Nightly count in Zurmat. This district is perceived as the most dangerous in Paktia, nevertheless voter turnout was much better than in 2009. Elders told AAN: “We broke the power of the Taleban, we stood against them, we put our lives in danger and we voted." Photo: private
A week after the election, AAN looks at how Paktia province, with the southeastern region’s centre Gardez, fared in the elections and after. Like Kandahar, Paktia returns a mixed picture: a large turnout in the city and some district centres, but far less participation already at the city borders and in other districts. A specific feature of Paktia is a tribal block vote, directed by elders who seem to favour candidate Ashraf Ghani in the areas populated by the Ahmadzai, one of the largest local tribes and the one he belongs to. In Zurmat district, the local population fought off fraud attempts and Taleban attacks in order to cast their votes. Women voting was the exception rather than the rule in Paktia, ‘their’ men instead often using their voter cards. AAN’s guest author Pakteen Ibrahimi provides a detailed report from Gardez – and some background on why more Paktiawals voted than in 2009 (with contributions by Lola Cecchinel and Thomas Ruttig).
By 6.30 am on election day, long queues of voters had already formed in front of polling stations in other urban centres of Afghanistan, but in Gardez, Paktia province’s capital, it was still rather quiet. Only a few people were waiting for the city’s largest and most central polling centre for male voters, the Abdul Hai Gardezi High School, to open. Security was tight. The Quick Response Force of the police had men on motorbikes positioned at every corner, checking people in the city and those trying to enter at its borders. It was a significantly different picture compared to the presidential elections in 2009: then, neither the Afghan National Police or the army, or international troops had gone out on the city’s main road to ensure the safety of voters (see our 2009 reporting here).
Gardez: like a holiday
By 7 am sharp, about 300 people were waiting in lines to cast their votes and the Abdul Hai Gardezi High School polling centre opened, offering nine voting stations, each observed by up to two observers from each candidate, both presidential and provincial council. It was crowded even before the voters arrived, with sometimes more than 20 observers and candidates’ agents in each polling station. Voting materials were in place; IEC staff were present running the process. At 9 am, two missiles hit the city and, although the sound carried a long way, no-one was injured or killed. Briefly, people seemed afraid to go and vote, but this hesitation did not last for long. The crowd in the high school grew while the shops in the bazaar closed. Many who had stayed home to carefully watch the security situation, now joined the ranks of the voters. The same applied to women voters who patiently stood in line at the Niswane Shahri school, a polling centre for women only; when this author went to see how things went there at about 9.45 o’clock he counted about 250 women gathered to vote. In 2009, at this same polling centre, one could speak of a steady, but thin trickle at best – and some ballot stuffing when the few international observers were not present.
Fines for the ‘wrong’ vote
At the northern edge of the city, at the local school of Tera where the road leads to the Tera Pass and on towards Kabul, security was tight, too, and many waited for their turn to vote in one of the four polling stations for men. Already even at this short distance from the city centre, the number of women voting had shrunk significantly; when this author arrived at the one polling station for women, at 10.30 o’clock, he saw no-one voting and no-one waiting. Later it would become clear that the male turnout in Tera had been particularly high, as this part of Gardez is mainly inhabited by people from the Ahmadzai tribe – the tribe presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani belongs to. The men told AAN that no one had been forced to vote – or to vote specifically for Ashraf Ghani, for that matter. They said they would have voted for him anyway. They also said, though, that there was an ‘agreement’ within the tribe in place that anyone not voting for ‘the tribe’s candidate’ would have to pay a fine of 30,000 Afghani to the tribal shura.
Venturing further out of the city, the picture grew increasingly varied. At the Tandan polling centre with one station for men and one for women, 22 kilometres outside Gardez just below the Tera Pass, no more than 30 people were waiting to cast their votes at 11.30. Some refused to have their fingers inked as the Taleban had threatened to cut off inked fingers. The IEC staff insisted on the ink but agreed to colouring only the very tip of fingers. In 2009, there had been no voters at all at this polling centre, other than the IEC personnel (read more here).
