Web Only / Features » September 11, 2009
Democracy and Action
Afghanistan’s historic August election was marred by widespread voting inconsistencies, despite efforts by U.S. and Afghan soldiers—and warlords—to keep the peace.
433,000 voters registered to vote in Nuristan, even though its total population, including those too young to vote, is 130,000.
KUNAR PROVINCE, AFGHANISTAN–As gunshots rang out from the mountain tops of the Dewegal Valley in eastern Afghanistan, men voted under the shade of trees next to their village’s mosque. Heads turned upward whenever a heavy shell or particularly loud burst echoed, but the voters appeared in no hurry to leave. This was supposed to be their election, after all.
But the historic national election, held on August 20, continues to be mired in controversy. As Afghan President Hamid Karzai claims a victory and his main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, makes his case that widespread voting fraud necessitates a run-off election, serious doubts remain about whether fair voting was possible in Afghanistan’s insurgent-infested areas.
Election officials said Karzai won 54.1 percent of the vote, while Abdullah received 28.3 percent. But the Electoral Complaints Commission, the United Nations-backed Afghan panel that will certify the final count, is in the early stages of an investigation that could take several weeks.
The international community has found convincing evidence of fraud, especially in the country’s insecure south and east, where the Election Complaints Commission has registered hundreds of claims of vote tampering, ballot stuffing and false registrations. This week the commission threw out votes from 83 polling places and ordered further recounts.
Here in Kunar province, the fact that a polling site was set up in a dangerous valley reveals the conundrum of holding an election in areas beyond official scrutiny.
Amongst the line of men waiting to vote in cardboard booths in the village of Ternaab were young teens holding voter registration cards. By their looks, some of them couldn’t have been eighteen, the minimum voting age. One teenager said he was thirteen, then pulled his registration card from his pocket. It had the same official stamp as the rest of the adults, and verified his age as eighteen.
Two other teenage boys confirmed they were underage and had voted, while many more teens in the crowd proudly displayed inked fingertips. All of them said they were voting for President Hamid Karzai.
This apparent voting fraud was predicted by many non-governmental agencies and think tanks. “Given the failure to steadily tackle legal and organizational flaws and a deteriorating security environment, these elections face grave challenges,” the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned in a late June report.
The report specified how insurgent activity “greatly reduces the likely scrutiny of the poll’s conducted in these areas, increasing opportunities for fraud,” making the presence of permanent election advisers impossible in 14 provinces.
Everyone gets a vote–or three
Considering the difficulty of traversing mountainous terrain, it is understandable that the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC)–conducting its first Afghan-controlled election–chose polling sites in remote villages in this region to provide voting access to as many rural people as possible.
But the system also allowed village elders to select local district field coordinators to facilitate “buy-in” among the tribes, according to U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael J. Forsythe of 2-77th FAR, based at a remote military base in Nuristan province, which neighbors Kunar.
The ICG report stated that the IEC’s permanent staff of 400 would increase to a temporary staff of 165,000 on Election Day, with about 7,000 polling centers around the country. The hiring of so many local, unsupervised field coordinators only increased the opportunities for fraud and patronage voting.
The district field coordinator in Ternaab said he passed a basic literacy and elections test to get his position. But what occurred on election day in the village exemplifies the problems that arise when a village cannot provide security for legitimate election monitors, and when the local police, tribal elders and village-selected field coordinators are complicit in voting irregularities.
The ICG report detailed that there was almost no way to protect against multiple voter card issuance in Afghan provinces. 433,000 voters registered to vote in Nuristan, even though its total population, including those too young to vote, is 130,000.
“As discussed, the IEC has been appointed solely by the president, and its perceived partisanship is a major potential shadow over the legitimacy of the 2009-2010 elections,” the report said.
Election Day firefight
D Company of the 1st -32nd Infantry of the 3rd Battalion, 10th Mountain Division, operates out of Forward Operating Base Fortress in the Kunar river valley. Its area of operations covers the three volatile districts of Nurgal, Chawki and Narang in southern Kunar province.
With the Taliban controlling areas leading higher into the mountains, the smaller valleys are simply too dangerous to regularly patrol. D Company’s command charged them with providing the outer ring of security in Ternaab village on Election Day. They were wary of using the village as an election site.
“The enemy has known fighting positions along ridge lines,” Platoon Leader Captain Richard Nicorvo said.
Before the polling site even opened, Taliban insurgents flooded the area’s radio waves with propaganda about attacking the polling site and killing anyone who attempted to vote.
An hour later the shooting began. Small detachments of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers responded with fire from hilltop fighting positions. Their U.S. military counterparts fired a missile and .50 caliber rounds at a mountaintop where they spotted muzzle flashes, following a lengthy communications process to avoid firing on Afghan Army soldiers and hired security groups.
Sporadic fighting continued most of the afternoon, as Toyotas emblazoned with posters of national candidates and packed with Afghan men raced to and from the Ternaab polling site loaded with voters.
The shooting died down by late afternoon, and we approached the polling site. The local IEC head field coordinator told us cameras were not allowed as his colleagues, wearing official IEC vests, began orally tallying the votes from a taped-off area between several trees.
We heard “Karzai, Karzai, Karzai,” as the ballots were stacked and then stuffed into secured plastic boxes. The counting appeared transparent, as far as the villagers were concerned. There was no reason to believe that any votes were lost or uncounted.
A man in a white beard, who said he officially represented Karzai in the province, claimed his job was to verify all votes for the incumbent. When asked about children voting, he said they only looked young and were actually eighteen.
When questioned why other candidates did not have “official verifiers,” he responded they must have been around – but because they lost so badly, they probably left. The man said he tallied over 1,600 votes for Karzai, with just 200 votes for Abdullah.
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James Foley was a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and a freelance journalist. In 2009, he embedded with the U.S. military's 4-4th Infantry division and 1-10th Mountain division in the Afghanistan provinces of Nuristan, Nangahar and Kunar. The previous year he embedded in Iraq with the the 101st Airborne Division. He was captured and killed by Islamic State militants in Syria in 2014.
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