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What I Saw While Afghanistan Voted

"Hope for the best, prepare for the worst." The view from a Chinook helicopter over Ghazni Province. (Photo by Stephen McInerney)

"Hope for the best, prepare for the worst." The view from a Chinook helicopter over Ghazni Province. (Photo by Stephen McInerney)

The day before the August 20 elections in Afghanistan, Ghazni Province Governor Osman Osmani’s prediction of an 80 percent voter turnout in his region seemed dubious. Considering the deteriorating security situation and Taliban threats against voters, an 80 percent turnout would be a sign of fraud, not voter enthusiasm.

Yet preparations were obviously being made for a “high turnout,” if not an honest one. According to one analysis, Ghazni had registered 50 percent more voters than was credible. This week, the country’s Electoral Complaints Commission threw out ballots from 27 polling stations in Ghazni Province and ordered recounts at other stations.

My colleague, Steve, and I arrived from Kabul via Blackhawk helicopter to observe the election a couple of days before the vote. The new ring road linking the capital to the south was not safe enough to drive. In Ghazni, we were based with a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) run by the Poles and the Americans.

The plan was for us to coordinate with U.S. officials to monitor the voting. As it turned out, they don’t travel without a military escort and, under election rules, military vehicles couldn’t go near the polling stations, where security was handled by the police. (Obviously, the Taliban don’t observe this prohibition.)

Meetings In Body Armor

We went to our meeting with the governor in body armor, escorted by impressive gentlemen from the U.S. military to the nearby OCC-P, the fortified coordination point for international coalition forces and the Afghan Army and police. Probably it was considered too dangerous to call on the governor at his office. Seeing as he’d survived three assassination attempts, including one when a suicide bomber flung himself across the windshield of a decoy car in the governor’s convoy, I thought this was a good call.

While waiting for the governor, we were told that one of his deputies, a district official, had raped a woman. According to the story, her husband then turned her over to the Taliban for indecency, or whatever it’s called, and they killed her. Initially suspended, the official was reappointed to his post. Hearing this, our Afghan interpreter announced his intention to emigrate and left the room in disgust.

Governor Osmani swept in with his entourage and shook everyone’s hand, including mine. In my opinion, Westerners worry way too much about whether Afghan men shake a woman’s hand or not. I don’t shake unless they offer. Sometimes they do. Once, a warlord put out his hand, and I shook it. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

Ballot boxes and other election materials awaiting transport. (Photo by Stephen McInerney)
The governor sat at one end of the prefab paneled room darkened against the sun by curtains the colors of the Afghan flag -- black, red, and green. He seemed a little harried under the circumstances, but smooth and charismatic. Things were going reasonably well, the governor said in good English. Considering the country was at war. True, he conceded, some election officials had abandoned their posts. In Nawa district on the Pakistan end of the province, there wouldn’t be any voting at all. Some election materials still hadn’t made it to the polling stations. He offered what may have been an Afghan proverb: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

While we couldn’t actually go to the polls, there was a lot of election-related action at the PRT. At the request of the Afghans, the PRT was working almost around the clock preparing the elections in remote and violent parts of the province. Steve and I flew by helicopter to a nearby district, to drop off election workers, cardboard voting booths, ballots, and ballot boxes.

I spent election day in the PRT’s Tactical Operations Center (TOC), reading news stories on my Blackberry, watching the feed from the aerostat, a blimp sending images of the area around the base, and getting reports from the OCC-P, where Steve was. My log of events begins:

06:50: Boom. Shop destroyed by rocket in Ghazni City.
07:05: Boom - FOB Vulcan [one of the Polish forward operating bases] rocketed.
07:24: Five rockets near Khogyani district (5:30 a.m.); three near district center.
07:26: Report of attacks on Rashidan district center. Request for air support.
07:40: Afghan military/police convoy of election materials attacked in Gelan district.

Midmorning, “The Wall Street Journal” reported two people had been lynched for voting in Kandahar.

Around then, someone came into the TOC wearing body armor and a helmet and said the security level was Dress Code 2. There was disagreement over whether Dress Code 2 meant helmets or no helmets indoors, but I put on my vest, which easily weighed 30 pounds, and sat back down.

Taking Cover

The day went on like that with reports of improvised explosive devices, raids on polling centers, and rocket attacks on Ghazni City. At the PRT, we only had to take cover in a bunker twice. A public address system had only just been set up, and the announcements were in Polish so no one knew if the siren was the signal to take cover or the “all clear.”

After a while, hearing no more explosions, people wandered out. At about 11 o’clock that night, someone ran down the hallway outside our rooms, calling for volunteers to help unload Afghan Army wounded coming in from an attack in one of the rougher districts. The number of casualties expected kept changing, and the arrivals were delayed because the evacuation helicopters had trouble getting into the landing zone to pick them up. Only a few soldiers came in and fortunately most could walk, but later on we learned the next group included a fatality.

A couple of days later, while we waited for our helicopter back to Kabul, we heard an explosion and saw a dust cloud on the other side of the airstrip. A contractor in a makeshift office had fortunately decided to visit the men’s room. When he came back, there was a neat hole in the back of his chair.

Expectations for the Afghan elections were less than modest. Even a low turnout would have been acceptable since, the thinking went, the Pashtun areas, which were most dangerous, would probably support Karzai anyway. But a very low turnout, estimated at 10 to 15 percent, combined with massive fraud and apparent official collusion, upset plans to build on a Karzai victory by drawing his rivals into government.

Still, I resist the temptation some feel to minimize the problems with the August vote.

“I am an American who lived through an imperfect election eight years ago,” U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke said in July, apparently referring to the 2008 U.S. presidential election. “I am not going to hold Afghanistan to standards which even the United States does not achieve.”

For my part, I think it would be a good thing if Afghanistan’s people waited peacefully for nearly six weeks while its supreme court settled the outcome of a contested election by ruling on the constitutionality of voting procedures in a decisive province.

The analyst Martine van Biljert called someone in Ghazni on the telephone. "How did the election go in Ghazni? Or how did it not go?” she asked him. He laughed. "No, no, there was an election. It took place in the governor's guesthouse, and in the compounds of the district governors, and in several houses. It's still ongoing."

Someone should have told the 10 to 15 percent who risked their lives by going to polling stations.

Ellen Bork is director of democracy and human rights at the Foreign Policy Initiative. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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