Elections, US-Style

Early estimates have it that between 30 and 35% of registered voters voted in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections yesterday. This compares with about 75% of registered voters in last October’s presidential elections. Already, people have realized that very little will change by voting, and a lot are probably worrying that things could get worse if they vote for the wrong people. The political parties law, set up by Hamid Karzai under the guidance of former US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad (now ambassador to Iraq), favors warlords, since it states that candidates for office cannot be listed by party affiliation. Those who wanted to vote against warlords as a bloc had to figure out each candidate individually (out of the tens running in each province).

Abdul Makin, a polling organizer in Kabul, chose not to vote, because

Warlords destroyed our country and now the ballot is full of them. I didn’t vote because I wasn’t sure any of the candidates are honest. Last year, there were long queues of people waiting to vote. Today we’re seen none of that.

But, we are reminded by current ambassador from the US Ronald Neumann, voter apathy and the hijacking of democracy by unaccountable power is normal:

In America, only half of the people vote. If people are getting a little more used to elections, then maybe Afghanistan is turning into a normal country.[1]


  1. Associated Press

Giving Democracy a Bad Name

Afghanistan’s Parliamentary Elections

Published in Foreign Policy In Focus on September 16, 2005

by Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls

The United States has supposedly created new “democracies” in Afghanistan and Iraq, but these endeavors give democracy a bad name. Sure, the two countries have some ingredients of representative democracy, such as elected officials and a constitution. But both countries are still beset by grinding poverty, insurgencies, and entrenched militia forces that make the exercise of democracy either impractical or dangerous. Both countries have high numbers of foreign troops occupying their land and terrorizing the population while hunting “terrorists” And both countries’ governments answer to their respective U.S. ambassador on most issues. In the midst of such a violent and coercive environment, Afghans are pressing ahead with the latest in a series of “democratic” exercises imposed by the United States: the first Afghan parliamentary elections in four decades will take place this Sunday, September 18. Even though many Afghans hope that the elections will empower them to end their troubles, the fear is that the elections will probably be as undemocratic in practice as every other U.S.-inflicted Afghan institution.

Entrenching Warlord Rule?

Warlords, most of whom have past or present U.S. backing, still rule much of the countryside and will play a big role in the elections. A survey by the Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (HRRAC) found that a majority of Afghans are fearful that the elections will be used by the “commanders,” to cement their power. One respondent said, “The only concern that we have is commanders’ misuse of their power.”1 According to election rules, any individuals commanding private armies are to be disqualified. In July, the Electoral Complaints Commission (EEC) drew up a list of 208 “blacklisted” candidates who had ties to illegal armed groups. As of this week, only 45 lower profile candidates have actually been disqualified from running. Meanwhile, warlords like Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, whose criminal past has been documented by groups like Human Rights Watch, are openly running for seats in the Parliament. So are former Taliban officials, like the ex- deputy interior minister Mullah Khaksar.

U.S.-backed president Hamid Karzai has defended the right of warlords to run for parliament, in the interests of “national reconciliation.” This is just the latest in a series of concessions that Karzai has made to warlords. Last October, he ran for president on an ostensibly anti-warlord platform, saying, “Private militias are the country’s greatest danger.” To back up his rhetoric, Karzai sacked two warlords in his cabinet and pretended to fire Ismail Khan by removing him from the post of governor of Herat. After he won the elections, Karzai appointed Khan Minister of Energy, and brought in the feared warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, former Defense Minister and presidential candidate, as Afghanistan’s Army Chief of Staff. U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad (now ambassador to Iraq) endorsed Karzai’s decision, commenting in March that the “decision to give a role to … regional strongmen is a wise policy.” In addition, Karzai’s government has promised former Taliban fighters immunity from prosecution for war crimes. Under this program, initiated with the approval of the United States, even Mullah Omar, the notorious Taliban chief, would be granted immunity if he recants his ways.2

Widespread Violence

Besides the repression of entrenched warlords, violence carried out by “remnants” of the Taliban, al-Qaida, or other Afghan formations, as well as U.S. soldiers, is making it harder for Afghans to exercise their democratic rights. More than 1,000 people, including civilians, have been killed in Afghanistan this year alone. It has been the bloodiest year for the U.S. military, with 65 soldiers killed since January 2005. In addition to the U.S. and international troops, anti-government groups have targeted moderate Islamic clerics, government officials, foreign aid workers, and people involved with the upcoming elections. Citizens have been killed for carrying voter registration cards, electoral workers have been attacked, and candidates, particularly women, have received death threats. A total of 6 candidates and 4 election workers have been killed.

