This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Afghanistan still awaits final results from the nationwide election held last month to fill the 249 seats of the lower house of Parliament. Deciding which of the more than 2,500 candidates won takes time because the Electoral Complaints Commission that investigates voting irregularities, made up of five men handpicked by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, was swamped by more than 4,200 complaints.
Last year, when Karzai himself ran for reelection, he busied himself with backroom deals, while his supporters were caught red-handed stuffing ballot boxes and having a good laugh. Every Afghan knew that the president who had been foisted on them by foreigners in 2001 was stealing the election. Yet the international community, led by the United States, proclaimed the process if not exactly "free and fair," at least "credible"—which is to say: Hey, what's a little fraud among friends?
With that experience so fresh in memory, the current Electoral Complaints Commission went to work with unusual efficiency, resolving most complaints with unaccustomed speed. And last week the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, an oversight body also selected by President Karzai, announced that it would throw out as invalid almost a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast. Until that moment Afghans, who aspire to democracy, had hoped for a more honest election than the charade that returned Karzai to power in 2009. No such luck. The partial results of this one look just as bad as the presidential vote, with roughly the same percentage of ballots invalidated.
While dumping fraudulent votes may give the appearance of rigorous oversight, the numbers raise a new mystery: where did those votes come from? In the two days following the election last month, the running total of votes cast rose from 3.6 million to 4.4 million. Now, it has suddenly jumped again to 5.6 million—of which 1.3 million ballots have been discarded, leaving a total of 4.3 million valid votes. Election-watcher Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network described the attitude of the Independent Election Commission this way: "If you want to know where the additional votes came from: they were added fraudulently, now they have been removed, and that is really all you need to know."
Perhaps noting that the fraud factor was holding steady, a spokesman for the Independent Election Commission declared that a level of fraud with more than one in five votes considered phony is "normal" in an election.
Thus do official bodies in Afghanistan's widely advertised new democracy—the one for which our troops are fighting—smooth over all irregularities and make short work of making do, of overseeing elections as usual: not free, not fair, just good enough for Afghans.
But are they?
Without waiting for final results, what passes for "the international community" has already pronounced the elections a "success," but an email from a parliamentary candidate, a woman I know named Mahbouba Seraj, tells a different story:
"I honestly don't know from where to start. My frustration, disappointment, and anger are so great I am afraid they might get the better of me. I was involved in the first presidential election of Afghanistan in 2004 and the first parliamentary election in 2005, but oh how different those elections were. I won't say they were better because they too were captured by the War Lords, Commanders, and criminals—just like this election—but the level of fraud and corruption was nothing compared to this. Those men used force and got elected by their rifles and machine guns, but this election was… unbelievable. I have no other word to use."
Many "unbelievable" stories litter this election, but Seraj's tale is especially instructive because, in the end, it is all too believable. In fact, it's a pretty simple story of courageous idealism confounded by big men with money.
On the Campaign Trail
When I last saw candidate Seraj in Kabul, the Afghan capital, in July, she was about to leave for Nuristan Province to campaign. It was a brave undertaking. Nuristan lies in the northeast of the country, sandwiched between Panshir Province and Pakistan, along the southern face of the Hindu Kush, a monumental sub-range of the Himalayas. Its precipitous slopes and high valleys are so forbidding and remote that even Islam did not reach Nuristanis until the late nineteenth century, and they are to this day considered a unique people.
The Taliban move freely in Nuristan. In 2008, they almost overran a US base there, killing nine American soldiers. Then-Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal responded by withdrawing American troops from all four of their major bases in the province. The US military high command has given up on certain Afghan locales—in 2010, American troops notably left the deadly and unattainable Korengal Valley, not far from Nuristan—but never before to my knowledge had they given up on a whole province.
Nevertheless, Seraj, a woman of fierce energy, wanted to represent the people of the Duaba and Mondawel districts in western Nuristan, where her grandmother was born. She put it this way to me: "I believe in democracy so much. I want it so much for Afghanistan. I tell my constituents, 'I don't believe in buying votes as so many candidates do. Please give them to me willingly, because then you will have your representative in Parliament who will truly serve you.'"
Worried for her safety, I reminded her that, during the 2005 parliamentary campaign in her province, another female candidate, Hawa Nuristani, and several of her staff had been shot.
"Yes," Seraj agreed, "but she survived, and she won."
Mahbouba Seraj's recent email about her election race was not meant for me alone. It was addressed this way: "To my beautiful and forgotten province and its lovely and amazing people." It was an English translation of an open letter she had written to her constituents explaining why, in this important election, they had not been able to vote at all. Reading it made clear why she considered the election of 2010 even more outrageous than previous shameful Afghan escapades in electioneering and fraud.
In 2005, the men in power in Nuristan had tried to murder the candidate they opposed. Since then they have learned that the internationals—read Americans—will accept any results as long as the election process looks reasonably good. In 2010, far more sophisticated, they murdered democracy simply by killing time.
As Seraj wrote:
"First of all, Nuristan had not been made ready for an election. They didn't have Army and police personnel to provide security as promised. Then the hard-working head of the election committee of Nuristan was fired two weeks before polling day because some powerful candidates complained about him to the Election Commission. The young man who replaced him seemed to have no idea what his job was, yet he made sure the ballot boxes didn't get to Mondawel and Duaba districts, which very conveniently happened to be my constituencies.
"The most incredible part of the story is that this young man had the power to stop a plane that was ready to take off to deliver the ballot boxes. He refused to hand over the ballot boxes for Mondawel district to the official in charge of the district and the staff of armed men designated to carry the ballots through the mountains to all the remote polling centers in Mondawel. He created delays and made excuses for days until it was too late."
Officials in Kabul were also well versed in the technique. When Seraj tried to contact the head of the Independent Election Commission in Kabul, she reported:
"His very polite assistant would talk to me and tell me, 'I will ask Mr. So-and-so to call you back,' but he never did. Finally, I had to leave Nuristan and come to Kabul to meet with him, but when I arrived for our appointment, he had left the city to take care of other problems, and somehow I had not been notified.
"That day I tried to get in touch with anyone I could think of who might be able to help—the Minister of Defense, the Head of the United Nations in Kabul, Mr. de Mistura, and other officials at UNAMA [The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan]—but everyone was engaged. By then I knew the level of fraud and corruption in Nuristan was going to hit the roof, and it did. Ballots were stolen from polling stations and scattered on the mountainsides or taken to people's houses and filled out. To the last minute, people were offering to buy and sell voting cards and votes. What could we do? My campaign manager and I filled out complaints to the Election Complaints Commissions in both Nuristan and Kabul."
Those complaints must now be among the thousands filed by people all over the country with similar disappointed dreams of real Afghan democracy—the very complaints now being so efficiently dealt with in Kabul even as disgruntled voters take to the streets of Herat, Kunduz, Paktia, Ghor, and other cities to protest mass disqualifications that seem to fall inequitably on certain areas or ethnic groups. Yet angry voters and candidates are turned away from the Election Complaints Commission with useless, unregistered receipts. Recognizing election proceedings that look "eerily familiar," analyst van Bijlert notes: "the processes that are aimed at cleaning up the vote and dismissing fraudulent ballots have become so murky that they themselves are now widely seen as simply the next phase of manipulation."