Arriving at the Ibrahimkhel High School, a large centre with four stations for the men and three for the women, on the highway towards Zurmat around two o’clock, there were again about 400 people waiting to vote. The mood was festive. There had, as yet, been no interferences by Taleban or local commanders, people told AAN, and one of the voters said happily, “This is not election day, this is an Eid day for us, choosing our future by our votes and not by the gun.” Not a single woman had voted at this point, however, as IEC officials told AAN. Instead the IEC staff had apparently allowed the men to come and vote for their womenfolk using their cards.
Back in the city, at Gardezi High School at 4 pm, there was still a large crowd waiting to vote.
Here, the count started as smoothly as the voting had gone all day. In the Abdul Hai Gardezi High School, IEC staff showed each vote to the agents. After the count, they put the results lists on the walls of the polling stations; one copy of each list was given to the agents and one copy was put in the ballot box. No interference by local authorities was apparent during the day, but still, a large number of people blamed governor Juma Khan Hamdard for all too publicly having backed Zalmai Rassul (government officials are officially banned from supporting candidates publicly – however, in the week before, the IEC had already warned Hamdard off). Hamdard – a prominent member of Hezb-e Islami – had rejected these accusations. He had, however, taken a stand when he joined a group of Hezb leaders that publicly rejected his party’s leadership’s decision to support presidential Dr Abdullah. The same group was accused by Hezb’s leaders of supporting Rassul, as reported by Ariana TV on 22 February 2014 (source: BBC Monitoring). The people of Paktia also accused provincial police chief Zalmai Oriakhel of having supported Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf.
Zurmat district: from almost zero in 2009 to a much better turnout
Zurmat, with its centre Tamir just some kilometres outside Gardez, is considered the most dangerous district of the province and there had been a large question mark whether elections could be held here at all. Many areas of the district are under Taleban control (it was one of their strongholds during the Taleban regime, 1996-2001). During the 2009 presidential election, only one polling centre had been reported open there. According to AAN sources (see here and here), its votes, though, had not come from Zurmatis: the polling centre had been ‘relocated’ to a security officer’s home in Gardez and stuffed there. As a result, only 1,900 votes had been declared valid (Zurmat has 62,510 registered voters). In addition, the Taleban had cut off all roads leading to the district centre (they controlled the rest of the district anyway) and this was also where some of their infamous finger-tip-cutting – to scare off voters – had been reported. During the parliamentary elections in 2010, there was again little voting in Zurmat; polling materiel was flown in and reportedly delivered to the houses of security forces officers for ballot stuffing (see our 2010 reporting here). (1)
Compared to this, the 2014 elections went much better – although still a far cry from how it went in the provincial centre. According to IEC staff and candidates’ agents, most of the 34 polling centres (76 polling stations) were closed in the morning because of Taleban threats and, indeed, several security incidents; only those centres in the district centre were open and voting went on as normal. By midday, however, all but four centres (with 17 stations) were open, after security forces had cleared the areas where incidents had happened. As a result, many polling stations were crowded after 4 o’clock in the afternoon. (2) According to different sources, between 4900 (according to the district governor and the district police chief) and 6000 people (local IEC) voted in Zurmat. The Zurmati mullahs and ulama, however, refused to participate in the elections.
Residents told AAN, the anxiety in Zurmat was palpable. Even before the voting started, an IED had exploded near the Mamozai polling centre and two candidate agents were wounded. The Rahmankhel polling centre came under Taleban fire in the morning, but opened after having been shifted to the nearby village at around 11 o’clock after security forces won a fire fight and the Taleban fled the scene. In Chawni polling centre, Taleban took the ballot boxes away. Andan, an area near the Neknam polling centre, was hit by missiles killing three children. Even then, the polling centre was only closed temporarily.
In Kolalgo, Dawlatzai, Kotaikel and Sahak, the Taleban had issued night letters and threats prior to the elections. This impaired the turnout; according to some local sources “nobody voted in these areas.” In Kolalgo, one of two polling centres remained closed. The second one, originally located in the bazaar, initially did not see any voters. The ANA relocated it inside the Saqawa madrasa after 12 o’clock, hoping it would attract more voters. According to local sources, several people possessing more than one voter card voted multiple times in favour of one major presidential candidate.
