Election 2020

For Afghans, the U.S. Election Feels Very Familiar

Claims of fraud, premature declarations of victory, and battles over Sharpies are par for the course—in Kabul.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Hawa Alam Nuristani (center), the head of the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission, announces the preliminary results of the 2019 Afghan presidential election in Kabul on Dec. 22, 2019. Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani won a second term.
Hawa Alam Nuristani (center), the head of the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission, announces the preliminary results of the 2019 Afghan presidential election in Kabul on Dec. 22, 2019. Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani won a second term. FARSHAD USYAN/AFP via Getty Images

KABUL—The ongoing U.S. election is starting to look awfully familiar to people here.

Going into Tuesday’s vote, officials in Kabul were already worried about the potential violence and disorder that could come from a disputed election, but at the moment, Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s responses seem to be straight out of Afghanistan’s much-contested 2014 and 2019 elections. To millions of people here, it’s as if both men were cribbing off current President Ashraf Ghani and his longtime rival, Abdullah Abdullah. 

Though Biden still insists he will win, it’s really Trump who seems to have borrowed the most from the playbook of a country he was determined to leave behind until he was shown pictures of women in the 1970s walking the streets of Kabul in miniskirts.

The echoes began early. On Wednesday morning, with millions of ballots left to be counted and a half-dozen states in doubt, Trump prematurely declared victory in an election that is still too close to call 48 hours later. Both Ghani and Abdullah also insisted they won two elections in a row. Not only that, but last year they held dueling inauguration ceremonies on the same day, only a few miles apart. 

Then came Sharpiegate, the claim that the use of marker pens had invalidated an undisclosed number of ballots in Arizona—a race that remains (for most news organizations) too close to call as of Thursday. Afghans have been there. During the U.N.-supervised audit of ballots in the June 2014 runoff here, I saw representatives from the election teams of Ghani and Abdullah argue that the use of a pen of any color other than blue or black should be invalidated. But it got even weirder as one election team argued that green is close enough to blue so votes cast in green ink should be accepted. Even worse, a few minutes later I witnessed those same representatives argue that the use of red in votes cast for the rival team should be trashed.

There are other similarities. Trump has called for a recount in Wisconsin and additional counting in Arizona and Nevada but demanded that vote counting be stopped in states like Pennsylvania that are tipping toward Biden as mail-in ballots are tallied. During the 2014 U.N.-monitored audit, Abdullah backed out not once but twice during the nearly two-month process.

While Afghans wait to see who will be commander in chief of the U.S. mission in their country, the joke that we may need to send the foreign minister to broker a deal between Biden and Trump—as then-Secretary of State John Kerry did in 2014—may yet come true. Ironic for a country that was a constitutional monarchy from 1963 to 1973 and then a republic thereafter—long before George W. Bush vowed to bring democracy to Afghanistan with the 2001 invasion.

Ali M. Latifi is a freelance journalist based in Kabul.

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