This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Afghanistan still awaits final results from the nationwide election held last month to fill the 249 seats of the lower house of Parliament. Deciding which of the more than 2,500 candidates won takes time because the Electoral Complaints Commission that investigates voting irregularities, made up of five men handpicked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was swamped by more than 4,200 complaints.
Last year, when Karzai himself ran for reelection, he busied himself with backroom deals, while his supporters were caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes and having a good laugh. Every Afghan knew that the president who had been foisted on them by foreigners in 2001 was stealing the election. Yet the international community, led by the United States, proclaimed the process if not exactly “free and fair,” at least “credible”—which is to say: Hey, what’s a little fraud among friends?
With that experience so fresh in memory, the current Electoral Complaints Commission went to work with unusual efficiency, resolving most complaints with unaccustomed speed. And last week the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, an oversight body also selected by President Karzai, announced that it would throw out as invalid almost a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast. Until that moment Afghans, who aspire to democracy, had hoped for a more honest election than the charade that returned Karzai to power in 2009. No such luck. The partial results of this one look just as bad as the presidential vote, with roughly the same percentage of ballots invalidated.
While dumping fraudulent votes may give the appearance of rigorous oversight, the numbers raise a new mystery: where did those votes come from? In the two days following the election last month, the running total of votes cast rose from 3.6 million to 4.4 million. Now, it has suddenly jumped again to 5.6 million—of which 1.3 million ballots have been discarded, leaving a total of 4.3 million valid votes. Election-watcher Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network described the attitude of the Independent Election Commission this way: “If you want to know where the additional votes came from: they were added fraudulently, now they have been removed, and that is really all you need to know.”
Perhaps noting that the fraud factor was holding steady, a spokesman for the Independent Election Commission declared that a level of fraud with more than one in five votes considered phony is “normal” in an election.
Thus do official bodies in Afghanistan’s widely advertised new democracy—the one for which our troops are fighting—smooth over all irregularities and make short work of making do, of overseeing elections as usual: not free, not fair, just good enough for Afghans.
But are they?
Without waiting for final results, what passes for “the international community” has already pronounced the elections a “success,” but an email from a parliamentary candidate, a woman I know named Mahbouba Seraj, tells a different story:
“I honestly don’t know from where to start. My frustration, disappointment, and anger are so great I am afraid they might get the better of me. I was involved in the first presidential election of Afghanistan in 2004 and the first parliamentary election in 2005, but oh how different those elections were. I won’t say they were better because they too were captured by the War Lords, Commanders, and criminals—just like this election—but the level of fraud and corruption was nothing compared to this. Those men used force and got elected by their rifles and machine guns, but this election was… unbelievable. I have no other word to use.”
Many “unbelievable” stories litter this election, but Seraj’s tale is especially instructive because, in the end, it is all too believable. In fact, it’s a pretty simple story of courageous idealism confounded by big men with money.
On the Campaign Trail
When I last saw candidate Seraj in Kabul, the Afghan capital, in July, she was about to leave for Nuristan Province to campaign. It was a brave undertaking. Nuristan lies in the northeast of the country, sandwiched between Panshir Province and Pakistan, along the southern face of the Hindu Kush, a monumental sub-range of the Himalayas. Its precipitous slopes and high valleys are so forbidding and remote that even Islam did not reach Nuristanis until the late nineteenth century, and they are to this day considered a unique people.
The Taliban move freely in Nuristan. In 2008, they almost overran a US base there, killing nine American soldiers. Then-Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal responded by withdrawing American troops from all four of their major bases in the province. The US military high command has given up on certain Afghan locales—in 2010, American troops notably left the deadly and unattainable Korengal Valley, not far from Nuristan—but never before to my knowledge had they given up on a whole province.
Nevertheless, Seraj, a woman of fierce energy, wanted to represent the people of the Duaba and Mondawel districts in western Nuristan, where her grandmother was born. She put it this way to me: “I believe in democracy so much. I want it so much for Afghanistan. I tell my constituents, ‘I don’t believe in buying votes as so many candidates do. Please give them to me willingly, because then you will have your representative in Parliament who will truly serve you.'”
