Elections in Afghanistan


Now
that the October 9 U.S.- sponsored Afghan presidential elections
are over, a huge sigh of relief is probably being heaved in Washington.
As of this writing, the vote counting has not yet begun and, according
to news outlets, the outcome will not be known for at least two
weeks. But the Bush administration got a huge boost for two reasons. 

First,
people came out to vote in large numbers. If even half of the 10.5
million people who are reported to have registered actually voted,
then the act of voting was an incredible achievement in a country
where elections for head of state have never occurred. Despite rampant
violence prior to the election and threats of violence during—and
despite a history of war and destruction—the Afghan people
were hopeful that the elections would improve their lives. A September
2004 report by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium
describes interviews with over 700 Afghans “not heard or heeded
in the corridors of power.” Many of those interviewed reflected
the belief that the elections would improve things significantly.
One woman in Kandahar said, “If the new government is fair,
it will bring great changes to our lives. We will feel more secure;
women will be able to work without any fear; our country will be
free from bad people.” A man in Kabul expressed the hope that,
“If there is a permanent government, the guns will be collected
[and] people will have jobs. Afghanistan will be a safe, comfortable
society.” 

The
second reason the Bush administration received a boost is that the
anti-election violence threatened by the Taliban and other groups
largely did not materialize, due to a heavy military and police
presence. There were only “scattered rocket and grenade explosions
across the country and a smattering of attacks on election sites,”
according to the Los Angeles Times (October 10, 2004). “A
great thing happened in Afghanistan,” Bush said. “Freedom
is beautiful. Freedom is on the march.” 

Also
on the march were soldiers. The United States and Afghan governments
deployed over 100,000 security personnel (mostly Afghan, with 18,000
U.S.troops and 7,000 NATO forces backing them up) to polling places
and at checkpoints on important roads. The deployment was part of
“a sophisticated, nationwide security strategy.” In a
year in which security has been “deteriorating,” according
to NATO public relations, with the number of violent attacks steadily
increasing, people should be asking why the U.S. waited until the
election to show that all along it could have brought desperately
needed security to the country. It is unlikely that this security
will remain once the vote-counters finish their job. 

Despite
U.S. propaganda, the Afghan elections were not an opportunity for
real democratic choice, they were an act of extortion. Bush took
advantage of the Afghan people’s hope for a better future by
offering them a cruel choice between two possibilities: a U.S.-controlled
Hamid Karzai government with fascist fundamentalist warlords in
subordinate positions; or a government completely controlled by
the warlords. Of the 15 candidates challenging incumbent President
Karzai on October 9, most were either warlords (the second-most
likely winner was Northern Alliance commander Yunus Qanooni) or
had serious connections to warlords. 

Furthermore,
none of the candidates had Karzai’s access to U.S. government
aid, such as it is. Indeed, the blackmail has paid off: exit polls
show that Karzai will likely win more than the 50 percent of votes
required to avoid a runoff. Shahir, the head of the Kilid media
group, describes the importance of the elections to him: “I
see a chance even if I know that most of the game is fake and most
people are unaware of their rights. But this is the first step in
the process. Our warlords will see how much they are ‘cherished’
by the people.” 

It
would be a mistake to say Afghans were charmed by Karzai. Rather,
they decided to pick “anybody but warlords.” 

Given
Karzai’s record over the past three years, it is unlikely that
he will be able to improve the lives of Afghans without drastic
changes in U.S. policy. After decades of war and poverty, Afghanistan
lacks the basic building blocks of civil society such as roads,
schools, hospitals, adequate housing, etc. Security is likely to
worsen as U.S. troops return to their hunt for “terrorists.”
With a weak economy and outside donations slowing to a trickle,
the infrastructure that Afghanistan needs to survive, let alone
flourish, is nowhere in sight. 