Although much of the violence is an attempt to disrupt elections, the U.S. military attributes this year’s dramatic increase in fatalities partly to its own violent provocation. According to the magazine Stars and Stripes, “the recent surge in fighting could be attributed more to American aggressiveness than anything al-Qaida is doing.” U.S. troops have conducted “a series of operations in areas where U.S. presence has been minimal or nonexistent” to try to provoke attacks on themselves and thereby catch “terrorists” in the act. “I think we’re initiating the overwhelming majority of the actions,” said Brigadier-General James Champion. The attackers “would not be firing the first shots if we weren’t in the area.”3

The U.S. troop presence is something a truly democratic Afghanistan would surely eliminate or curtail. In July, over 1,000 demonstrators outside the main U.S. base at Bagram called for an end to arbitrary house break-ins and arrests and for treating Afghans with more dignity. This was the largest protest since a wave of anti-U.S. demonstrations across the country in May led to 16 deaths. During his May 2005 visit to the United States, President Karzai requested more Afghan control over U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the handing over of Afghan prisoners, and the end of home searches without government permission, all of which were rejected. U.S. president George W. Bush told Karzai, “Of course, our troops will respond to U.S. commanders.”

A recent report by the Kabul-based Afghanistan Justice Project cited “grave abuses” by U.S. troops, “many of them of the same sort used by their counterparts in the communist, mujahidin, and Taliban regimes that preceded them.” These include “crude and brutal” methods of torture that have sometimes led to death and the use of secret detention facilities that facilitate torture; and unacknowledged detentions that are tantamount to “disappearances.” Particularly relevant to the parliamentary elections, the report concludes that “U.S. forces have jeopardized prospects for establishing stable and accountable institutions in Afghanistan, have undermined the security of the Afghan people … and have reinforced a pattern of impunity that undermines the legitimacy of the political process.”4

What Will Change?

Given current conditions, many analysts are suggesting that the September 18 elections will probably result in very little change. There will be 5,800 candidates running for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People), and 34 representatives on provincial councils. Rules set up by Karzai, with the approval of the United States, allow political parties, but disallow the party affiliations of candidates to be printed on electoral ballots. In other words, 5,800 candidates are running as independents. Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group predicts that the assembly will be a “weak and fractured, possibly even paralyzed body.” Barnett Rubin of New York University says that the elections won’t make much of a difference because, “Until Afghanistan has a functioning, legal economy and basic institutions, there’s nothing really for a parliament to do except act as a kind of puppet platform for people’s views.”

Even so, about half the Afghan population has registered to vote and expects important changes to come from these elections. The elections have the potential to be the most democratic events in Afghanistan since the budding of women’s, student, and leftist organizations in the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, there is a slim possibility of the civilian, non-fundamentalist majority in Afghanistan gaining a measure of political power. Women have 68 seats reserved for them as per the new constitution, guaranteeing at least some non-patriarchal views in the assembly.5

In a recent trip to Afghanistan we interviewed Noorani, the editor of a weekly Kabul-based newspaper, Rozgharan, who described three groups that will be represented in the parliamentary elections: “Firstly, Karzai and his technocrats, another group belonging to Qanooni, Dostum, and Mohaqiq, [warlords] and the third: a group of intellectuals, who are unhappy with the failure of Karzai and the warlords.” He complained that the third group had no support from the world community. In addition, they have little economic power and are under threat from the warlords.

