Afghanistan’s agents of anarchy were unable to stop millions of Afghanis from going to the polls last week. As leader of the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) election observer mission, it was my honor and privilege to witness brave Afghani men and women defy rising violence, threats, and other intimidations to vote for a better future.
Afghanistan has been at war for 30 years. Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan remains dire. Insurgent attacks are up. Coalition forces have increasing casualties. Opium trade and warlords are robust. The Taliban is expanding. Areas of the country are ungovernable. And a culture of corruption permeates the government.
Understandably, many Afghanis are disillusioned and cynical. Unbridled optimism unleashed by the fall of the Taliban characterized Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential election, the first in its history. I also was in Afghanistan then and witnessed the long lines and festive spirit at that vote, especially by the women who seemed to be breaking the shackles of the Taliban’s extreme and rigid rule. Eight million Afghanis went to the polls in the cities, the countryside, and rugged remote mountain areas. They celebrated their new freedom and seemed to feel they were making the world anew. But democracy is difficult in the best of circumstances and nearly impossible in an environment of grave insecurity.
For the first time candidates campaigned beyond their ethnic base. Some campaign rallies gathered as many as 100,000 people.
Afghanistan has experienced annual economic growth of over 5 percent. But most is a consequence of the large international presence and in this impoverished country there is alarmingly high unemployment and underemployment. Schools have been built, including girls’ schools, but many already are in disrepair or closed due to violence. Only 32 percent of Afghanis are literate (15 percent among women). And President Hamid Karzai has not brought government reform but a culture of ethnic Pashtun patronage, personal privilege, backroom deals, and widespread corruption. Afghanistan remains mired in deep ethnic divisions and a culture defined by the influence of powerful traditional tribal elders. These factors have dimmed the hopes and stolen the unbridled promise that had burst forth in the 2004 election.
Facing such enormous impediments, wariness and fear characterized the early stages of this year’s political campaign. The initial election date had to be postponed due to inadequate preparation. Anxiety grew. The 2004 presidential election and the 2005 vote for the National Assembly had been organized and run by the international community. This year it would be an Afghanistan-run election, severely straining the capacities of this struggling transitional society.
Nonetheless, the campaign proved extraordinary. Forty-one presidential candidates from all major ethnic groups presented themselves. For the first time candidates campaigned beyond their ethnic base. Some campaign rallies gathered as many as 100,000 people. Campaigns were not limited to personality and ethnicity, but for the first time there were discussions of issues. Perhaps most noteworthy, there were two presidential debates. The second debate, on August 16, included the head of state. There Karzai along with two of his major challengers presented themselves, listened to criticism, and answered questions. One out of every three Afghanis watched or listened to the debate. Nothing remotely like this sort of accountability had ever happened before. This activity engaged and energized Afghanis. Reputable polls reported a steep rise in voter interest.
I have observed early transitional elections in Russia, Cambodia, Nigeria, Liberia, and the 2004 Afghanistan election. The mechanics on election day last week in Afghanistan were on par with the best practices of any of these others.
But in the end the voter turnout was substantially depressed. Unquestionably the political terrain of election day was defined by the insurgents’ violence, threats, and intimidation. The Taliban had a notable measure of success. The legitimacy and acceptance of this vote consequently will be diminished.
In the weeks leading up to the election day, violent attacks spiked, including a car bombing near the headquarters of the International Security Armed Forces. The first night I was in Kabul two rockets sailed over my hotel and exploded nearby. On election day, according to the United Nations’ preliminary reports, there were 268 acts of violence around Afghanistan. Twenty-seven people were killed. There were reports of fingers cut off. Nonetheless, millions of Afghanis went to vote.
IRI election observer teams in flak jackets, traveling in armored-plated SUVs with armed guards, visited over 250 polling stations around the country. Uniformly, all reported witnessing what I had seen; election officials well-trained in the law and mechanics of voting procedures, orderly sites, a transparent process, and, at almost every site, Afghani political party observers—the best guard against skullduggery. I have observed early transitional elections in Russia, Cambodia, Nigeria, Liberia, and the 2004 Afghanistan election. The mechanics on election day last week in Afghanistan were on par with the best practices of any of these others.
President Karzai has not brought government reform but a culture of ethnic Pashtun patronage, personal privilege, backroom deals, and widespread corruption.
Given the rampant insecurity, the courage and commitment of these Afghani voters was all the more remarkable.
At a polling station in Kabul, I met a 21-year-old named Shafee. He lived briefly in Germany and studied in Moscow for two years. He has other options, but he has returned home. He told me, “I love my country. In this election, everyone has the right to vote like an independent person. Everyone will accept whomever is elected because they choose. I believe it will help bring peace. This is best for the younger generation.”
In this election, the merchants of murder, misery, and mayhem muffled the Afghani vote, but they did not stop the promise and possibility of freedom’s march. How far Afghanistan will travel down democracy’s path is as yet unknown. But the foundation for self-determination and responsible, responsive, representative government is stronger today than yesterday.
Ambassador Richard S. Williamson is a partner at Winston & Strawn. He served as an ambassador and U.S. representative in several capacities to the United Nations, as an assistant secretary of State, as assistant to the president for intergovernmental affairs in the White House for President Ronald Reagan, and as chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. In January 2008, he was appointed special envoy to Sudan by President George W. Bush