Most
Afghans agree that, since the fall of the Taliban, security has
been the most serious problem. The Revolutionary Association of
the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) complains, “The president is
being protected by U.S. bodyguards, but who will protect the vulnerable
innocent people from the bullets of the warlords?” The violence
of tyrannical warlords, Taliban terrorism, and U.S. raids in the
southeast hamper every aspect of people’s lives, including
their freedom of movement, distribution of aid, and the safety of
women, who remain special targets. The two most formidable military
powers in the country are (1) “coalition” forces (mostly
U.S. troops) and (2) heavily armed private militias led by unaccountable
warlords. While the former does nothing but hunt for “terrorists”
in the southeast and buy the “hearts and minds” of villagers
with aid, the latter frequently turn their guns on the Afghan people.
The antidote to insecurity as proposed by the U.S. government has
been the training of the Afghan National Army, meant to empower
the central government of Hamid Karzai to secure the country. But
with AK47 rifles a common sight on Afghan streets, a national army
is still meaningless. After three years the ANA is only 13,000 strong,
less than 20 percent of its intended size, and still much smaller
than the private militias of warlords like Ismail Khan. Even though
Khan was recently fired from his post as governor of Herat, he was
allowed to keep his 30,000 troops. One important solution to the
problem of insecurity, disarmament, is not being taken seriously
by the U.S. The UN disarmament effort has been dubbed a “big
failure” by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit. 

The
Afghan economy is also in shambles, largely because of the security
situation. In particular, the largest single component of the economy
is the booming warlord-controlled drug trade. Afghanistan’s
legal economy is more or less controlled by the central government
now that Ismael Khan is no longer governor of Herat. But this is
so small that the presidential elections were a large expenditure,
costing the country 10 percent of its annual revenue. The illegal
trade in opium earns 8 times more than the government takes in as
tax revenue. Thus the warlords are better financed than the central
government, making it extremely difficult to pry them from power,
regardless of who wins the election. In order to address the economic
incentives of poppy cultivation to affect the warlords’ financial
base and their consequent political power, Karzai will have to significantly
undermine the drug trade. This is unlikely since drug production
has wildly increased under his tenure and there is every indication
that the trend will continue. 

A
White House press release cites as part of Bush’s “record
of achievement” the fact that Afghanistan is now a country
in which women can vote for president. Laura Bush told the Republican
National Convention, “look at Afghanistan for an example of
women who were totally disenfranchised in every way, who weren’t
even allowed to leave their homes and now a lot of them are registered
to vote in their election.” But even if the ability of women
to cast votes was fully realized on October 9 (and it was not),
it has little bearing on their day-to-day lives. With sexual violence
at an all time high, maternal mortality rates still at epidemic
levels, and education denied to married women, Afghan women have
become pawns in Bush’s re-election bid. Decades of fundamentalist
forces being empowered by the U.S., Pakistan, and other allies have
either preserved or worsened patriarchal attitudes—leaving
women oppressed within their own families. Amnesty International
has documented very high levels of forced or underage marriages,
imprisonment for those who escape them, “chastity checks”
for women by roving street teams, and self-immolation by traumatized
women. These incidents are at markedly higher rates than during
the Taliban’s reign. Karzai has been unable and, in some cases,
unwilling to address such issues in the past three years and has
instead condoned oppressive values by encouraging men to control
their wives’ votes. Further, he has appointed a religious extremist
as chief justice, with the result that the constitution and its
relationship to Islam are interpreted in the most misogynist ways.
In post-election Afghanistan, given the trajectory over the last
three years, there is little hope for women. 

U.S.
government and media pundits have sold the elections as a test of
the ability of Afghans to embrace democracy. The secretary general
of NATO said, “The enthusiasm with which the Afghan people
went to the polls is an unmistakable sign that they are ready to
take forward the democratic process.” Now that the Afghans
are deemed “ready” to make their own decisions, the U.S.
may claim even less responsibility for what happens. International
attention is likely to wane, isolating the nation even more.The
Afghan elections may represent a success for the Bush model of imposing
imperial “democracy” via bombs and war, but they are a
dismal failure by any real standard of democracy.


Jim Ingalls and
Sonali Kolhatkar are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission.
Ingalls is a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California
Institute of Technology. Kolhatkar is host and co-producer of “Uprising,”
a daily public affairs program on KPFK.