Worried for her safety, I reminded her that, during the 2005 parliamentary campaign in her province, another female candidate, Hawa Nuristani, and several of her staff had been shot.
“Yes,” Seraj agreed, “but she survived, and she won.”
Mahbouba Seraj’s recent email about her election race was not meant for me alone. It was addressed this way: “To my beautiful and forgotten province and its lovely and amazing people.” It was an English translation of an open letter she had written to her constituents explaining why, in this important election, they had not been able to vote at all. Reading it made clear why she considered the election of 2010 even more outrageous than previous shameful Afghan escapades in electioneering and fraud.
In 2005, the men in power in Nuristan had tried to murder the candidate they opposed. Since then they have learned that the internationals—read Americans—will accept any results as long as the election process looks reasonably good. In 2010, far more sophisticated, they murdered democracy simply by killing time.
As Seraj wrote:
“First of all, Nuristan had not been made ready for an election. They didn’t have Army and police personnel to provide security as promised. Then the hard-working head of the election committee of Nuristan was fired two weeks before polling day because some powerful candidates complained about him to the Election Commission. The young man who replaced him seemed to have no idea what his job was, yet he made sure the ballot boxes didn’t get to Mondawel and Duaba districts, which very conveniently happened to be my constituencies.
“The most incredible part of the story is that this young man had the power to stop a plane that was ready to take off to deliver the ballot boxes. He refused to hand over the ballot boxes for Mondawel district to the official in charge of the district and the staff of armed men designated to carry the ballots through the mountains to all the remote polling centers in Mondawel. He created delays and made excuses for days until it was too late.”
Officials in Kabul were also well versed in the technique. When Seraj tried to contact the head of the Independent Election Commission in Kabul, she reported:
“His very polite assistant would talk to me and tell me, ‘I will ask Mr. So-and-so to call you back,’ but he never did. Finally, I had to leave Nuristan and come to Kabul to meet with him, but when I arrived for our appointment, he had left the city to take care of other problems, and somehow I had not been notified.
“That day I tried to get in touch with anyone I could think of who might be able to help—the Minister of Defense, the Head of the United Nations in Kabul, Mr. de Mistura, and other officials at UNAMA [The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan]—but everyone was engaged. By then I knew the level of fraud and corruption in Nuristan was going to hit the roof, and it did. Ballots were stolen from polling stations and scattered on the mountainsides or taken to people’s houses and filled out. To the last minute, people were offering to buy and sell voting cards and votes. What could we do? My campaign manager and I filled out complaints to the Election Complaints Commissions in both Nuristan and Kabul.”
Those complaints must now be among the thousands filed by people all over the country with similar disappointed dreams of real Afghan democracy—the very complaints now being so efficiently dealt with in Kabul even as disgruntled voters take to the streets of Herat, Kunduz, Paktia, Ghor, and other cities to protest mass disqualifications that seem to fall inequitably on certain areas or ethnic groups. Yet angry voters and candidates are turned away from the Election Complaints Commission with useless, unregistered receipts. Recognizing election proceedings that look “eerily familiar,” analyst van Bijlert notes: “the processes that are aimed at cleaning up the vote and dismissing fraudulent ballots have become so murky that they themselves are now widely seen as simply the next phase of manipulation.”
Mahbouba Seraj acquired her dreams of democracy from her ancestors—and from America. She is the granddaughter of Habibullah, who was the progressive amir or king of Afghanistan from 1901 to 1919, and the great granddaughter of Abdur Rahman, the amir of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901. He introduced Islam to Nuristanis, gave Afghanistan its present borders, and for the first time subdued its disparate tribes, bringing them under centralized rule. She is also the niece of Amanullah, the modernizing amir who ruled from 1919 to 1929, pioneering in the fields of education and women’s rights, winning a war against the British, and gaining the country its independence.
Seraj herself graduated from Kabul University before being thrown into prison with her family after the monarchy was overthrown in 1973. The family fled the country in 1978 before the impending Soviet invasion, and took refuge in the United States where, Seraj says, “I lived, learned, worked, and in the end buried both my parents.” Her life changed completely when she saw an Afghan video of the Taliban executing a woman, clad in a faded blue burqa, in Kabul Stadium where, as a girl, she had happily watched games of soccer and buzkashi—Afghan polo—and had once attended a concert given by Duke Ellington.
