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The Rest

Aug 27, 2009

Voting for Afghanistan. Again and again and again

The Election Complaints Commission has already received 1157 allegations of irregularities in Afghanistan. And the allegations are not just coming from disgruntled candidates.

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“We should at least include a few for Dr Abdullah, don’t you think?”

That’s a man on a video allegedly taken during the election in Afghanistan. He’s talking to a companion as they vote, again and again and again, for President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai’s challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, screened the footage at a press conference, alongside a swag of other evidence of electoral fraud. In one clip, Karzai supporters casually wander into the booths to ensure voters complete their ballots correctly. In another, ballots boxes are shown being filled, hours after the polls allegedly closed. Abdullah even produced a bundle of ballots still attached to their pad. Each had been completed in the same hand; each showed a vote for Karzai.

Had Dr Abdullah been standing for public office in Iran, his allegations would have been front-page news around the world. You’ll remember how, in the Iranian election, claims of fraud by the Opposition led to a near universal acceptance that the vote was a fix. Yet the Mousavi campaign never produced anything like the evidence Abdullah has accrued.

The Election Complaints Commission has already received 1157 allegations of irregularities. And the allegations are not just from disgruntled candidates. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, cites a confidential report from one US observer team noting that ballot boxes have been arrived from Kandahar and similar regions filled to the brim with votes, despite very low rates of participation in those areas.

The journalist Martine van Bijlert records something similar:

I called someone from Ghazni: “How did the election go in Ghazni? Or how it did not go?” He laughed. “No, no, there was an election. It took place in the governor’s guesthouse and in the compounds of the district governors, and in several houses. It’s still ongoing.”

I asked him what he meant. He explained that it had been decided that Karzai should win with 250,000 votes, out of an imaginary total of 340,000, Not enough boxes had been filled yet to reach that number, so the filling and counting continued.

Nearly half the polling stations in Afghanistan apparently had no independent observers, local or foreign, which left the door open for all kinds of shenanigans. The Guardian reports:

In the tatty corridors of the school, Abdullah’s bodyguard was showing off his hand to journalists — just half an hour earlier his right index finger had been dipped in supposedly indelible ink after he cast his vote.

Now it was entirely stain-free. Soon, other recent voters were testing his technique, dipping their dark purple fingers into a bottle of domestic bathroom bleach and cleaning off the ink in just a couple of minutes.

If the low-tech security measures spectacularly failed, so did their high-tech counterparts. Before the poll, Ajmal Amin Rabmal, from the information technology division of the Independent Election Commission, pledged that his computer algorithms would identify 90% of all fraud. Now the IEC has clarified that neither Rabmal nor his algorithms will actually be available to the media. You see, despite the IEC’s reassuringly democratic title, its head is appointed directly by Hamid Karzai, without any legislative or judicial oversight and many Afghans quite reasonably regard it with suspicion.

In any case, given the prevailing conditions, it’s difficult to see what the computers would show. As McClatchy Newspapers’ Jonathan Landay explained:

When we hear percentages of turnout, when we hear percentages of votes, really, we don’t know what those percentages are, because nobody knows how many registered voters there are. There’s absolutely no doubt that there was fraud. There’s absolutely no doubt that there was voter intimidation. The question is, to what extent? What was the extent of the vote? What was the extent of the intimidation and the fraud? These are questions that are going to be very hard to answer.

Colouring everything is, of course, the security situation. In Kandahar, another massive car bomb has just killed more than 30 people. Not surprisingly, Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Dutch academic in that city, described the turnout for the election there as “extremely low”. In Helmand, where the British have been engaged in bloody combat with the Taliban, as few as 150 people were said to have voted.

Before the election, Slate’s Anne Applebaum argued that the actual result of the election mattered less than a perception of fairness that would generate legitimacy for the government. That seems why Western governments have so determinedly overlooked the failures in the process, with Barack Obama, for instance, already declaring the poll a success.

Yet you can easily reverse Applebaum’s argument. Discussing Iraq, Colin Powell famously invoked what he called the “Pottery Barn” rule: that is, if you break it, you own it. Afghanistan has been under occupation since 2001. Eight years is long enough for an entire generation to come to maturity knowing only the UN as the real power in the land. What are the consequences, then, if the international community lends its imprimatur to an election conducted in such a fashion?

Here’s Landay again:

The problem with that is that, here in Afghanistan, when you talk, you know, to ordinary Afghans, expressions of “Well, this is a step forward, this is progress” make it sound as if, oh, the international community is endorsing this election as being successful.

And that carries very dangerous seeds for the United States and the international community, because if it turns out that in fact this election was fraught with fraud, was fraught with violence, and was in fact not legitimate, well, the United States and its partners are going to be seen as endorsing an illegitimate election and possibly even being portrayed as being a part — part and parcel of the illegitimacy.

Jeff Sparrow is editor of Overland and author of Killing: adventures in violence (MUP)

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2 comments

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2 thoughts on “Voting for Afghanistan. Again and again and again

  1. Richard Wilson

    Can somebody please tell me why we are in Afghanistan again?

  2. AR

    Richard – my guess is to cleave off the western, relatively (sic! we are talking Afghanistan) flat terrain from Uzbekistan through Baluchistan ( the next theatre of NATO/Coalition of the Drilling) operations to pacifiy/depopulate) to the coast. This is a Fazir speaking, mostly Shia, relatively cultured (see above…!) region which will be happy to be receive pipeline revenues and be rid of the Wahhabi crazed Pushtus further east and the irrelvant mayor of Kabul’s pretensions.
    I haven’t been there for 30yrs but it’s always (only a millenia or so but…) been a fairly stable (again, see above) country, spurning the tribal madness elsewhere.

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