Dispatch

The view from the ground.

A Royal Afghan Mess

As I witnessed firsthand while working as a poll monitor, the Afghan elections has been a disaster every step of the way. Here's how not to repeat the error.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Two months ago, I was standing in the 100-plus degree heat of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, monitoring an election that gained infamy almost as soon as it began. As an observer for the International Republican Institute (IRI), I witnessed the effects fraud, intimidation, and voter apathy firsthand. And I saw why the runoff election that would have taken place later this month, had it not been cancelled today, would have been no better. Most importantly, I saw the barrage of lessons that Afghanistan and the international community will have to learn before parliamentary and district elections next year if there is any hope for better outcomes.

By now, everyone knows the outcome of August's vote: a competently administered election marred by blatant fraud, followed by an adjudication process that threw out tainted ballots. The result saw front-runner and incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, sink to less than 50 percent of the vote, thereby triggering an upcoming runoff election -- one that everyone hoped would redeem, if only partially, the legitimacy of the election process in Afghan eyes. But yesterday, Karzai's opponent Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of the runoff, saying he couldn't participate in another flawed vote. Now, the second ballot is off altogether. Karzai is back for another term, period.

The elections in Afghanistan mattered, and getting them wrong has had a serious impact. For its policy in Afghanistan to be effective, the United States cannot be seen as condoning -- or worse, complicit in -- a government that is only interested in enriching its members, rather than providing services and improving economic, health, and educational prospects for its citizens. Many in Afghanistan blame the United States for having sat by and watched while the central government skimmed off international funds.

Two months ago, I was standing in the 100-plus degree heat of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, monitoring an election that gained infamy almost as soon as it began. As an observer for the International Republican Institute (IRI), I witnessed the effects fraud, intimidation, and voter apathy firsthand. And I saw why the runoff election that would have taken place later this month, had it not been cancelled today, would have been no better. Most importantly, I saw the barrage of lessons that Afghanistan and the international community will have to learn before parliamentary and district elections next year if there is any hope for better outcomes.

By now, everyone knows the outcome of August’s vote: a competently administered election marred by blatant fraud, followed by an adjudication process that threw out tainted ballots. The result saw front-runner and incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, sink to less than 50 percent of the vote, thereby triggering an upcoming runoff election — one that everyone hoped would redeem, if only partially, the legitimacy of the election process in Afghan eyes. But yesterday, Karzai’s opponent Abdullah Abdullah pulled out of the runoff, saying he couldn’t participate in another flawed vote. Now, the second ballot is off altogether. Karzai is back for another term, period.

The elections in Afghanistan mattered, and getting them wrong has had a serious impact. For its policy in Afghanistan to be effective, the United States cannot be seen as condoning — or worse, complicit in — a government that is only interested in enriching its members, rather than providing services and improving economic, health, and educational prospects for its citizens. Many in Afghanistan blame the United States for having sat by and watched while the central government skimmed off international funds.

The runoff was an acknowledgment of how badly the United States and its allies need to consolidate Afghan public opinion in favor of a legitimate government and, by extension, NATO troops. Abdullah’s withdrawal is a reality check. If the international community is to prevent the same fraud, intimidation, and apathy from marring upcoming parliamentary and local elections — the kind that matter most, in the everyday sense to Afghans — there is much work to be done.

A good start would be to look back at how badly things went in August. The IRI delegation of about 29 internationals and 40 Afghans was part of the roughly 300-strong international monitoring effort that covered the country’s 28,000 polling stations (only 6,100 of which actually opened on election day). Out of about 31 million Afghans, about 16.5 million were registered to vote, and polling was set to run from 7 a.m to 4 p.m. Our job was to assess whether the elections appeared to be free and fair.

Jalalabad, my team’s monitoring location, reportedly has a population of about 300,000, though there hasn’t been a census in decades. As with the rest of Afghanistan, the city had no voter list. A senior election official told us after the vote that $100 million was spent to issue registration cards nationwide, but the data obtained was not converted into national or provincial registration lists.

The day before the election, our team went to talk to other "long-term" monitors who had been in town for an average of two weeks. One British woman stated forcefully, "This is my 23rd election observation, and I’ve never seen one this corrupt." Her Australian colleague told us that he had fraudulently purchased 300 voter registration cards. A French-Canadian working for the Europeans offered bluntly, "It’s a mess."

