A member of the US PRT in Paktia also experienced that amazingly brilliant blue sky over Paktia. But the elections she saw were quite different from what I have experienced there.
When I went to the polling site in Tandar village in Paktia, some 22 kilometres away from the provincial capital Gardez, on election-day on 20 August, I also was ‘expecting a rocket, mortar or spurt of small arms fire to pierce the brilliant blue sky’. Instead, I landed in an idyll: lavender in blossom on the hill slopes, camels grazing, no voter disturbing the quiet scenery, allowing the young polling staff to idle around, drink tea and chat with the foreign visitor. I had briefly reported about this an earlier blog (‘E-Day in P2K’).
The quote above is taken from a dispatch by 1st Lt. Lauren Johnson who is with the US Provincial Reconstruction Team based in Paktia. (Read her report ‘Of ballots and bullets: Why the Afghanistan election was a victory of hope’ on a US Air Force website named after the original base of her unit in Florida.)
She also experienced that amazingly brilliant blue sky over Paktia when there is none of the frequent dust-storms. But the elections she saw were quite different from what I have experienced there. Lt. Johnson saw an outright ‘success’ – although she concedes that the run-up to the elections ‘was not an easy road’ and E-Day itself did not pass ‘without incident’. There were ‘more than 80 attacks’ across the province, she reports. ‘But damage was minimal. In the battle of fear, the enemy suffered a decisive loss.’ For her, the international media talked down the electoral ‘success’ and ‘fraud, corruption and low voter turnout’ were just ‘rumors’.
I am sorry but this is plain propaganda. The polls did not open and close ‘in relative peace’ in Paktia. Voter education largely was an underground operation. Posters picturing voting procedures were dumped at the roadside because of fear to carry them into the villages. Shopkeepers outside Gardez tore them down for fear of Taleban retribution. But of course the election workers reported that they had fulfilled the tasks given to them. They were paid for it, after all. IEC workers did not tell their families about their jobs and evacuated their families – see a report from Logar about his.
Nurses recruited to mobilise women voters slipped a folder under the table after they saw a patient, that’s all.
Lt. Johnson reports that ‘one hundred seventy six polling sites had to be set up’ (169 according to the UN) and forgets to mention that, for security reasons, 36 others had to be cancelled. The ‘two suicide bombers on a motorcycle’ were also not ‘killed by Afghan National Army soldiers before they reached their target’ but their load of explosives detonated prematurely. The leg of one of them that was removed from a ditch when I passed the place was definitely not severed by ANA Kalashnikov fire. And the Afghan security personnel around the Gardez High School where this incident happened was ANP. (Another story to talk up the ANA?)
She writes about ‘one of Paktya’s more volatile districts [where] a rocket attack didn’t deter voters; it merely delayed them while Afghan National Police secured the area. Ten minutes later, the voters returned to wait patiently in the long line outside the polling site’. Frankly, I had no reports about lines of voters outside Gardez. But I heard about police in another ‘more volatile district’ where the police staged an ‘insurgent’ attack and used the time the IEC staff had run away to stuff the ballot boxes.
Damage was done, more than just minimally. By the Taleban strategy of intimidation that clearly worked and kept voters away from the ballot boxes; Lt. Johnson herself writes about ‘tens of thousands of Paktya voters’ only that turned out – registered were some 499,850, according to the IEC. And by blatant manipulations, ballot stuffing, intimidation and lies about ‘robust’ turnouts and lines of voters.
Already the few polling stations a bit outside Paktia’s major town, which we were able to visit without risking our lives, had few voters indeed. In Tandar village, 25 were registered by lunch time, including the twelve or so IEC staff members there. No women at all. Bala Deh (code number 0801012/02, with two male and female polling stations) at the other end of Gardez, still in visibility range of the town’s ancient fortress, had 125 voters by mid-morning, amongst them ten women. Many voters stayed home, said the IEC official on the ground, because they were frightened by rockets smashing into their orchards in the morning, rumours of a suicide attack against a US convoy in the neighbourhood and small arms fire later. Daulatzai, some six kilometres outside Gardez: some 200 voters in mid-afternoon. The local people said there were 1.500 families in the village. There had been reports of shooting there in the morning and we had been warned to go there at all; the Taleban stronghold of Zurmat is just behind the mountain.
How would Mirzaka look like where three polling centres were under attack by RPGs and small arms fire during different times of the day? How Khairoti polling centre in Jaji Aryub district after it was attacked by Taleban in the previous night? And how did voters ‘queue’ in Janikhel district where the nine polling centres supplied by air had to be closed after one hour because of continuing fighting? Or Lajja Mangal district centre which was attacked ‘from three sides’ simultaneously?
I can’t say for sure because I did not see it myself. Lt. Johnson most likely also didn’t. She does not mention whether she visited polling sites on election-day or not and if so which ones. But does she believe there was a massive turn-out in Paktia’s outlying districts under the circumstances described above when even in the relatively secure environment close to the provincial capital there were many more abstentions than voters?
Nevertheless, Lt. Johnson declares ‘a victory for democracy’. ‘Absolutely’.
Yet, I join her congratulating those Afghans who braved the threats and went out to vote. I also congratulate those who decided that it was their democratic right to stay away – for it is not worth risking your finger or your life for an exercise in make-believe.
What is important now is that the next and much more difficult elections – those for the Afghan parliament in 2010 – are much better prepared. The Independent Election Commission needs to be made really independent. The parliament should confirm its members. The Election Complaints Commission should stay on the ground and be given time to develop country-wide capacities that will allow it to cope with an even larger influx of complaints – in contrast to this year’s election when it started operating with a few people in Kabul four weeks into the election campaign. The political parties – and in particular those without arms – need to be given their legal rights in practice, too, including the right to form factions in parliament, even when it is too late to change the unfortunate SNTV system. The so-called parliamentary groups have proven to be ineffective, apolitical and vulnerable to bribes. The parliamentary commission for oversight of the constitution needs to be recognised by the executive, in order to counterweight the Supreme Court which is also not seen as impartial. Even better, both could send representatives into an Election High Court that, in the longer term, could take over the role of the ECC – and the registration of political parties from the Ministry of Justice. Accurate voters’ lists need to be set up as planned long ago that would link the individual voter to his constituency and which would largely contribute to preventing proxy and multiple voting – usefully combined with the likewise long overdue census. The inflated figures of female voters need to be cleaned up. Special emphasis needs to be given to recruit and train female election staff. IEC, ECC, voter education and independent Afghan election monitors need sustainable funding. (This is only a shortlist.)
I hope that Lt. Johnson and her country’s government will join this effort. The first step into this direction would be to publicly urge all contenders to behave responsibly, and to recognise that not everything went well on 20 August. That even a lot did not go well on this day which was supposed to be a great day on the way towards an Afghan democracy because, for the first time, Afghans were to lead an at least transparent election. This would give back some dignity to a process that is full of flaws.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020