Afghanistan Staggers Toward Election

Saturday will mark the first time Afghanistan has gone to the polls to choose a new president since the US overthrew the Taliban and put Hamid Karzai in charge. This will hardly be an accomplishment to herald in the US press, although I am sure the military will attempt to get major outlets to tout it as so after the fact. In fact, even the rosy “look what has been accomplished in Afghanistan” fluff piece published today in Khaama Press cites a paltry list of accomplishments, such as 50 television stations and not quite half a million Afghans on Facebook. Tellingly, though, a closer look reveals that the piece is attributed to Dr. Florance Ebrahimi. It turns out that even though she is originally from Kabul, she practices in Sydney. And why shouldn’t she? Afghanistan is tied with North Korea and Somalia at the very bottom of the list when countries are ranked for their level of corruption. And it appears that even before the election takes place, ten percent of the planned polling stations have been closed due to security concerns. And what of the candidates? The top three are profiled here by the New York Times.  All three of the leaders have already pledged to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, keeping US troops in Afghanistan beyond the end of this year–and thus assuring the maximal continuing flow of US funds to fuel even more corruption. The candidates are noteworthy to me only in that two of them have running mates that would rival Dick Cheney as the most notorious war criminal to be Vice President of a country in the past 15 years.

Today’s New York Times piece cited above on the closure of polling places due to anticipated violence is devastating. For example:

One of the few polling centers in this part of Logar Province is the government’s district headquarters, a building so devastated by rocket attacks and Taliban gunfire that it looks more like a bomb shelter than an administrative office.

As the body count for security forces has risen over the past few days in this embattled district, a stretch of dusty farmland surrounded by mountains, it has become clear that no one here is going to vote on Saturday, either for president or for provincial council delegates.

So far, that has not stopped security officials from proclaiming the district open for voting: It is not among the roughly 10 percent of 7,500 total national sites shut down as too dangerous to protect. The Charkh district center has been pumped full of security forces to keep the vote a nominal possibility, but residents know that within a day or two after the elections, the guards will be gone and the Taliban will remain.

“The government has no meaning here,” said Khalilullah Kamal, the district governor, who was shot two times in the stomach a few months back while speaking in a mosque. “If there is no expectation that we will arrest people who break the law, then how do we expect the people to come and vote?”

Think about that. The polling place in this passage looks like a bomb shelter and life has gotten so violent there that it is clear nobody will vote there Saturday. And yet this site isn’t included among the 10 percent of sites that won’t be open Saturday. Further, “government has no meaning here” reflects the utter failure of US efforts to establish a unified government in Afghanistan. But does that apply only to a small area? Hardly. Consider that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated back in October that it is likely that no more than 21 percent of Afghanistan will be accessible to SIGAR  (pdf) to carry out oversight functions (and the State Department warned them that the 21 percent figure may be overly optimistic) by the end of this year.

Since the US has already formally handed over security operations to the Afghans, what are they doing to make the election safe? On Tuesday they announced that 60,000 “fresh” (I presume this means newly trained? How well were they screened?) Afghan National Army troops were deployed across the country for election security. Then, on Wednesday, the figure was increased to 195,000 total security personnel when ANA figures were joined with security personnel from the Afghan National Police and the National Directorate of Security. That’s quite a force. So for roughly 7500 polling stations, that gives about 26 security personnel guarding each site if they are distributed evenly. Oh, and to protect Westerners before the election, places where they tend to gather have been closed.

Whatever the outcome on Saturday, I see little reason to be optimistic that there will be any improvement in living conditions for the average Afghan citizen.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
20 replies
  1. Don Bacon says:

    Corruption in Afghanistan — whom did they learn it from? The masters of corruption on a grand scale. There is probably no country on earth that matches the US in the financial scale of its pervasive corruption, and Afghanistan with its meager economy pales in comparison.

    from Counterpunch:

    The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Loretta Lynch, testified that there is a “pervasive problem of corruption by elected and appointed officials” in New York, citing former State Senate Majority Leader Pedro Espada who was convicted of stealing funds from Soundview Health Clinic, a federally funded clinic he operated in the Bronx. Lynch also called out former State Senator Shirley Huntley, who was sent to prison for her role in stealing funds from Parents Information Network, a non-profit organization she established to assist parents of New York City public schoolchildren. Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union, testified that “there is a crime wave of corruption” and it has been increasing over the past 12 years.