Among this third group, there are numerous parties organizing against fundamentalism and for social justice and democracy. The Solidarity Party of Afghanistan, for example, criticizes both Karzai and the warlords. We met with one of the party representatives, Wasay Engineer, who told us that his party has members in 25 of Afghanistan’s 35 provinces. The party’s platform is based on “women’s rights, democracy, and secular society, a disarming of the country, and freedom of the press.” Between 30 and 40% of its members are women. The Solidarity Party is putting up about 30 candidates for the Parliamentary elections “to show that there are some in Afghanistan who still work for the people.” Engineer says that the Solidarity Party is not alone—they are part of a forum of 16 anti-fundamentalist parties throughout the country.
We also met independent candidates. Malalai Joya and Qasimi represented the province of Farah at the Constitutional Loya Jirga in December 2003. Both live under threat to their lives because of their outspoken criticism of the warlords. Qasimi did not allow us to photograph him and uses a pseudonym to protect himself. He says he has been threatened many times by the government, police, and security forces.

Malalai Joya became famous overnight when she caused an uproar at the Constitutional Loya Jirga by denouncing fiercely the warlords who were present, saying they “turned our country into the nucleus of national and international wars … [They are] the most anti-women people in the society who brought our country to this state.” She told the assembly, “They should be taken to national and international court.” ( Los Angeles Times, December 23, 2003) Now Joya wears a burqa to disguise herself when she travels and has six full time security guards. Her house and office were attacked by armed men after her speech at the Constitutional meeting. But she has no intention of disappearing from public life, believing her activism will inspire others. In her office she posed for a photo in front of a poster with the following words: “If I arise, then you will arise, we will all arise.”

Washington likes to highlight its contributions to Afghanistan’s progress toward “democracy,” but U.S. actions in the name of democracy undermine real democracy-building. After having hopes of a fundamentalist-free government crushed many times over by Karzai, many ordinary Afghans consider the parliamentary elections their last chance to exercise some power over their lives. But many activists realize that their fight for justice will not end with elections. Malalai Joya promised us, “Whether I will be a member of parliament or not, I will continue my struggle while my enemies, meaning the enemies of the country, are alive and are working against the women and men of Afghanistan.”

End Notes:

  1. “Afghan Voters Worry ‘Guns and Money’ Will Affect Election,” Noticias.info, September 13, 2005.
  2. Paul McGeough, “ Old Ways Linger Beneath a Veil of Votes,” Sydney Morning Herald, Australia, September 10, 2005.
  3. Kent Harris, “Vicenza-based Troops in Afghanistan Aggressively Taking Fight to the Enemy,” Stars and Stripes, June 28, 2005.
  4. The Afghanistan Justice Project, Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, 1978-2001, July 2005.
  5. “Facts and figures about Afghanistan’s elections,” Reuters, September 12, 2005.

Sonali Kolhatkar and Jim Ingalls are co-directors of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). They visited Afghanistan in February 2005.

Katrina’s Fund Raising Frenzy: Too Much and Not Enough

Published on Commondreams.org on September 11, 2005

As I was driving to work last week I scanned my radio dial, listening to the mostly commercial radio stations on Los Angeles’ FM spectrum. Within a few seconds of listening to each station (English and Spanish language alike), it was clear that everyone was fundraising for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Everyone. Having seen the victims up close and personal on their TV screens and in their newspapers, in frenzied tones, desperate to believe in the soothing salve of charity, eager to “take action” in face of so much suffering, it seems as though Americans have concluded that the only way to help a suffering people is through money, lots of it, more than you can afford, more than any one else deserves. Corporations, celebrities, right wing and left wing institutions, high school kids and cops are scrambling to fund-raise.

The Red Cross is reporting that it has already received more than half a billion dollars in donations for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, even more than was donated for last year’s Tsunami victims, and more than for the victims of September 11th 2001. This overwhelming support for the people of Louisiana and Mississippi is heart warming. But at the risk of seeming callous I ask, is it really wise to throw millions of dollars at charities? Without political action, will it really help the Katrina survivors? And how will other causes be affected?

