Voting in the Shomali - photo by courtesy of Victor J. Blue
The Shomali plain is the plateau spanning north of Kabul to the Salang. A fertile and comparatively rich area of the country, it also features strong political-armed networks dating back to the mujaheddin time. Fabrizio Foschini came back from observing the election in the Shomali with mixed feelings. The success achieved by Afghan security forces in providing security and managing the traffic blocks went together with the impression that the Shomali vote had frequently been facilitated and supervised by the many local commanders. It probably stopped short of blatant systemised fraud, but their say over the process and the vote appeared strong.
The swathe of land called Shomali (literally ‘the Northern’) has been a central part of Afghan economy and politics for the past couple of centuries. With a developed agriculture, it always constituted the orchard of Kabul, and with the opening of modern communication routes between northern and southern Afghanistan in the 1960s, its location as the ‘gate to the North’ became even more strategic. It was the theatre of fierce battles during first the jihad and, then especially the conflict between the Northern Alliance and the Taleban, with episodes of scorched earth reprisals carried out by the latter. Despite this, the local population has been able to substantially replant vineyards and reconstruct its economy in the past thirteen years, benefiting from the presence of the Bagram airbase and proximity to the capital. A big role in this respect has been played by the local commanders’ networks which were able to access the logistics and security businesses and, more generally, to maintain previous or establish new links to major powerbrokers in Kabul.
The Shomali’s importance in an Afghan election cannot be underestimated. The area is a good reservoir of votes, a strategic one for one of the major candidates, Dr Abdullah, but where also another contender, Ustad Sayyaf, has pockets of consistent support and has been campaigning effectively in the past months. Despite its being not far from Kabul and generally stable, this year not many international observers were allowed to visit it because of security concerns.
Another factor contributed to making the Shomali a less immediate choice for electoral observation. The threats to the security in the capital had caused the creation of an additional multi-layered security belt around the city. To prevent potential insurgent attacks, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) enforced a block on all incoming traffic on election day. So if you could drive beyond the traditional “Welcome/Farewell to Kabul” checkpoint at Kariz-e Mir, you could not bet on being easily able to make your way back into the city. Inbound traffic movement was to be re-opened at some point in the afternoon of polling though and so thousands of cars hopeful of making their way into Kabul were expected to crowd and block all available lanes, already partially occupied by the trucks waiting there since the previous day. This dire prospect, which turned out to be only too true, was enough to turn away many possible foreign electoral observers – even though observers were allowed back into the city whenever they wanted to. Actually, with the small precaution of getting the telephone number of the exit checkpoint commander in the morning and, in the afternoon, doing a lot of walking up and down the line of vehicles to rally the police to make the waiting cars give way, we managed to sneak in through the mess with only a reasonable lapse of time. (1)
Back to our outward journey: past Kariz-e Mir, there was still a mass presence of security forces – almost the same frequency of uniformed men on the road leading north to Charikar as in Kabul – which meant there was no obvious gap between the city and the rural districts. In the whole of the Shomali proper (2), security was to be good throughout the day. The only incident was an IED explosion outside a shop in Qarabagh. The blast hurt no-one and, happening at 7.30, the average opening time of polling centres, was possibly meant to scare some voters into staying home. It is also possible that, rather than this being the work of insurgents trying to disrupt the overall vote, some local faction had arranged the explosion in order to ‘take care’ of the empty pre-voting ballot sheets in female polling stations (womenfolk are most likely to be required to stay home if the security situation outside is not ideal). However, beyond the soldiers and policemen guaranteeing security on the main road, it was the deployment of an additional set of armed men of local origin, often actually inside the polling centres, which created a very different atmosphere compared to that in Kabul.
At the first centre we entered, in Mir Bacha Kot district, we were received with surprise and seeming alarm. Inside, though, there was nothing particularly strange. Vote rates were perfectly normal for morning time, although it was puzzling that Dr Abdullah should have had two observers on the men’s side and Ustad Sayyaf two on the women’s. But then, stealing the stage from any consideration of voters or observers, came the sudden appearance of a short-legged, bull-necked man dressed in a black piran o tomban, military jacket and pakol. His expression of astonishment at seeing us equalled that of somebody seeing exotic animals trotting into his yard. His stoned-looking, utterly unfriendly gaze was to be unchanged all the time we were there. Through his expressionless mien I thought I could read a loud: “Foreigners?! How could this have happened to me?”
I realised just how bewildered he must have been only after hearing his name and realising he was a local commander linked to Amanullah-e Gozar, the present MP from Kabul province and self-proclaimed head of a council of the Koh Daman, the region roughly covering the south-western half of the Shomali plateau. The MP has a long-term connection with the Jamiat-e Islami under which he fought in the Afghan wars, but he has recently been showing support for Sayyaf’s ticket, too. The big poppy-palace-style building that lies just beside the school of Pul-e Sofian was in fact his sub-commander’s mansion. We had basically stepped inside the latter’s own polling courtyard before he was even aware of us.