    When it came time for the general public to testify about public corruption, it wasn’t legislative leaders the witnesses railed against, it was corrupt judges. Multiple witnesses testified to having real estate property stolen through corrupt court proceedings. One witness, Dale Javino, said he was cheated out of his life savings in bankruptcy court and what happened to him “is like what happens in Nazi Germany…”

    Janice Schacter, a retired attorney, said that the Thomas Street location of the New York State Supreme Court “is pay to play; orders are not enforced, laws are not applied, domestic violence is treated with derision and conflicts of interest are ignored. Deference and preferential treatment are given to wealthy spouses and lawyers of prestigious firms.” Schacter also testified that the judge involved in her case attempted to censor her contact with the press by threatening to send her to jail at Rikers Island for 20 days. She said she was still having nightmares about it.

    We have recently seen in the news about how major US corporations evade paying US taxes. Elections are a farce — the list goes on.

    But “Transparency International,” funded by major corporate donors, puts the US at #19 on a 0-100 scale, least to most corrupt. Ha.

    • P J Evans says:

      Not the US – corruption isn’t our invention.
      Remember the Afghans have dealt with foreign governments for centuries, and ask yourself how much those foreign governments learned.

  2. Don Bacon says:

    The idea of elections in such war-torn, primitive places is ludicrous. It’s a western idea applied to a society still in the 18th century, whose tribal inhabitants above all things dislike anybody coming into their territory on a modern highway from a far-off city to tell them what to do and collect taxes. The idea of nation is not popular — Kabul does not even recognize any boundary with Pakistan (the Durand Line).

    As you indicate, it’s all for show. Let’s just declare victory and get out.

  3. Don Bacon says:

    news report:

    U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed hope that Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential election will mark a “historic” democratic transition in the country.
    Afghans are to vote on April 5 on a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
    In a statement on April 2, Kerry called the elections “a pivotal moment after more than a decade of sacrifice and struggle.”

    Get that — a “pivotal moment”!

