Our delegation of election observers threaded our way around barriers before we entered Kabul’s streets. We saw Afghans engaged in ordinary activities — buying fruit, checking cell phone messages, engaging customers — but there was a dilapidated pall hanging over the dusty, colorless city. In the August heat, there was little green and few trees in the city or on the surrounding hills.
Five years earlier, the International Republican Institute, a not-for-profit democracy promotion organization located in Washington, DC, had observed Afghanistan’s first presidential election. That election, which current president Hamid Karzai won, signaled that Afghanistan, with help from the international community, might be able to turn the corner on two decades of invasion, civil war and oppressive Taliban rule. The stakes for Afghanistan’s second presidential election on Aug. 20 were just as high: Would Afghans continue to develop their nascent democracy by participating in the election?
As IRI observers for the Aug. 20 election, we were keenly aware that the Obama administration had made Afghanistan a top foreign policy objective, that 20,000 additional U.S. troops were arriving to bolster the fight against a resurgent Taliban, and that the security situation had gotten much worse in the past several months. Our mission was to make an impartial assessment of the extent to which the election was held in a democratic manner. That would mean visiting polling stations around the country, collecting information and then making a statement to the press on what we had seen.
We got daily security updates prior to deploying 15 election observer teams to six cities, including Kabul. The teams needed the latest information because they had to be transported between polling stations to observe how well Afghan election workers opened the polling stations, processed voters and closed the voting. The day before our arrival a car bomb had gone off down the street from our hotel near the headquarters of the international forces which are fighting the insurgents. Seven civilians were killed and more than 90 injured.
Most ominous for the election was the Taliban’s announcement during the week that they would attack polling stations in a bid to deter Afghans from voting. As late as election morning IRI’s leadership was still not sure if we would be able to do our job. But calculations and adjustments were made — like limiting the amount of time at polling stations and changing our travel patterns — and we eventually ventured out into all cities except for one.
We saw courageous Afghans come to the polls to cast votes and get their finger marked with ink, which some voters then held up proudly for photographs despite Taliban threats to cut off any ink stained fingers. Polling stations workers performed their duties in a competent way. We witnessed how Afghans, energized by the first competitive presidential campaign in history, had put up candidate posters and listened for the first time to debates between presidential candidates.
Yes, there were negatives as well. There were no voter lists and thus no way to track voter turnout and whether it had been inflated by excessive distribution of voter registration cards. Suspiciously, in the traditional south, where women were reportedly discouraged to vote by their families and communities, we heard that voter registration for women was as high an anywhere in the country, thus raising the possibility of using the cards to ballot stuff. But, ultimately, as IRI weighed the different factors which contributed to the election, including the campaigning and voting, we credited Afghans on election day. with having the determination to press forward with a democratic process while risking their lives.
There are obstacles ahead. The vote counting must be done in a transparent way, and complaints will have to be settled through the proper legal channels. If a second round of voting will be needed to determine a president, there will be the same security challenges. But for a day, at least, a troubled nation was able to hold up their fingers as a testament to their desire to build a more democratic society. And we were fortunate to be witnesses.
Jeff Lilley is a former reporter for The News Sun. He works for the International Republican Institute in Washington, DC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org