Ahead of the vote, our security detail wouldn’t let us meet with the head of the Jalalabad office of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), the independent Afghan foundation observing the election, because its offices were located right in the middle of the teeming market area. Instead, we sent our two young male interpreters, recent university graduates. When they asked the local head of FEFA about his expectations for security and fraud on election day, they were told, "I can’t say anything about security, but we are 100 percent certain there will be fraud."

So when Aug. 20 rolled around, everyone was certain who would win, despite a surprisingly robust presidential campaign. Karzai had stacked the (nonindependent) Independent Election Commission (IEC) with cronies, and the Taliban threatened to lop off the fingers of those who voted. As the elections neared, the Afghan government became increasingly less interested in the advice of election experts. And by election day, U.N. supervision had dwindled to zero because none of the U.N. personnel were allowed to observe the election in Jalalabad due to security concerns.

That morning, we left our safe house in the middle of Jalalabad and followed our carefully plotted route. Our security forbade us from going out before 10 a.m., three hours after voting began, since most suicide bombings and other attacks are known to take place in the morning, after prayers. The night before, security forces had already discovered 12 improvised explosive devices and disabled them. It was calm, and the streets were fairly empty as we made our way to the first polling station.

We had selected a handful of polling sites, those deemed relatively safe by our security team, but a disproportionate number were female polling centers (men and women vote separately), because our male colleagues were not going to be able to cover those. Each time the drill was the same: I went and interviewed the polling station chairperson, and my partner, Milica Panic, walked around observing the voters, polling the station staff, and the political party observers. I asked about complaints or incidents, the number of ballots received and votes cast so far, whether any police or other security forces had entered (they are prohibited unless requested), and whether other international or domestic observers had visited. I heard about broken hole-punchers, missing voter registration tally sheets, and illiterate and troublemaking candidate observers. When I asked why one polling station was practically devoid of voters, I was told, "Lunch."  But in one male polling station, the chairman put it more honestly: "They aren’t coming in the afternoon."

Fear of retaliation by the Taliban kept voters, especially women in conservative areas, away from the polls — if the centers even opened on election day. Dr. Humayra Haqmal, the chair of the Movement of Afghan Sisters and one of Afghanistan’s pre-eminent female organizers, told us that the Taliban came across a man with a voter registration card days before the election and had "put him through a wheat thresher." And since the government failed to throw together a voter list, the voter ID cards had to be supplemented by marking thumbs with purple ink, something that made it easy for the Taliban to pick their victims for retaliation. There were also rumors of deals made by Karzai with insurgents to keep polls off limits to voters in the south to facilitate fraud.

The voter turnout numbers show the painful result. The "Bibi Hawa" female polling center in Jalalabad was stocked with with 14 polling stations and ballots for 8,400 people, only 668 turned up to vote, a turnout just above one-fourteenth of the expected number. The average turnout across the city of Jalalabad for women appeared to be around 20 percent. Our colleagues estimated that it was about 25 to 30 percent for males. Nationwide, turnout was about 38 percent for men and less than 30 percent for women.

Security was equally dismal. The election security plan involved three security cordons, with NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) providing "area security" on the ground and in the air, the Afghan National Army responsible for security around urban centers, and the national police providing security inside cities and towns. These measures, while successful in terms of keeping the level of incidents low, were ineffective at guaranteeing the security of potential voters. It is unclear exactly why ISAF was not deployed in some especially problematic areas.

In August, the hands-off international approach resulted in a flawed process, susceptible to intimidation and fraud. For the next election, a voter list must be cobbled together, and the United Nations needs to provide hands-on supervision all the way to election day. The security plan will be critical, too. It probably makes sense to consolidate voting in far fewer polling centers and to provide secure transportation to and from those centers. It might still be dangerous for voters to board a bus, but there is greater safety in numbers.

Almost everything about the Afghan presidential election has been a mess, right down to the final outcome, today, of granting Hamid Karzai another term. There’s only one silver lining: The mess should be a wake-up call to the international community about how rotten the Afghan political system has become. If we’re lucky, it may just galvanize the United Nations, NATO, and all of the governments to plan better for the next round of voting. It would be the only positive outcome of this dreadful election.

Evelyn N. Farkas is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, and former executive director of the U.S. Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism. Twitter: @EvelynNFarkas

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