It was the government’s responsibility to ensure that a hurricane wouldn’t result in this type of disaster. The government failed. It was the government’s responsibility to ensure that an emergency response to such a disaster would save as many lives as possible. The government failed. Now, it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that all the survivors are taken care of, financially and other wise. It seems as though, by simply donating millions of dollars to certain large charities like the Red Cross we are assuming continued government failure. Those charities will need time and extra staff to even process all the money before they can begin distributing resources. Instead of the frenetic rush to raise money, should we not pour that energy into at least demanding that the government divert any and all resources from the Iraq war to the Katrina victims?

The donations would at best provide a salve, not a cure. Many Americans did not even know the extent to which poverty in Louisiana and Mississippi flourished along racial lines. Mindless fundraising is an easy way out of the guilt that we feel at the racist and classist conditions that poor blacks have been living in, and the disaster that they have now endured. If enough money is raised, Americans can go back to a numb existence of forgetting the injustices they have been forced to face these past few weeks.

Last week Bush used emergency powers to suspend the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act in the affected states. This means that contractors who rebuild the flooded areas using federal assistance can pay their workers less than the prevailing wage, thereby ensuring continued poverty and undercutting unions. It was precisely the poor population of New Orleans who could not afford to own cars that were stuck behind to suffer and die during the flooding. By suspending this law Bush ensures continued poverty among those who return to rebuild. Where is the public outcry demanding that our tax dollars enrich rather than impoverish the construction workers, likely to be residents of New Orleans?

A city that was already struggling against the forces of gentrification, it is likely that the “new” New Orleans will more rapidly become a commercial haven of casinos, mansions and corporate brand names. The political organizations that have vowed to fight these threats need our backing and dollars, perhaps even more than Red Cross, already flush with more cash than it can handle. Community Labor United is a coalition of labor and grassroots groups based in New Orleans who are expecting to fight overwhelming political pressure from government and corporations. They have set up a People’s Hurricane Fund that will be “directed and administered by New Orleanian evacuees.” Another worthy organization is the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a grassroots group struggling against racism, who are attempting to regroup their scattered staff and volunteers in order to continue their work.

In his recent piece for The Black Commentator, Glen Ford says, “Charity is fine. Rights are better.” What is needed in the coming weeks and months is serious political action to ensure that Katrina victims will have the right to return to their homes, have their homes rebuilt if necessary, have decent jobs and other resources. Will any of us participate in that fight once we are done emptying our bank accounts into the Red Cross? Or will we feel that we have done “enough” through our donations?

Most Americans will have given their fill of tax exempted donations to charities this year for the Katrina survivors. But while hundreds of thousands of the hurricane survivors have been displaced, how many of us think of the already-homeless in the US? In Los Angeles County alone there are almost 100,000 homeless people, most of whom rarely merit the attention of the media and the public. Local non-profits who provide services for the homeless will be hard hit this year with most donations being diverted to hurricane relief, and with “donor fatigue” setting in earlier than usual. Many non-profits offer services that the government fails to provide. Barely recovering from the impact of last year’s Tsunami donation frenzy, non-profits across the country who provide a safety-net for millions, will be denied grants, will cancel fundraisers, will accept losses in their direct mail campaigns, and will even have to close their doors.

But as many in the non-profit world have learned the hard way, fund raising without political action is never a solution. Rather than ensure the closure of grassroots organizations nationwide by diverting our personal financial resources to the ’cause of the moment,’ we need to become politically active and make demands on our government to ensure that the thousands of survivors of Katrina, and the millions of others who suffer daily from homelessness, starvation, poor education, poor healthcare, etc, get what they deserve. After all, it’s our tax money, our people, our government, and our right.

Sonali Kolhatkar is host and producer of Uprising, a popular prime-time radio program on KPFK, Pacifica Radio.


