Stuffing the Sheep in Kabul

As accusations of voter fraud fly, Afghanistan’s presidential race is ripping the country apart.


It’s déjà vu season in America’s "right" and "wrong" war zones. In Iraq, the old Bush-era neocons are back on the airwaves, blaming everyone but themselves for the latest perfect storm of crises. In Afghanistan, the same old candidate is once again crying electoral fraud. His archrival, the outgoing president, has been forced back into the picture. And the international community, this time the United Nations, has been dragged yet again into helping a country that has faced so many "crunch times," we may as well call it Crunchistan.

This is all happening as Afghanistan desperately needs a security deal with the United States — fast — or Iraq will seem like an opening act for the all-star meltdown to come on the eastern fringes of the so-called Shiite Crescent. 

The latest crisis was sparked last week with Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah’s shock announcement that he was boycotting the vote count for the June 14 runoff because of alleged fraud. Abdullah is making his second successive bid for the presidency, this time running against Ashraf Ghani in the race to replace President Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

His boycott threatens to derail Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic power transfer and plunge a country with a history of sectarian conflict into another political crisis.

On Saturday, June 21, several hundred Abdullah supporters took to the streets of Kabul, blocking the main airport road and chanting, "Death to Karzai," and "Death to Ghani," while burning photographs of the chief electoral officer, Ziaulhaq Amarkhil.

The crisis took a slightly surreal turn the next day, when the Abdullah campaign released audio recordings purporting to show Amarkhil urging a colleague to "bring the sheep stuffed and not empty." References to sheep and goats — apparent allusions to ballot boxes and voters — appeared frequently in the 15 minutes of recorded conversations, which were broadcast on several Afghan TV stations. Amarkhil denied any wrongdoing and insisted the tapes were faked. But by Monday, he had turned into the lamb ushered to the slaughter, when he announced his resignation "for the sake of Afghanistan."

Following Amarkhil’s resignation, Abdullah conceded somewhat, offering that, "now the door is open for us to talk to the [election] commission and talk about the conditions and circumstances that will help the process." For the moment, Abdullah seems to have got his way — or at the very least, a chance to save face and get back to the electoral process amid, one can only assume, pressure from his international backers to behave.

But in the long run, his premature electoral fraud hissy fit has not won him any extra fans or credit in the international community. The damage back home is probably worse. For the millions of Afghans who did not vote for the former mujahideen leader, the timing and sheer force of Abdullah’s display of discontent has reopened a musty trunk of memories in a country that has never addressed the brutality and excesses of the past.

* * *

It’s too early to pass a verdict on the extent of the electoral fraud. Certainly in a country like Afghanistan, where an insurgency is raging in the southern and southeastern provinces, most experts expect some election irregularities. (As I noted just days before the first round, "It will be messy. It will be difficult. It will most certainly be dangerous. But it will happen.")

To be fair to Afghanistan, the country has invested considerable efforts in putting together an electoral framework ahead of the 2014 vote. In a statement released shortly after Abdullah boycotted the vote count, Jan Kubis, the head of the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan, implicitly acknowledged this when he stated, "We believe that the electoral process should continue as laid out in the laws passed by the National Assembly. In particular, the mandate of the electoral institutions … must be respected." He then warned: "With the utmost concern, the UN Mission notes that appeals to circumvent or abandon the legal process and framework and appeal directly to supporters could incite violence."

There were early signs that the voting process was going to be contentious.

Barely two weeks before the final elections, at a floridly lit Kabul wedding hall, Ismail Khan, the strongman of Herat, announced his support for "our holy warrior brother Dr. Abdullah Abdullah." He also informed the audience that, "We have gathered as the mujahideen family of the past 30 years to protect this country."

Khan, a Tajik warlord, was the running mate of first-round presidential candidate Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Sunni Islamist strongman and former Osama bin Laden mentor reviled by the mostly Shiite Hazara community. Although Sayyaf did not personally endorse Abdullah, the political game in the lead-up to the latest contest was focused on securing endorsements.

Suddenly, the boogeyman of ethnicity — which had receded into the background in the April 5 race featuring eight candidates — was taking center stage.

Abdullah is half-Tajik, half-Pashtun, but largely viewed as an ethnic Tajik for his association with the Panjshir-based, anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun. Comprising around 42 percent of the population and harboring a historic sense of entitlement to rule Afghanistan, the Pashtuns are an ethnic group that no candidate can ignore. Abdullah made assiduous efforts to secure Pashtun support — this included an endorsement from Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister widely believed to have been Karzai’s preferred candidate in the first round, who nonetheless came in third.

Not that Ghani — a Kuchi Pashtun, whose brother, Hashmat, is the Grand Council Chieftain of the Kuchis — was taking it easy. 

Just days before Khan endorsed Abdullah, the Ghani campaign packed Kabul’s cavernous Loya Jirga Hall with religious and mujahideen leaders all claiming impeccable Islamic and holy warrior credentials. The Ghani camp includes his running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a controversial former warlord who has blood on his hands — and the Uzbek vote in the palm of those hands.

Still, this is the Afghan, big-tent way of doing political business, so everyone was willing to cut the candidates some slack. 

