Ballots and Bullets for Afghanistan

With only days to go before the election in Afghanistan, it looks
like the fix is in. That's what most Afghans have been saying all along.

The danger now is not that the election might be tainted by backroom
deals or fraud. That's old news. Even international bodies charged with
facilitating the process have given up the goal of "free and fair"
elections. They aim instead for "credible" elections--which means
results that look pretty good, even when they're not.

No, the real danger is that those international bodies, led by the
United States, will validate the crooked election as "credible" even
when it
doesn't look good at all. Yet the hopes of the US-led international
community ride on a credible outcome to provide evidence of
Afghanistan's conversion to "democracy." Not to mention their vested
interests--including an estimated $500 million to stage this
extravaganza. If they were going to fess up to fraud, they should have
done so long ago.

A quick list of only a few things gone wrong:

Stacking the Deck: All the members of the so-called Independent
Election Commission were appointed by President Karzai, and they've
never disguised their allegiance to him. So the initial vetting process
for candidates eliminated some promising challengers and spared old
cronies, including the war criminals the process was meant to screen
out.

Backroom
Deals
: One after another, potential and declared candidates
have bowed out to back Karzai. Word leaks out about which ministries
they've been promised. Karzai buys the support of local leaders running
for provincial offices, using (illegally) all the perks of office, from
airplanes to free airtime on national TV, to help his friends and
himself. One of his deals brought him Hazara support in exchange for the
notorious Shia Personal Status Law, enforcing a
wife's sexual servitude in violation of the Afghan Constitution.

Voter Fraud: In May in Ghazni, $200 would buy 200 blank registration
cards, but lots of people, including minors, already had plenty. Men
were able to get a bunch by handing in a list of women for whom they
will vote by proxy. Since no central registry exists, verification is
impossible. A
recent report
places the number of voter registration
cards distributed (not including fakes) at 17 million, almost twice the
estimated number of eligible voters in the country. To guarantee
victory in the last elections in 2004 and 2005, many candidates arranged
to have ballot boxes stuffed while awaiting transport to central
collection points. So this time the votes are to be tallied at the
polling places. That should make it even easier for local big men to fix
the results; they won't even have to count.

All this--and much more chicanery--leaves the United States in a no-win
situation of its own making. We got into it in 2004 by overestimating
our ability to put one over on Afghans and Americans alike. And by
underestimating Afghans: we expected voter fraud and we ignored it. Even
when the percentage of women voters surpassed an inconceivable 70
percent of the total voter registration (in provinces where women are
scarcely allowed out of the house), some internationals welcomed the
trend. More blatant fraud this time around, and more conspicuous deals,
are proof of Afghans' aptitude for the game we taught them to call
"democracy."

This leaves Afghan voters, many of whom still hope for democratic
change, in a quandary. Some of them, like some cynical Western election
specialists, believe that a crooked election is better than none. But
few are happy that almost all the self-appointed candidates for
president are the same old suspects: fundamentalist mujahedeen, Islamist
mullahs, war criminals, Taliban and drug lords--and not a dime's worth
of difference between them. (Their numbers are dwindling from 41 into
the 30s as last-minute deals are made.) Even some men say they'll cast a
protest vote for one of the two women in the race: the only candidates
who had no hand in destroying the country.

The American press, searching for a contest, depicts Dr.
Abdullah
Abdullah
as a contender; and he's the only one for whom I've heard
Afghans express real enthusiasm. Interestingly, he promises to devolve
power to the parliament and the provincial councils in a kind of
decentralized democracy much more attuned to Afghan political
traditions--but not at all what the United States has had in mind. "A
presidential government always turns into an autocracy," he says.

Which may account for recent reports from a backroom that former
Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the Obama's administrations special envoy
to Afghanistan and Pakistan, is brokering another deal: Ashraf Ghani,
the third-ranked candidate, is to shift his support to Karzai and become
a kind of prime minister in his government. As a former World Bank
official and finance minister, Ghani is reputed to be an honest man;
he's a known quantity who could actually run the place.