Catherine Saillant, “Local Charities Fear a Drop in Their Fundraising,” Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2005. – Glen Ford, “New Orleans Population has the Right of Return,” BlackCommentator.com, September 8, 2005. – More information about Community Labor United can be found at www.qecr.org . – People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond is online at www.pisab.org.

Khalilzad’s Second Constitution

Acrimonious debate, ethnic divisions, and, particularly, the boycott of the voting process on 1 January by more than 40 percent of the delegates had sparked fears that agreement would not be reached. On 3 January, the UN’s special envoy to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, held closed-door negotiations with rival delegates in order to get the assembly back on track. A compromise agreement was reached, and the constitution was approved.
-Radio Free Europe, 5 January 2004, describing Afghan constitution negotiations[1]

Negotiators here described American officials as playing a major role in the draft. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad shuttled among Iraqi leaders, pushing late Monday for the inclusion of Sunnis in talks, negotiators said. U.S. Embassy staff members worked from a Kurdish party headquarters to help type up the draft and translate changes from English to Arabic for Iraqi lawmakers, negotiators said.
-Washington Post, 22 August 2005, describing Iraqi constitution negotiations[2]

It looks like Zalmay Khalilzad is about to tuck a second post-9/11 regime-change constitution under his belt. One of the few real thinkers among the Bush neocons, with a talent for diplomacy to boot, Khalilzad has saved Bush’s ass quite a few times in Afghanistan, and he is trying to do the same in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, he ensured that the incredibly popular, but independent former king Zahir Shah did not challenge US-backed Hamid Karzai for the presidency.[3] He then ensured that the Afghan constitution gave strong powers to the president, at the expense of weakening the power of a more democratically accountable parliament.[4] Because of this, parliamentary elections to take place on September 18 may signal little change for the Afghan people. Karzai’s outlawing of political parties may make the parliament particularly impotent. Karzai’s Political Parties Law allows political parties, but disallows the party affiliations of candidates to be printed on electoral ballots. This could make the parliament particularly impotent.[Updated 14 Sept 05] Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group says, “Everyone of the 5800 candidates for the Provincial Councils and National Assembly will be standing as an independent. This means inside the National Assembly there will be 249 individual members and no immediately workable caucases, we fear that this will lead to a weak and fractured, possibly even paralysed body.”[5] Paralyzation may be the best-case scenario. Karzai, with Khalilzad’s approval, also failed to crack down on warlords, many of whom have “somehow” made it onto the parliamentary ballots.

In Iraq, Khalilzad has helped to procure a document that, according to Herbert Docena, ensures that on paper the country will follow a much more neoliberal path than earlier drafts intended.[6] Docena notes that even the US-backed Iraqi politicians

wanted, at least on paper, to build a Scandinavian-type welfare system in the Arabian desert, with Iraq’s vast oil wealth to be spent on upholding every Iraqi’s right to education, health care, housing, and other social services. “Social justice is the basis of building society,” the draft declared. All of Iraq’s natural resources would be owned collectively by the Iraqi people. Everyone would have the right to work and the state would be legally bound to provide employment opportunities to everyone. The state would be the Iraqi people’s collective instrument for achieving development.

In the current, US-blessed draft, the passage about social justice is replaced by one about “reforming the Iraqi economy according to modern economic bases, in a way that ensures complete investment of its resources, diversifying its sources and encouraging and developing the private sector .” Docena’s Foreign Policy in Focus article includes a table showing the evolution of Iraqi constitutional thought from the 1990 document under Saddam Hussein, through the current spate of US-imposed redrafts. The trend is disturbingly anti-progressive.[7]

Bush’s man in Iraq was largely responsible for delivering these goods. Like in Afghanistan, the current Iraqi constitution had a heavy American stamp on it. Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the constitutional committee complained:

The Americans say they don’t intervene, but they have intervened deep. They gave us a detailed proposal, almost a full version of a constitution. They try to compromise the different opinions of all the political blocs. The US officials are more interested in the Iraqi constitution than the Iraqis themselves.[8]

Buying the Boss Dinner

I’m sure some Americans will say that the $100,000 pledged by Afghanistan to help the US deal with Hurricane Katrina was a symbolic gesture of goodwill, or some other such platitude. I agree that it’s symbolic, but not of “the strength of the ties between our two peoples.”[1] Don’t get me wrong. I have never experienced as much hospitality as I did during my visit to Afghanistan. Despite the tenuous livelihoods of most people there, I have no doubt that many Afghans would be perfectly willing to give up what little comforts they had if they thought it would help others in need. But that isn’t what this is about, is it?