In Sahak, all four polling centres (eight stations) remained closed; reportedly they had not even received ballot boxes. Taleban were present there all day. A local elder reaching out over the phone said: “I am very upset that we did not have the chance to vote.” He blamed the security forces and the IEC for not having provided them with security and ballot boxes. Clashes between Taleban and security forces were reported from the villages Kohi Ghar and Janikhel.
Zurmat reportedly also saw one of the most high-profile cases of direct, albeit failed, interference in Paktia. Three different presidential teams, those of Zalmai Rassul, Qutbuddin Helal and Ashraf Ghani, accused Senator Abdul Hanan Haqwayun of having sent armed men to stuff ballots for his brother Sharif Mukhles, who was running for the provincial council, and for presidential contender Sayyaf. IEC personnel from Kharmastkhel village confirmed to AAN that Zurmat’s district police chief Wahab Zazai and Senator Haqwayun – both belonging to Sayyaf’s party – threatened them and tried to get control over the polling station. They failed when tribal leaders supported by a local ALP unit intervened.
Ashraf Ghani’s campaign office had already submitted a complaint against Haqwayun one day before the election for allegedly having sent armed men to Zurmat to prepare for ballot stuffing on election day. When the first results after the count showed an outcome in Ghani’s favour, his campaigners fell silent, though. And when rumours started circulating that the IEC were thinking of cancelling the election results from Zurmat because of the complaint, local people protested. Elders said they “had voted despite being under fire” and a cancellation would “disrespect” their vote. One tribal leader told AAN, “We broke the power of the Taleban, we stood against them, we put our lives in danger and we voted. The IEC cannot cancel the results!” An Afghan TV station – Ariana – picked up on Haqwayun’s interferences and reported it; this also seems to have contributed to stopping the ballot stuffing. Till now, it is not clear how the IEC has decided.
More Paktia districts – a round-up
In the early morning, roads were closed by the Taleban in this district to the immediate east of Gardez, but later on all polling stations seem to have opened allowing people to participate in the election. Sayed Karam has a majority Tutakhel and Ahmadzai population, with some people belonging to the Mangal tribe. Although it has no direct border with Pakistan and is relatively flat, insurgents infiltrate here through neighbouring Janikhel and over the mountainous eastern district border area. It was reported from the Khandkhel polling centres that supporters of one presidential candidate were buying votes for 200 Afghani apiece. At another polling station, NDS personnel were reported to be forcing people to vote for another of the major presidential candidates; the banners in the polling stations listing the names of all candidates reportedly had a mark in front of this candidate, hinting who to vote for. It is not clear whether the IEC took action in any of those cases.
In the populous and multi-tribal district of Tsamkani (also known as Chamkani or Chakmani, with a tribe of the same name) the situation was reported as calm and people voted safely. The district centre of Tsamkani, usually known as Shahr-e Naw, is the bazaar town in eastern Paktia and a major throughfare to and from Pakistan. Until recently, US Special Forces had a Forward Operations Base there. Only one polling station came under fire and the following clash between Taleban and security forces ended with two Taleban killed.
In this Mangal-dominated district in the province’s northeast, votes were not being counted in front of observers; the IEC staff said the security was not good enough for everyone to stay and that there was also not enough daylight. However, generally people participated well in the election. In the Pataki Kelay polling centre, the chief of Paktia’s provincial council, Shaista Jan Ahadi, reportedly took control of one polling station, casting multiple votes.
Dzadzi (also Zazi, Jaji) is the northern-most district of Paktia, inhabited by the eponymous tribe and tribally largely homogenous. There were allegations against commander Daud, a long-standing local Dawa / Ittehad commander and a former MP, that he was filling boxes for one of the presidential candidates. Overall, the situation was normal, though, and even women voted in Dzadzi, which is known for its relatively well-educated population (which to a large part leaned towards the PDPA regime in the 1980s) and who have good cross-border relations with Shia Pashtun tribes on the Pakistani side who have become targets of the Pakistani Taleban.