Whether this deal goes through or not, the rumors confirm Afghan
assumptions that Afghan votes have no influence in the outcome of the
election. Dr. Abdullah's supporters cry foul, promising that if he
doesn't win, they'll take to the streets--with
Kalashnikovs
. And of course the hot war against the Taliban
continues.

Which brings us to another great danger: the United States has seized
upon the
election as the occasion and the excuse for unprecedented expansion of
Afghan military and paramilitary forces, not to mention the influx of
more and more American troops. We're not democratizing Afghanistan.
We're militarizing it.

The Afghan National Police (ANP), who claim a strength of 82,000 men,
are
training 15,
000 additional "soldiers"
to provide "security" for the
elections. The Ministry of the Interior and DynCorp, the American
for-profit contractor on the job, condensed basic training from eight
weeks to three--just enough to drill some principles of tactics and
firearms so police can protect polling places without necessarily
getting slaughtered by the Taliban. For the most dangerous job in the
country, they get $5.00 a day. If they survive the election, they'll
return for full basic training.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) is in
training (at a base built by Soviets
and later used by Taliban) with mentors from the United States, Britain,
France and the American for-profit contractor MPRI. Basic training for
soldiers takes ten weeks, and each course turns out five battalions, or
6,000 men. Thirty percent of them will go on to two months of Advanced
Combat Training. There's also a six-week training course for former
mujahedeen who know how to fight--they beat the Soviet Union--but not as
a unit, as American trainers think they should.

In July, the commander of the Kabul Military Training Center (KMTC)
told me that more than 90,000 soldiers were ready for service, up from
68,000 a year earlier. (Though when US Marines entered Helmand Province
on July 2, only about 600 ANA soldiers went with them.) Intensified training puts the ANA "approved end strength" of
134,000 soldiers within reach by December 2011, according to KMTC
officials, but already the ANA is thinking ahead to 200,000 men or more.
Here as in the ANP and the American military, the approved end strength
is just a number on the way to something bigger.

And if that's not enough, the United States and the International Security
Assistance Force
(ISAF) set up an Afghan Public Protection Program,
arming groups of young men in Wardak Province to bring "security" to
their villages. Wardak parliamentarian Dr. Roshanak Wardak blasts the
idea: "You want Pashtun boys to shoot their cousins? This is a
strategy?"
Based on the "Sons of Iraq" scheme in Iraq, the pilot
project is meant
to expand to other provinces.

Another scheme transplanted from Iraq calls for hiring thousands of
armed tribal militiamen in eighteen southern provinces to provide
"security"
for the elections. They're promised permanent jobs in their home areas
if they prove "effective." It's based on "the
Awakening"
in Iraq, a
plan that paid Sunnis in Anbar Province to fight against Al Qaeda; and a
whole new branch of government has been set up to run it. But this
transplant too looks like a blunder. It's one thing to pit Iraqi Sunnis
against foreign Al Qaeda fighters, and quite another to recruit Pashtuns
to shoot their cousins for $150 a month.

All this training and recruiting reminded me of George W. Bush's
promise about Iraq: "When they stand up, we'll stand down." So I went
out to Bagram Air Base (originally built by the Soviets) to see if
anybody is standing down yet. Instead, that other prominent for-profit
contractor KBR is busy putting up bigger dormitories, more commodious
showers, more permanent quarters. And immense vacant fields that appear
to be at least as large as the existing base are being de-mined and
cleared of debris in preparation for more construction. (Is this what's
meant by "development" in Afghanistan?) As for the Detention Center to
which many former residents of Guantanamo were transferred,
that's been
expanded too, but it's off limits to all but the Red Cross. "Never
mind," a soldier told me. "The real action is at the FOBs"--Forward
Operating Bases. "That's where the shit goes down. Out there."

To ignore history is never a good idea. Remember when US policy
embraced Islamic fundamentalists as our natural allies (as a Christian
nation) against godless communism? And where are they now? Out
there--among the FOBs and the soldiers of the ANP and the ANA and the
pseudo Sons of Iraq and the brand-new same-old militias and the Taliban.
If the contest at the ballot box doesn't move the country to greater
violence, all this "security" should do the trick.

It's too bad about Afghans though. Given half a chance, they'd vote
for change and peace and reconciliation and no more soldiers.

© 2023 The Nation