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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Half the violence, twice the fraud: The Afghan elections

The election was violent, but …

There were hundreds of election-related security incidents around Afghanistan on Saturday — just over 300, according to the defense minister. Across the country 63 polling stations were attacked with rockets, causing voters to run away from polling stations, and there was at least one suicide bomber. But that compares favorably to the 479 incidents of election violence during the 2009 presidential election. While it remains intolerable that so much violence mars the election, a 37% reduction in it is surely a good thing.

Photo: Morgan Simpson, Democracy International

That doesn’t mean that we can declare victory just yet. Al Jazeera reported that just before the election began, 19 people involved in it were abducted. One of the kidnapped people is Safiullah Mujaddedi, a candidate for Parliament who was abducted on the outskirts of Herat on Friday. The Taliban are holding him ransom for one million Afghanis. Additionally, much of the pre-election violence wasn’t caused by the Taliban, but by other candidates for Parliament. While ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) commander General David Petraeus speaks of the bravery of the Afghan people (he’s right), we can’t declare a democratic victory under these conditions.

There was massive fraud

By all accounts voting fraud was worse this year, for a number of reasons. Freelance reporter Matthieu Aikins, tweeting from Jalalabad, in the east of the country near Pakistan, said most of this fraud revolved around women. Because they are rarely searched by male election workers, women were caught smuggling thousands of voting cards into voting booths. Women also rarely have photographs of their faces on their ID cards — so it can be difficult if not impossible to confirm any woman’s identity on voting day. There’s also the possibility that women are instructed or coerced by their husbands to engage in fraudulent activity, although there’s no way to know if that’s true. Aikins also reported that children, clearly too young to vote, were lining up at the polls, voting. Anand Gopal, reporting from Wardak, the province just south of Kabul where the U.S. military has enacted a high-profile community policing program to combat the Taliban, similarly reports on “widespread fraud” at the voting booths. He noted at one station, only about 20 people showed up to vote, but local workers were marking hundreds of ballots for one of the candidates.

Lots of fear

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA), which fielded nearly 7,000 observers to monitor the election, reported that “ink quality” was a major issue. Afghanistan is largely illiterate, so people can’t check their names or add themselves to a voter registry (and the country is poor, so it’s not like they can just add retinal scanners at the voting stations). So, voters are supposed to dunk their index fingers into a tin of indelible ink after they vote, so they cannot simply go to another voting station to vote again. Except this year, just about everyone who monitored the elections reported that thousands of people were scrubbing the ink off their fingers with bleach.

The ink-scrubbing, though, probably has little if anything to do with fraud. As Mattieu Aikins reported, it was simply fear. No one wanted to get killed for participating in the election, whether being killed just for voting by the Taliban or killed by a candidate’s followers for voting for the “wrong” person.

Turnout was mixed

There doesn’t seem to be one uniform story about turnout. The New York Times reported that voter turnout was “light,” particularly highlighting how empty the women-only polling centers were in Kabul. However, Pajhwok Afghan News, one of the best sources for news from Afghanistan, reported that in Nimroz, a province in the far southwest, nestled against Iran and Pakistan, most of the voters were women. Just to the east, however, there was yet another story. Alex Strick van Linschoten, a researcher based in Kandahar, reported beforehand that, “nobody was interested in the elections.”

Given the other reports about women being “responsible” (or at least used) for much of the voting fraud, it’s probably incorrect to say women were uniquely disenfranchised. ABC ran a report by one female candidate in Helmand saying everyone needed to be “brave.” One friend even reported that he saw men voting for their wives and daughters, though whether that’s true is impossible to determine. Either way, Saad Mohseni, the CEO of TOLO TV, Afghanistan’s most popular private TV station, reported that turnout was “good,” according to a “well regarded observer.”

Afghans now face some difficult choices

The New York Times reported that in Marjah, the scene of a high profile campaign to defeat the Taliban in a tiny, isolated farming community in central Helmand province earlier this year, almost no one voted. This area was meant to be the showcase for America’s newest counterinsurgency techniques, an example of how the military’s knowledge about fighting this sort of war would lead to less violence, more participation in government and less local support for the insurgency. While the U.S. Marines who were interviewed said that local Afghans wanted to vote but felt they could not, the Marine Corps’ basic inability to provide sufficient security for an important national election should raise questions about how well the government is gauging its own effectiveness. More importantly, this shows that Afghans don’t necessarily believe the promises of ISAF and their own government that they are capable of providing security.

But all is not doom and gloom. Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the American Security Project who was in northern Afghanistan as an election observer, reported that in Samangan, there was “no obvious fraud,” and that the voting process was “quite efficient and well-handled.” And that’s an important point to consider as well: it is really “sexy,” in a way, to talk about violence during the election; it is less interesting to talk about what went well. Jed Ober, the chief-of-staff of Democracy International, which fielded 80 observers in 15 provinces, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that the election showed some really positive signs. And that’s worth considering, especially since it’s so soon afterward that we simply cannot know the complete picture of the election.

However, there is something darker to consider. A significant amount of the violence was not from the Taliban, but from other candidates in the election. Furthermore, there were no reports of massive ballot-stuffing, as during the 2009 presidential election. This probably means that the fraud was on a smaller scale but much more widespread — as evidenced by pre-election intimidation, women sneaking in thousands of fake voting cards (that one is a daughter of an Independent Election Commission member), and small scale attacks on individual stations. At the same time, insurgent violence against the election was down significantly over last year, which raises a possibly troubling, possibly hopeful prospect.

In a possibly isolated incident, ISAF recently attacked a convoy of cars in Takhar, a small province in northeast Afghanistan. They remain adamant that they killed some previously unknown insurgent figure. One of the occupants of those cars, however, was a candidate running parliament — he was injured, and several of his companions were killed. It raises the prospect of either candidates working with insurgent leaders for some reason, or of insurgent groups fielding their own candidates for office. After all, there is no reason to engage in widespread election violence if your own people are running.

However, if that’s true, and violence was so much lower in some areas because insurgent leaders were fielding their own candidates, is that a good thing? The easiest answer is yes, because it means insurgents either see a future in the government, or they feel the politics of government is something they want to participate in. It’s also possible that a willingness to field their own candidates means several insurgent groups can be reconciled into the government and stop fighting entirely.

It’s not that simple, however. If there’s any dynamic which holds hard and fast across Afghanistan, it is that corruption will drive Taliban recruitment. And this election was massively corrupt — we don’t know if it’s more so than last year’s election, but it’s very bad. Will Afghans be willing to trade corruption for violence again? Will they support a reduction in violence if it turns the one branch of their government that wasn’t derided as a shallow tool of corrupt kleptocrats into precisely what they vehemently reject every chance they get?

This is one of the choices at the heart of any talk of reconciliation for the insurgency. Will the people allow war criminals to basically get off scott-free — no trial, no punishment, no justice for their crimes — if it means an end to the decades of violence? We here in America cannot answer that question. It’s something Afghans have to answer for themselves (and our leaders in Washington need to respect that answer). But this election has raised the troubling prospect of ending one pernicious drag on Afghanistan’s society and replacing it with one almost as pernicious — reducing violence but massively increasing already massive fraud. I’m not sure that is an improvement, overall.