Afghanistan is now a major US base in Central Asia, dependent on US backing. The Afghan government is right now bankrolled by the United States and other foreign powers. I’m sure Hamid Karzai does nothing controversial unless he already discussed it with Washington. $100,000 goes a long way in Afghanistan. In my experience, $100,000 was enough to run RAWA’s Malalai Hospital, which saw about 200 patients a day, for five months.[2]

Karzai using the funds of his devastated country to give back $100,000 to the US is like a sweatshop manager buying the owner of the company dinner with the funds that were supposed to go towards employee salaries.


  1. Reuters
  2. Afghan Women’s Mission – The hospital was forced to close due to lack of funds. RAWA has opened a smaller clinic instead.

Katrina: a somewhere else disaster

The federal government is slowly providing aid to the victims of the four day old tragedy in New Orleans, as if it was something in another country. Click2Houston.com carried a powerful piece on the desperation of New Orleans residents, combined with a scathing indictment of the feds by the city’s mayor:

Ray Nagin went on WWL Radio Thursday night to say the feds “don’t have a clue what’s going on.” He added, “Excuse my French — everybody in America — but I am pissed.” …Nagin…wants people to flood the offices of the president and the governor with letters calling for help. He thinks not enough is being done to help the evacuees. He said that federal officials “don’t have a clue what’s going on.” “Get off your ass and let’s do something and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country [expletives restored],” Nagin said. “People are dying. They don’t have homes, they don’t have jobs. The city of New Orleans will never be the same. And it’s time.”

The mayor said he needs troops and hundreds of buses to get evacuees out. He said that it was laughable that some officials had mentioned possibly having school bus drivers brought to New Orleans to help with the evacuation. “I’m like, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’ This is a national disaster, get every doggone Greyhound bus line in the country and get their asses to New Orleans,” he said. “This is a major, major, major deal.”

Nagin accused state and federal officials of “playing games” and “spinning for the cameras.” He said he keeps hearing that help is coming, but “there’s no beef.” He called for a moratorium on press conferences. He said he doesn’t want any more press conferences there until there is actual manpower on the ground helping his city. He said that he is tired of hearing that thousands of troops are on their way because they are just not there.

Since I can’t really add much to what’s already been written about this disaster, I’d like to point out some links to short pieces that bring out the important issues not being discussed enough in the mainstream. Lee Sustar wrote on the racism underlying the lukewarm relief effort and the tendency of poor people of color to suffer the worst. Glen Ford asked about how Black the “new New Orleans” will be. The New Standard had a nice piece on the complicity of the federal government in the lack of preparation for the disaster. Rahul Mahajan wrote about the Bush lukewarm response and linked to eyewitness interviews of the over 10,000 people trapped inside the New Orleans convention center. (One evacuee called it “genocide”.[1] ) Zeynep Toufe wrote about Bush’s skewed priorities towards insurance fraud.

Finally, people interested in supporting relief efforts can contribute to the Red Cross or Operation USA. As residents pick up the pieces and the inevitable push to get rid of the low-income stratum of the city takes hold, we should think about how to rally against this trend. The housing rights organization Acorn has set up a Hurricane Recovery Fund that intends to:

  1. Establish a temporary Headquarters in Baton Rouge, Louisiana;
  2. Reopen our New Orleans offices as soon as possible;
  3. As we reopen and rebuild, we will unite community members to face the challenges at hand:
    • Servicing the housing and credit needs of our communities;
    • Organizing to see that low income neighborhoods and families get the help the need.

Thanks to Jonathan Tasini for this link.