Demonstration Elections in Afghanistan

Published in Z Magazine November, 2004

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.