When the Taliban fell, she returned to Kabul and went to work as a volunteer. She trained young diplomats for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; she trained women parliamentary candidates in the arts of political campaigning and, after they were elected in 2005, in the arts of legislation. She also created and hosted a national public-service radio program called “Our Beloved Afghanistan,” and taught aspiring Afghan businesswomen at the American University of Afghanistan.
Then, last summer she went to Nuristan to campaign. To her supporters back in Kabul she then wrote:
“I want to help the most underserved people in the whole of Afghanistan, the Nuristanis. If only the world knew how these magnificent people live in these great valleys of Nuristan, without roads, schools, hospitals, electricity, or any of the basic necessities of life. The women of Nuristan do all the difficult physical work. They gather wood, they pick the fruit from the trees, they tend their animals and their children and their husbands, and they walk for miles, climbing steep mountains with huge loads on their backs and their kids in their arms. I want to be a voice for Nuristan. I want to put it back on the map of Afghanistan.”
In her most recent message to her constituents, she wrote:
“Now, I have no idea how the Election Complaints Commission is going to decide who has won this election. The ECC keeps saying, ‘We have criteria and will decide accordingly.’ But I wonder what criteria they will apply to candidates who have not received votes from their constituencies because some few people got paid to prevent the votes from being cast. Perhaps the government will abandon Nuristan, or perhaps it will pick its own winner and call this “A SUCCESSFUL AND JUST ELECTION SPECIALLY FOR NURISTAN PROVINCE, THE MOST BACKWARD, POOR, BEAUTIFUL, AND FORGOTTEN PROVINCE OF AFGHANISTAN.”
Such a conclusion might be good enough for many Afghans whose dreams of democracy faded even before last year’s presidential election when word first began to circulate nationwide that the fix was in for Karzai. At least it would be no more than they have come to expect from repeated exercises in counterfeit democracy staged, it seems, more for the benefit of international audiences (and voters) than for the Afghan electorate.
Here’s a question for Americans: Would such a conclusion be good enough for us? We are, after all, citizens of the democracy that installed the largely fundamentalist government of Afghanistan in the first place, labeled it “democratic,” and staged the first Afghan presidential election in 2004 with unseemly haste as George W. Bush eyed his own run for reelection. Assuming command in Afghanistan in 2010, General David Petraeus was careful to set American expectations low: “We’re not trying to turn Afghanistan into Switzerland in five years or less,” he said. “What’s good enough, traditional organizing structures and so forth are certainly fine.”
International apologists for “good enough” who foot the bill and stage Afghan elections no longer even pretend to aim for standards like those of Switzerland—standards that nonetheless enter the democratic dreams of a great many Afghans. They assume instead that Afghans naturally cheat. As it happens, Mahbouba Seraj does not. And while it may be unreasonable to expect perfection, the fact that Afghan elections grow ever more crooked as the years pass, and Afghan voters increasingly disillusioned, suggests that Afghans are learning to play (if they care to play at all) by what they take to be American rules.
Put yourself in the place of an Afghan for a moment. When you see photographs of President Karzai’s men stuffing ballot boxes, and an American president not only telephones to congratulate him on his victory, while admitting that the election was “a little messy,” but also sends more troops to shore up his government, what are you to make of it? What else could you make of it but that Americans are complicit in the whole corrupt and costly enterprise? If you were a Nuristani, eager to cast a vote for a splendid woman candidate, and the ballots never came, what in the world would you make of that?
If you were Mahbouba Seraj, believing fervently in democracy, such things might break your heart. If you are an American voter uneasy about the course of our democracy, well, maybe you ought to give some thought to this other Afghan democracy: the one we’ve set up, paid for, and sent our soldiers to fight for as an example to the world—a small but increasingly transparent replica of our own.
Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan and the just published War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out from the Ruins of War (Metropolitan 2010). Having returned temporarily from conflict zones, she is undergoing culture shock as a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University.