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Historic Election Tests Security, Progress in Afghanistan

August 20, 2009 at 6:05 PM EDT
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Despite Taliban threats and scattered attacks throughout the country, Afghans headed to the polls Thursday in an election being viewed as a gauge of U.S. progress there. ITN correspondent Alex Thomson speaks with Ray Suarez from Kabul.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: Our second report comes from ITN’s Alex Thomson. Ray Suarez talked with him from Kabul earlier this evening.

RAY SUAREZ: Alex Thompson in Kabul, welcome. The polls have been closed for several hours; the ballot boxes are being opened in many places. Give us the latest news from around the country.

ALEX THOMSON: Well, the latest news is there will not be any definitive news for a long time. If I tell you that we will probably — probably not know who’s going to be the next president of Afghanistan until October — yes, October the 15th — it gives you some idea of how long this process could well turn out to be.

What I can say is — put it this way — around 300 polling stations were closed down because of intimidation, but over 6,000 did open up. The Taliban will claim some success for that from their side for the 300, but the U.N. and the incumbent President Karzai have already claimed it as a great success, in terms of the numbers who did turn up and vote.

RAY SUAREZ: Has word started to come in from those far-flung polling places about where turnout was high and where it was low and who that might favor?

ALEX THOMSON: Well, so far what we know is that turnout in the big northern cities is pretty much the pattern we’d expected. It is certainly a lot higher than in the southern cities, the main center down there, Lashkar Gah and, of course, Kandahar, the southern capital. Those five southern provinces, don’t forget, the most violent, along with the eastern provinces of Afghanistan.

So a lot of intimidation down there. One Western observer described Kandahar today as, quote, “like the wild West.” But in Afghan terms, it hasn’t been a particularly violent day, today of all days. That has to be said.

RAY SUAREZ: President Hamid Karzai is both running the country and running to hold onto his job. What did he have to say about the balloting?

ALEX THOMSON: Well, Hamid Karzai, of course has claimed it as a great success, along with the United Nations, certainly. NATO, of course, keeping a very low profile. This is, in their view, very much an Afghan affair, certainly not a NATO affair. Their troops, of course, ordered to keep well away from all the polling stations.

Mr. Karzai, yes, he’s trumpeting it as a great success, but he knows very well that he has to get that 51 percent in order to be automatically re-elected. Won’t know that for sure until September the 3rd, and the word is — the smart money, if you like — says he’s not going to make that. So we are quite probably in for the long haul right through to October the 15th.

Corruption concerns

Alex Thomson
ITN
Everything is relative. Nobody ever said in Afghanistan that it will be a perfect, fair and free election. The aim, the goal is to get a reasonably fair, reasonably credible vote.

RAY SUAREZ: In the reporting coming out of Afghanistan, we saw indelible ink that wasn't quite so indelible, election observers who were afraid to go to certain parts of the country. But, roughly speaking, if you were one of the, oh, 16 million or so eligible Afghan voters, could you go vote if you wanted to and did you have reasonable expectation your vote would be counted?

ALEX THOMSON: Well, that's entirely dependent on where you are. And there are two levels of that question.

First of all, the corruption. Will your vote count or will it simply be destroyed in some way, because the local clan chief, the local tribal leader wants it that way, and if you vote for the wrong person, it's just going to be destroyed? That sort of stuff is quite possible.

And that's why built into this process you have a period from September the 3rd through to the 17th for what they rather delicately call the complaints period. Already the key candidates, the rivals to Hamid Karzai, they were already complaining early this morning before some of them had even voted, so they will already cry foul, and with some good reason.

But don't forget: Everything is relative. Nobody ever said in Afghanistan that it will be a perfect, fair and free election. The aim, the goal is to get a reasonably fair, reasonably credible vote out which can be productive in terms of producing what the majority who vote actually want.

Now, of course, there are huge problems in that. And what the key factor is, how many people turned up down south, where the Taliban are strong, how many people were kept away from those areas? Because if it's invalid down there, that clearly will strengthen the Taliban's hand.

Communication difficulties

Alex Thomson
ITN
It's always difficult, simply because of communications and terrain and so forth, to find out what's going on across the country.

RAY SUAREZ: In the several days running up to the polling, the government was actively trying to discourage the coverage of attempts to suppress turnout, trying to keep journalists from doing their work. Did it make it harder for you to find out what was going on in the rest of the country?

ALEX THOMSON: It's made it hard to find out what's going on in the rest of the country, but it's always difficult, simply because of communications and terrain and so forth, to find out what's going on across the country.

But let me give you an example. Here in Kabul, there was a gun battle between security forces and suspected Taliban militants this morning. Now, what happened there was, journalists who went down to cover that found themselves set upon and assaulted by the police clearly carrying out the government's orders that we should not be covering any violence.

A number of those reporters were beaten up; a number of them had their cameras destroyed. One or two managed to hoof it out and escape with their story intact.

So it's quite clear that in some senses the government is trying to sort of make good on its efforts to suppress the bad news. But the fact is, Afghans are Afghans. These are tough people. And watching something on a television, or listening to a radio broadcast, or hearing in a newspaper report or something of that nature I don't believe is going to put off many Afghans from going to the polls.

A Taliban threat might, but things like what the media have got to say I think will make very little difference. But it shows just how jumpy the government has been in the run-up to this poll.

RAY SUAREZ: Alex Thomson, thanks for joining us.

ALEX THOMSON: My pleasure. You're welcome.