In Wazi Dzadran, a small and even for Afghan circumstances poor district, the election was reported as generally good. One polling centre was closed, because the local Dzadran had not been able to decide which of two provincial council candidates from two sub-tribes to support. After a clash between the two ‘parties’, the tribal elders decided not to hold a vote at all and closed the polling centre although people were already standing in line and one person had already cast his vote. A local IEC staff member assured AAN that for that polling station, they returned the box with the one vote inside; in other polling stations the elections went ahead.
The small Dzadran-inhabited district of Shwak had three polling centres, two of which were in the district office (this number has been confirmed to AAN by IEC officials and local elders, while the last version of the official polling station list only showed two centres, both in a school). The third one remained closed. People voted early in the morning, but later on, the polling stations came under fire and after this no one voted.
Analysis: bad weather is good …
Altogether, the elections went much better in 2014 than in 2009 and 2010, with a visibly higher turnout. There seem to have been three main reasons why. The first factor was the weather. As the Taleban usually move on small dirt roads for their operations, the rain on election day significantly limited their mobility. In particular, the mud prevented them from using motorbikes. The main roads, meanwhile, were protected by the security forces, a good turnout was possible even in areas that are usually controlled by the Taleban.
Secondly, Paktiawals traditionally see themselves as kingmakers. (The uprising led by king Nader Khan that pushed Habibullah II, the first non-Pashtun ruler, from the throne in Kabul in 1929, started here.) This year, with Ashraf Ghani, an Ahmadzai whose family originates from neighbouring Logar province, for the first time in the history of Loya Paktia, they see a chance of ‘one of their own’ moving into the Arg, the presidential palace in Kabul, and not again someone from the Kandahar region. Before election day, tribal leaders and former commanders had been rallying behind Ghani, saying that Paktia was going to be the ‘royal province’.
The third factor, linked to the above, was that many jihadi parties had sent their commanders to ‘their’ districts and villages and urged their followers to participate in the elections. This led to a competition among the parties and resulted in more people voting. (3)
(1) As we reported in 2009, four of the originally ten Zurmat polling centres did not figure on the IEC website’s final result: one each in Batur and Kotikhel village and two out of three polling centres in Arma, in the insurgency-ridden Shahikot mountains. This is an area inhabited by Dzadran who started supporting the insurgency after ‘Operation Anaconda’, a large-scale international operation against Al-Qaeda and Taleban in early 2002, led to widespread destruction. The votes from all three polling centres from Surkai, were counted despite the protests of its population. Also, Kulalgo returned (highly improbable) votes. Altogether, 2,982 votes from all over Zurmat were counted, from an estimated population of 93,600 (Afghan Central Statistics Office, 2003) or, if you ask the local tribal elders, 100,00 to 150,000.
(2) There was relatively good turnout in Zurmat’s district centre, Batur, Arma, Stogana, Muqarabkhail (areas close to the provincial capital and relatively accessible) as well as in Surkai, Nawe Kohi, Mamozai Clinic, Sarmastkhel, Rahmankhel, Hussein Hujra and Zor Kohi.
(3) Among the parties active in the south-eastern region, the ones that support Ashraf Ghani include: the Hezb-e Islami faction lead by Khaled Faruqi, Pir Gailani’s Mahaz-e Melli Islami, Hazrat Mojaddedi’s Jabha-ye Nejat, Afghan Mellat, the Rights and Justice Party (most prominent leader is former interior minister Hanif Atmar), Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami and the Thought and Action Jirga (De Fekr au Amal Jirga), an advocacy group with many prominent members and former interior minister Ali Jalali as chairman. The Hezb-e Islami faction lead by Arghandiwal supports Dr Abdullah; Hezb’s insurgent wing lead by Hekmatyar supports Helal; other Hezb factions (including the governor of Paktia, Hamdard) support Rassul.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020