    *May 3, 2013: Kerry: This is a pivotal moment for both Afghanistan and Pakistan
    *Mar 8, 2013: Hagel: I believe that we are at a very important moment in this campaign
    *Mar 8, 2013: NYPost: [Hagel’s] unannounced visit comes at a turning point in the conflict.
    *Dec 12, 2012: Panetta: We’re at a turning point. You know, we’ve been in war for 10 1/2 years, almost 11 years, since 9/11. It’s the longest period of warfare in the history — continuous period of warfare in the history of this country. And we’re now seeing a turning point: brought the war in Iraq to an end. In Afghanistan, where I’ll go next, get a chance to look at the campaign plan that General Allen put in place to ultimately draw down in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
    *Dec 14, 2012: Panetta: In many ways, look, we’re at a turning point.
    *Nov 20, 2012: Panetta: We are at a turning point after 10 years of war — over 10 years of war.
    *Sep 27, 2012: Panetta: We did turn a very important corner.
    *Sep 17, 2012: Panetta: Let me just say a few things. As I’ve said before, I think we’re at a turning point, certainly after 10 years of war,
    *June 7, 2012: Panetta: We are, as I said, at a turning point after 10 years of war.
    *May 3, 2012: Panetta: 2011 was really a turning point. In 2011 the Taliban was weakened significantly. They couldn’t organize the kind of attacks to regain territory that they had lost, which is something they have done in the past. So they’ve been weakened.
    * April 18, 2012: Panetta: As I’ve said, 2011 was a real turning point. It was the first time in five years that we saw a drop in the number of enemy attacks.
    * April 17, 2012: Panetta: NATO at ‘Pivotal Point’ in Afghan Mission
    * December 14, 2011: Panetta was less than 34 miles from the Pakistan border when he told U.S. troops they have reached a turning point in the war.
    * April 21, 2011: Gates: ” I think it’s possible that by the end of this year we will have turned a corner just because of the Taliban being driven out, and, more importantly, kept out.”
    * March 15, 2011: “FOB DELHI: International troops in Afghanistan face the prospect of a spring offensive by the Taliban every year – but this time the US-led alliance believes it could mark a real turning point in its favour.”
    * February 20, 2010: “Western officials believe that a turning point has been reached in the war against the Taliban, with a series of breakthroughs suggesting that the insurgents are on the back foot for the first time since their resurgence four years ago.”
    * Sep 9, 2009: Exum: A Grim Turning Point in Afghanistan?
    * August 31, 2009: “Monday marks the end of August, a month with both good and bad news out of Afghanistan — and the approach of a key turning point.“
    * February 6, 2008: “But the ties that bind NATO are fraying badly – and publicly – over just how much each member state wants to commit to turning Afghanistan around. ‘It’s starting to get to a turning point about what is this alliance about,’ says Michael Williams, director of the transatlantic program at the Royal United Services Institute in London.”
    * July 23, 2007: “Taken together these may reflect a turning point in how the war in Afghanistan is to be waged.”
    * September 12, 2006: “The Afghan front is at a critical turning point that imperils many of the hard-fought successes of the early phase of the conflict and the prospects for snaring bin Laden.”
    * September 22, 2005: “Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s foreign minister, called the recent parliamentary elections ‘a major turning point‘ on his country’s path to democracy.”
    * January 27, 2004: “A statement from U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called the enactment of the constitution a ‘turning point for the Afghan nation.’”
    * February 26, 2003: “The growing aggressiveness by guerrillas is a relief for US forces, who greet the possibility of a real engagement with the Taliban as a possible turning point in the war. ‘We want them to attack us, so we can engage them and destroy them,’ says one Special Forces soldier from the US firebase at Spin Boldak, who took part in the initial firefight that led to Operation Mongoose.
    * December 2, 2002: “But in ‘Bush at War’ there’s a glaring omission. Woodward misses the turning point in the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al Qaeda forces. It’s as though the most important scene had been left out of a movie, say, where Clark Kent turns into Superman.”

  4. Garrett says:

    Remains to be seen, I think, what the election victor will do about the security agreement. They’ve all said they will sign it. But further dispute and delay about the details still seems possible. That the details of the agreement still need negotiated. And where the issues of Afghan sovereignty versus U.S. desires will still be an impediment.

    Rassoul, for example. His position has not been counter to Karzai’s. His position has been exactly the same as Karzai’s.

    • Don Bacon says:

      A continuing US presence in Afghanistan is essential to US central Asia policy so it will be done, no matter the cost. Check out “The New Silk Road” for example.

  5. bsbafflesbrains says:

    Whatever the outcome on Saturday, I see little reason to be optimistic that there will be any improvement in living conditions for the average Afghan citizen.

    This statement applies to US elections as well.

  6. Raphael Cruz says:

    As I sit here in Kabul reading your post while I am confined to our residence as a security precaution, I feel compelled to offer a few observations.

    I have been coming to Afghanistan since early 2008 for short-term work and have now been here on a long-term assignment for over 20 months. I have a number of Afghan friends whom I have known over that period of time and whom I consider close friends. They have long since overcome their natural Afghan reticence in confiding their innermost thoughts and feelings to a foreigner.