In light of this, it was quite understandable why this qommandan was ordering everybody in the polling centre around: he was behaving as if at home. The NDS officer-in-charge who had let us in and the Independent Election Commission (IEC) official responsible for the site hurriedly gave him reassurances that our female colleagues were not taking pictures on the women’s side and that respectable numbers of votes were being cast as per schedule. Throughout, his bodyguards looked suspiciously at us. He finally saw us off with relief, but without succeeding in changing his expression. Seldom had I been reminded of rural Badakhshan – which is real commanders’ land amidst wild mountains – so vividly and so close to the gates of Kabul.
Next stop was a high school in Kalakan which, on paper, should have had two polling centres on opposite sides of the main road with two male and two female stations each, but which seemed to have evolved into a single polling centre with three male polling stations on one side of the road (one hurriedly arranged in a detached and rather decaying building) and just one female station on the other side.
There we witnessed the arrival of a whole delegation of finely-dressed local notables who had come en masse to vote for their favoured provincial council candidate. This was of course a perfectly acceptable display of support. However, there was also a rather illegal ‘show of force’ visible at the level of the candidates’ observers or ‘agents’ as they are also called. Indeed, in most of the polling stations we visited in Mir Bacha Kot and Kalakan, some of the provincial council candidates had more than the one agent stipulated by the Electoral Law. This was always explainable in terms of some sort of proximity that the particular candidate had to Amanullah-e Gozar or to other similar commanders-turned-politicians: one was a former lieutenant of his (and had three agents per station), the other was a teacher but had married into his family and so on…
All these small irregularities added to the impression of a vote substantially managed by local rules and balances of power. Also not so positive was the fact that independent domestic observers were scarce beyond the limits of Kabul city. We met with no other independent observers until we reached Istalif where a female observer from the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) was duly in place. Istalif, the beautiful hill resort which foreigners and Afghans associate more with weekend outings, trekking, restaurants and pottery, has been the focus of successful international assistance projects and possesses a diversified economy which has arguably allowed its residents to stay much clearer of the power-hungry commanders’ networks which are so strong elsewhere in the Shomali.
And there we went in search of our ‘Swiss election’. Indeed, the polling sites in Istalif looked well-organised, although quite empty because it was lunchtime. There was a far more varied selection of candidate observers present, not just the agents for Abdullah and Sayyaf we had seen elsewhere, but also for Ashraf Ghani and Qutbuddin Helal.
The village was as quiet and beautiful as usual and political fault lines seemed the least concern of a community that had clearly shown a preference for Dr Abdullah in the past election, although with a minimum minority vote for Karzai. However, just when we were about to leave, the sudden arrival of a local police officer with a large number of initially very aggressive escorts arrived, apparently to check what a handful of foreign electoral observers were doing in Istalef. This left us with a strange feeling. It was only when back in Kabul and online that I was to learn that, according to this Pajhwok article, even in that little Eden of Istalif, and probably shortly after we left, somebody had used his gunmen to try to intimidate people into voting for specific candidates and had even threatened Afghan reporters who were present.
The 2014 elections in the Shomali were a success for the ANSF and for those people who participated and could cast their vote as they wanted. I am sure they were in the majority. I am also personally sure the elections will prove a success for the local powerbrokers who ran the show that day, who facilitated their favourite provincial council candidates before and during the vote and are likely looking to receive economic benefits from the presidential candidates for whom they campaigned and, in the polling centres where they had some influence, ensured good turnouts for. Bear, in mind, some of the local strongmen may have pragmatically split their support between the two main contenders for the area (in this case, Dr Abdullah and Ustad Sayyaf, elsewhere the names might be those of different candidates), to avoid unnecessary competition and potential violence. At the end of the day, I wished there was a different type of average political activist in Shomali than the qommandanha who, having been tough and often roguish fighters for the best part of their lives, remain, even thirteen years into the post-Taleban ‘peace’, really quite scary. Maybe a generational change will help.
In the meantime, to future electoral observers willing to take a look at the elections outside Kabul city, here are two pieces of advice: do call the police commander of the city gates checkpoint as pre-arranged so as not to get stuck in the traffic jam, but don’t call on the local qommandan without warning him, or you might risk getting stuck in something far more unpleasant.
(1) Indeed, the ANSF deserve my lasting respect for having proved rather cooperative at a moment when, in their shoes, I would have assessed the need for foreign observers as a rather baroque one. (We were all tired after a day of elections, but they had guns in their hands)
(2) Prolonged clashes took place in Siyagerd district of Parwan province, but that part of the Ghorband valley does not belong strictly speaking to the Shomali region, and has an already long history of conflict and insecurity. The same can be said for Tagab district of Kapisa province, also the site of clashes on elections day, where the ethnic composition is furthermore different from the intermingled majority Tajik/minority Pashtun of the Shomali plateau.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020