Electoral fraud allegations started circulating even before the polls opened on June 14. On the eve of the runoff, the Guardian reported that the rival camps had tweeted the same photograph purporting to show soldiers with pre-marked ballots. Each side declared the ballot was marked in favor of the opposing candidate. But
most Afghans — and certainly the international community — hoped the two campaigns would stick to the rules and take their complaints to the Independent Election Complaints Commission (IECC, or ECC, as it’s more popularly known).

While both camps have alleged fraud, the Ghani campaign has maintained they are content to let the ECC do its job. For Abdullah, however, the cry of foul play came as soon as the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the initial voter turnout: 7 million, up from 6.6 million in the first round. These figures, Abdullah argues, are inflated and show an "unbelievable high turnout" in the restive, Pashtun-dominated southeastern provinces.

He has pointed to Khost and Paktik, areas believed to be Ghani strongholds, where high levels of insecurity typically deter voters from going to the polls. In Khost, for instance, initial regional tallies showed that more than 400,000 voters cast ballots, up from 113,000 in the first round, according to the Wall Street Journal. In nearby Paktika, 390,000 voters cast ballots, up from 180,000.

The figures are going to take some time to ascertain and it won’t be easy, not least because there has not been a full census in Afghanistan for over three decades. During previous elections, there have been problems with multiple registration of voters, which means about 21 million voter cards have been issued around the country over the past decade, although the estimated number of eligible voters is around 13 million.

But the figures the Abdullah campaign has been citing are initial, regional IEC tallies. Preliminary runoff results are only due on July 2, and final results on July 22. The sheer ferocity of Abdullah’s premature response has sparked questions over whether the former mujahideen-era leader is simply trying to cover up his loss. Reports of the ongoing vote count suggest that Ghani has made a surprise comeback after finishing behind Abdullah in the April 5 first round.

Ghani contends that a successful voter mobilization campaign ahead of the latest vote is responsible for the last-minute surge in ballot casting. That could be true. Or it could just be a cover-up for dubiously magnified figures. With suspicions feeding the Kabul rumor mills, there have even been mumblings that the Taliban did not stage attacks on election day because the Pashtun militant group favors a Ghani victory. There’s no proof of this, of course. And even if it were true that the Taliban has an insidious, unacknowledged stake in favoring one candidate over another, it may not necessarily be disastrous for Afghanistan.

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But there was worse to come. In his statements to the press, Abdullah accused his old foe, Karzai, of "not being neutral" — raising alarm bells, but failing to provide any evidence that the outgoing president had interfered in the electoral process.

Few Afghans doubt the irregularities in the disastrous 2009 vote that pitted Abdullah against Karzai were overwhelmingly conducted in the incumbent’s favor. At that time, the ECC rejected more than a million ballots, most of them cast for Karzai. Despite that intervention — and noises from an international community that would have been happier to work with Abdullah than the inconsistent, paranoid Karzai — the Afghan president was re-elected.

But after that deeply flawed election, there were measures taken to avoid a 2009 repeat, including new electoral laws passed in 2013, which were deemed "fairly balanced and workable" by some of the leading Afghan experts.

Dragging Karzai thus out of the woodwork — after he has been studiously trying to maintain his neutrality — was disconcerting for many Afghans outside the Abdullah camp. There’s no doubt that Karzai would prefer Ghani reside in Kabul’s Arg presidential palace. But that does not qualify as evidence of any backroom dealing or manipulation by Karzai to get his former finance minister, instead of his former foreign minister, in power.

Karzai was forced to intervene late last week, when he said he would welcome the U.N.’s help in mediating the process. (Mind you, this comes from a president who has spent the last five years at the Arg palace marinating in a stew of anti-Western conspiracy theories.) While the U.N. Mission in Afghanistan was initially unwilling to get involved in the post-electoral process, the sheer gravity of the situation has led to a change in tone. But this time, even the studied, banal U.N. statements display hints of exasperation.

"We think the most important assistance we can give now is to provide a bridge between those who need to be talking to each other," Nicholas Haysom, U.N. deputy special representative for Afghanistan, told reporters at the press briefing in Kabul on Saturday. "And at least part of the message that we have for them — and have had really since the outset — is that there will be a winner and there will be a loser and what we expect of the candidates is to exhibit statesmanship, not gamesmanship."

But there was little display of statesmanship over the weekend, with Abdullah’s supporters taking to social media sites blasting a rigged system while his opponents responded with equal vitriol, branding the former foreign minister a sore loser.

On Saturday, as Kabul’s residents maneuvered roadblocks and rushed home worrying that the demonstrations could get violent, it looked like this latest election crisis was boiling down to a spat between the Panjshiris and southern Pashtun elites. For ordinary Afghans, that could spell nothing but trouble ahead.

"I just want this election process to end," said a friend, who preferred not be named, in a phone call from Kabul. A Pashtun with Tajik family members, he noted that the rifts were being felt in the family. "At dinner last night, my Tajik brother-in-law was saying that if Ghani is president and goes abroad, could we live with [his vice-president, the Uzbek warlord] Dostum in charge of the country? But my elder brother replied, ‘Is it better to have Dostum for a few weeks than Dr. Abdullah, who was involved in the civil war, for five years?’ I don’t care if the U.N. makes a deal between Ghani and Abdullah; I just don’t want to see these angry people on the streets."

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