    Virtually everyone I know, including those who travel regularly to the provinces, says the same thing. The atrocities of recent weeks, several of which have included cold-blooded, virtual executions of women and young children, have produced levels of outrage that are trumping the fear that the Taliban are working so hard to instill. Both here in the capital, and to a large extent country-wide, this has produced long lines at voter registration offices, with some people waiting from morning to night to sign up. Little old ladies who can barely walk are spending hours in line and, when interviewed by local news media, say that they are going to vote come hell or high water. I have read predictions of as much as a 75% turnout which, if it even comes within a mile of that, would still be awesome. You have probably already read this article in Tolo.

    http://www.tolonews.com/en/afghanistan/14392-afghans-brave-long-lines-to-register-to-vote

    Another interesting phenomenon is the number of people who are saying they are going to vote for Ashraf Ghani, regardless of who they are being told to vote for by their tribe. Ghani not only is currently polling as the leading candidate by a 3-4% margin over Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, but is also the only candidate who can even come close to claiming global respect.

    Then there’s the matter of election fraud which everyone fully expects to be epidemic. The thing about that is that the Karzai-supported candidate, Zalmay Rassoul, is polling a full 15 percentage points behind Ghani and Abdullah, making an election that gives him a strong finish looking like a stretch even with ballot box-stuffing. Nobody but nobody here wants to see a Karzai-supported candidate take office and, if Rassoul suddenly takes the front position, there it will most likely create a population upset enough to take matters into their own hands.

    It is extremely likely that the election will have to go to a second or even a third round. We may be talking about a month or two before the dust settles.

    Lastly, despite the understandable departure of many of the foreign election observers, the Afghans have stepped up with a compensatory surge of domestic observers. Security precautions (and, yes, Logar is definitely problematic as is Ghazni, Paktia, Paktika, and more than a few other provinces), the Afghan security forces and the Election Commission have been doing a yeoman’s job to make the whole thing work. Ban Ki Moon has praised the preparation efforts and whether or not he’s whistling in the dark remains to be seen.

    http://www.khaama.com/un-chief-praises-technical-security-preparations-for-afghan-elections-2944

    Speaking for myself, there is nothing I want more than to see the people of this country have an opportunity to live in peace, to provide for their families, and to be able to go about their daily business without constantly worrying about their physical safety.

    I just thought you might be interested in some perspectives from “ground zero.”

    • Jim White says:

      Thanks so much for sharing your on-scene observations. It’s always my biggest fear that in relying only on press reports and government documents that I will miss big parts of what is really going on.

  7. Michael Murry says:

    In a few more Friedman Units (after only twenty-two of them to date), the tipping point will turn the corner and begin connecting the dots on the ink-stained flypaper dominoes in the tunnel at the end of the light. If the U.S. military knew what to do, they’d have done it already. If they could have, they would have; but they didn’t, so they can’t. We lost the day we started and we win the day we stop. So just stop already. Time’s up.

  8. Joanne Leon says:

    Terrible murder happened today. Not that all the murders and bombings aren’t terrible.

    Two AP journalists, one a photographer, were sitting in the back of a car, part of an election related convoy. An Afghan policeman walked up to the car with an AK-47, yelled Allahku Akbar, and opened fire on them. The photographer was killed instantly, the story says, and the other woman (both women) only shot twice, which seems miraculous. She still alive, according to the report.

    The policeman then surrendered to his colleagues.

    Both bizarre (or maybe not, maybe this type of thing happens more than I know) and tragic. I would think that it is also going to scare the living hell out of international observers and others there to assist with the election.

  9. Don Bacon says:

    re: Cruz’s views —
    Ashraf Ghani was Karzai’s transition adviser. Ghani is a well-known academic with a reputation as a technocrat and being somewhat temperamental. Ghani ran in the 2009 presidential elections but got just 3 percent of the vote.
    —-
    Ghani is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. He spent some time at U.S. universities before joining the World Bank and serving as Afghan finance minister from 2002 to 2004.
    —-
    Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum is running as the first vice-president of Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Dostum is a former army general during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and considered by many to be the leader of Afghanistan’s Uzbek community.

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