name] means ‘friend of the poor’. This is not by accident: He is a former ‘Khalqi’ and officer of the communist intelligence, now member of one of the many neo-, half- or post-leftist parties in the country. But nevertheless he had worked as head of Paktia’s Department of Finance until recently when the current governor kicked him out in favour of – as Gharibmal claims – a less qualified acquaintance of the wali. Last year during the presidential vote, Gharibmal acted as Paktia provincial campaign manager for Habib Mangal who ended up 9th in a field of 25 candidates with almost 19,000 votes (0.41%). (In that capacity I had met Gharibmal and given him my phone number.) Mangal, in turn, is a former member of the PDPA Polit Bureau and resides in the Netherlands when he is not campaigning.

(At the sidelines, this case shows how much – or rather: less – ideology counts in this area. The tribes even embrace an ex-communist as long as he is ‘theirs’. Gharibmal, in reflection of this fact, explains that he does not run under the name of his party because ‘people here vote along tribal lines’.)

Gharibmal and the elders have made their rounds trying to make their case with everyone they think might have some power or access to help them: the governor, the provincial police chief, IEC and ECC, the human rights commission, Unama and the deputy governor. (Including me, now. But after some debate, they realize I do not work for Unama anymore, since 2003, precisely.)

They have been sent from office to office and nowhere received an answer that satisfied them. The ECC told them that they only accept complaints about candidates and not about the election process in general – they should go to the IEC. (ECC people later confirmed that version.) At the IEC they were told that it is not responsible to assess the security situation of polling sites – this was solely in the hands of the Provincial Security Commission months ago – with ISAF involvement, the regional IEC heads later tells me. He adds the question why the Ahmadkhel people had not complained earlier, as people from other districts had – and where, he says, the commission subsequently raised the number of polling stations. So, they went to the governor who sits in the security commission but he allegedly told them that the security assessment had been done and could not be changed. Unama does not receive candidates because it is not involved in the elections but the AIHRC registered their complaint ’unofficially’ (to avoid interfering in the ECC’s work). The deputy governor sent them away with a short and – according to them – rude oneliner in Pashtu which made them particularly angry.

The answer by the IEC does not deny the legitimacy of the claim  – at least implicitely – but just (and understandably) refers to the bad timing of the Ahmadkjhel delegation.

But the elders were ready to take drastic action now. On the same evening they announced that they will block the road through their district for the convoys with the election material that were expected to depart from Gardez the next day. Ahmadkhel controls the road to five other districts.

Next morning, I see one convoy leaving the IEC compound, escorted by heavily armed police. Some provincial heavyweights stand and watch, amongst them the deputy police chief. Concerned, that clashes break out I ask him whether he heard anything from Ahmedkhel. ‘The problem is solved’, he says. Indeed, as it turns out later, the Ahmadkhel elders only had put a tree trunk across the road over night but removed it later so that really no incident occurred. They had probably realized that this could end in arrests or worse: they could have been labeled enemies of the elections or the government, or even Taleban. Indeed, there is Taleban (and Hezb-e Islami) activity in Ahmadkhel although not – at least according to the elders and Gharibmal – in their subtribes’ part of the district. They claim that they have a tarun (an unwritten commitment) not to allow Taleban activity on their territory. (Other sources doubt that the Ahmedkhel subtribe is strong enough to do this.)

But the conflict about the boxes is not only result of a rivalry between Dzadzi subtribes. A decades-old conflict with the neighbouring Mangal – over a stretch of forest along their tribal boundary – also plays into the case. And provincial power politics: The Mangal occupy a number of positions in the provincial administration, the Dzadzi feel less represented. One Mangal is the deputy governor Abdul Rahman Mangal who had repulsed the visiting Ahmadkhel elders. And he has a son running for parliament, Mirza Khan Mangal. Also the son of current Helmand (and former Paktika and Laghman) governor Gulab Mangal, Nawab Mangal, is a strong contender. Both see the neighbouring district of Lajja Mangal as a major source for votes(**). For the Ahmadkhel elders, this constellation is another clear sign for what they perceive as their disenfranchisement.

Although the Ahmadkhel elders finally decided not to disturb the elections, they decided to boycott the elections. As a result, the two Ahmadkhel centre PCs remained empty on Saturday. ‘And we want to see whether they also are really counted as empty and not be stuffed again’, Gharibmal adds, ‘as happened last year’.

Indeed, the Ahmadkhel elders went through some sobering electoral experience last year: Some of ‘their’ boxes during the presidential poll were never delivered to their district centre but instead to some makeshift polling stations where they had been stuffed. As said, many in the local population supported Habib Mangal, one of the stronger ones amongst the smaller contenders and he indeed attracted a significant number of votes in the Southeast.

Although the Ahmadhel elders have filed an officlal complaint with the ECC now, Gharibmal says that they do not complain anymore but that their position has reached the stage of ‘protest’ now. They do not trust the ECC and have decided to take their case to Kabul instead. Their first address, they say, will be their senator, Bahram.

This story is far from over and we will try to follow it up. But already now – and apart from whether the Ahmedkhel are right or wrong (and even some of ‘their’ own admit that they are indeed much fewer then the Hassankhel) – their case demonstrates the main features of the 18 September parliamentary elections.

First, local politics and local alliances dominate the contest for the 249 Wolesi Jirga seats, and not only here in the Southeast. Ideology, political tendencies and even political programs don’t play much of a role. Nevertheless, old animosities between mujahedin and former communist networks still add some spice to this soup. The Ahmedkhel can also rely on some old PDPA networks.

And secondly and more importantly, the case of Ahmadkhel is another signal that Afghanistan’s election – and other – institutions need to be reformed and made independent, although this is much about perception. First of all, it shows that more leniency and a less strict timeline for complaints needs to be implemented – even if there might be ‘frivolous’ complaints. The current situation disenfranchises people in ‘distant’ districts, those who have no access to technical means to quickly record evidence or no experience with the bureaucratic procedures involved in election processes or, finally, are simply illiterate, i.e. the poor.

And there are other factors, as Ben Arnoldy of the Christian Science Monitor writes:

‘Complaints must be written, must include the name of the accuser, and must be processed through provincial ECC boards – stipulations that protect against rumor mongering but also expose whistleblowers to retribution from local power brokers.’

(See his article ‘Afghanistan elections: Why so few official fraud complaints?’ here.)

Finally, the lack of a census and of a voter list – Andrew Wilder just called the latter ‘probably the single most important thing to minimise fraud in [the] election’ (see the interview here) – definitely is the source of many similar conflicts all over the country. Even if, under the current circumstances, the government, or the parliament, takes a decision about such issues, demarcates the district boundaries and gives official population and voter figures, they still might be contested – as long as there is no instance of last resort like a constitutional court or a supreme court perceived to be independent. As long as these issues are left simmering, there is no way to make a decision at all.

(*) Mostly referred to as Jaji (the Dari version) or Zazi which is inaccurate spelling; ‘z’ and ‘dz’ are distinct consonants in Pashto.

(**) These are not the only Mangal candidates. There are least four other male candidates, amongst them Janat Khan Mangal, a leading activists of President Karzai’s Paktia campaign last year.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape