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Democracy and Action (cont’d)

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‘This is an Afghan event’

In contrast to the voting irregularities, the U.S. and the Afghan military maintained security. Although the Taliban promised and delivered a steady payload of fire, both military forces accomplished their objectives–polling sites stayed open in Ternaab and in other villages throughout southern Kunar, enabling Afghans to cast their vote. Not a single citizen was killed in the area.

But when the commanding officer of the Afghan National Army’s 2nd Company 1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade 201st Corps, was asked how he felt about his men fighting in the mountains while children voted in the election, he paused.

“I believe my guys did a hard job,” Capt. Mohammad Dawoud said. “I’ll tell you as an Afghan, my feelings are so sad, but we provided the second ring of security. The first [ring] was the police, and also [responsibility] belongs to the representatives of each candidate.” Dawoud implied that candidate representatives, and people bringing men to and from the poll site, perhaps enjoyed too much influence in Ternaab.

U.S. officers often repeated the phrase, “this is an Afghan event.” You could see that in how the Afghan Army set up its checkpoints closest to the polling sites, while the U.S. Army stood back. “We were facilitators,” D Company Commander Captain Nathaniel S. Miller said. “It was extremely frustrating at times, but the mission was to develop Afghans.”

It was no easy task. D Company’s platoon patrolled the election sites for weeks and spent the night in armored vehicles to provide round-the-clock presence leading to the election. Elements of the Afghan National Army’s 2nd Battalion waited a few days before the election to decide where they would set up their security outposts and depended on D Company for water and ammunition re-supply.

Additionally, D Company outfitted a hired security force of some 300 men, paid approximately ten dollars each, to man strategic mountain outposts.

Democracy and warlords

These hired men answered only to legendary Haji Jan Dad. Jan Dad, a former mujahadeen with a scar-riddled body who boasts some 20 years of combat experience, including commanding mountain fighters against the Russians and the Taliban.

“The reality is Jan Dad is the most influential person in the area,” Miller said.

Coalition forces arrested Jan Dad when D Company first rolled into the area, but Karzai reportedly pardoned him. The Company quickly realized his usefulness when he helped pacify the village elders after a U.S. air strike accidentally killed a villager and wounded others in the village of Qala Wona.

But there is always a quid pro quo when dealing with such a powerbroker. Jan Dad’s 300 or so men had just finished a security contract protecting coalition-funded roads, and the prospect of hired guns without jobs was unsettling to U.S. and Afghan officials.

Capt. Miller said he sat down with Jan Dad and they agreed on the long-term goal of pacifying the volatile area of Badel, where D Company’s outpostis attacked on an almost daily basis. A deal was worked out: If Jan Dad’s men helped provide security on Election Day, they might be hired in the future as part of Provincial Reconstruction contracts.

When asked if Jan Dad ever targeted coalition forces, Miller was somewhat elusive. “We haven’t validated that. If there was a report on him, I’d be forced to acknowledge it.”

One of the last faces we saw speeding by after votes were counted in Ternaab was none other than Jan Dad. Jan Dad, reportedly pardoned by Karzai, epitomizes one of the roadblocks to calling this a legitimate national election.

Almost all Ternaab’s residents voted for Karzai. And as more information on election fraud is revealed, warlords indebted to Karzai seem to have played key roles in securing the Pashtun vote for the incumbent throughout the country.

‘Life is different here’

“The election is the most important event of our deployment,” Miller said. When asked about apparent irregularities at polling sites, he added, “the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan is over-watching the elections; the U.S. is not involved. Our mission is to support government and security forces. Life is different here.”

U.S. forces deal with Afghanistan’s culture of corruption, at all levels, every day, Miller says, acknowledging his frustration.

“[But] the effort we’d expend in going after local officials for corruption would get us nowhere,” Miller says. “We have to deal with the right now; a Jeffersonian Democracy is not going to break out soon.”

“Right now” the biggest problem in Kunar is economics, he said. His unit’s post-election goal is to build up local business so villagers don’t have to depend on bribes or coalition handouts. And U.S. forces have tried to make hired security contracts offered to local tribes more egalitarian by mandating that men from different villages are hired rather than only members of village elders’ families.

Going after corruption is not the same as putting people to work, Miller said. “They don’t want to accept moral judgments from us.”

It’s a pragmatic if uneasy approach to the U.S. Army’s mandate to leave a stronger foundation for their replacing unit to build upon. But it’s unclear whether education and infrastructure improvements will lead to an economically viable society, freed from the curse of corruption, in the long-term.

If there are victors in these elections, they are the soldiers who risked their lives and the Afghan citizens who voted with good intentions, like elderly villagers who hobbled up hills toward Ternaab to cast their ballot.

Unfortunately, some Afghans’ best intentions may have been robbed by a corrupt system bent on maintaining the status quo.

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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