Last week, amidst the threat of widespread violence, millions of heroic Afghans went to the polls and cast their vote in their country’s presidential and provincial elections.
Thanks to the International Republican Institute (IRI), I was a witness to this historic election as a member of their international election observation mission, one of several international delegations that were in Afghanistan to monitor the elections. This was the third election in the nation’s history and the first ever led by the Afghans.
In its 25-year history, IRI has monitored more than 130 elections in 42 countries. In 2004, they were the only western non-governmental organization to sponsor an observer mission to Afghanistan’s first presidential election. They also supported the Afghans during their first parliamentary elections in 2005. Like IRI, I have great confidence in the Afghan people as forward-looking and determined to build a stable, democratic Afghanistan.
This was my fourth trip to Afghanistan in the last four years but my first as an election monitor. At the first Kabul polling center I visited, an elderly man working as the polling station manager noticed my camera and gestured for me to take a photo of him smiling broadly, proudly holding his voter registration card, and displaying his outstretched inked finger. Before departing that center I saw a young woman leaving the female section of the polling station to join her waiting husband who watched over their baby while she voted. She was reluctant to answer my question, but through the help of our interpreter and at the urging of her husband she told me it was her first time to vote. It was an encouraging sign that they came together as a family to vote.
At the Habiba High School polling center, I visited two female polling stations. The station managers were proud they participated in three days of training by the Afghan Independent Election Commission to be certified as a poll worker. They took their role seriously and were extremely diligent in following the procedures of recording my observation card number and securing my signature for their log.
At the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque, I watched a steady but light stream of male voters enter the polling station. I paid particular attention to a gentleman who attempted to enter the site but was stopped by the polling manager for lack of a voter registration card. For nearly thirty minutes the would-be voter made every attempt to cast a ballot by presenting other forms of identification. In an encouraging example of protecting the integrity of the election, the polling manager refused his entry.
At that same mosque, I visited the women’s section and was told by a female voter that her friends had been calling around to each other after they saw television coverage of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah arriving with his wife for both of them to vote that morning. She told me it inspired her friends to come out and vote despite the intimidation and fear they faced. She was disappointed to hear that only 50 women had voted at that site and said that this should have been a busy polling place. She was angry that the security environment in contributed to Afghans’ fears of going to the polls — particularly the Afghan women.
IRI’s 29 international delegates and 40 short-term domestic observers visited more than 250 polling stations throughout the country. The preliminary statement we released on Friday, August 21 praised the Afghans for their pre-election process of first-ever debates, private media coverage that was generally balanced, and pre-election administration that was organized and orderly in the face of challenges such as delivering ballots and ballot boxes and voting materials to remote villages by donkey.
We will be following the post-election vote counting and complaint adjudication process, which will be crucial for the voters’ continued faith in the electoral process, before arriving at a final assessment of the elections.
Nevertheless, this was an important moment for Afghanistan’s fragile democracy and we were encouraged by the voter’s resilience and perseverance. It’s hard to not be inspired by the people of this country and I am grateful to have been able to join in the effort to support them during this critical time in their young democracy.
Afghans are worried that the international community is losing interest in supporting them at this time. At our Kabul hotel today, I was reminded why they still need our help. There I met a 19- year-old Afghan young man who was the victim of land mines at age 16. He was crossing a field while carrying firewood for his mother to cook dinner for their family. He told me the unbelievable story of how he stepped on a mine, lost his leg and was tossed in the air only to land on another mine and lose the other leg. He spent nearly 4 months in the hospital. He was later brought to California for more than a year of rehabilitation and to be fitted with prosthetics. He removed one of the prostheses to show me that inside it is painted with the American flag.
He worries about security in Afghanistan but he is determined to finish school and go to university and become a doctor so that he, too, can help people. Every day after school he works at the hotel in exchange for swimming in their pool to get the exercise that eases his discomfort and makes him strong. He is proud of his progress and wants to work hard to improve his life. He told me that his mother prays for Americans every day in gratitude for helping her son. I am glad I met this young man before I left Afghanistan and I pray that he and his fellow citizens can someday enjoy the freedoms we Americans are blessed to have everyday.
Anita McBride is the former chief of staff to former first lady Laura Bush and is a member of the U.S. Afghan Women’s Council, a public-private partnership committed to improving the lives of Afghan women and children.