(Sorry for the length of this post, but the elections have elicited some interesting revelations and commentary, which I extract below - lovingly edited, as always.)
Preliminary reports are now saying that, with 17% of votes counted, Hamid Karzai has a lead over Dr. Abdullah of 45% to 35%. Let's look at some of the more interesting reports and commentary on the election.
Malalai Joya presents what seems to be a common view of Afghans on the street:
Why Afghans Have No Hope in This Week's Vote
by Malalai Joya
Like millions of Afghans, I have no hope in the results of this week’s election. In a country ruled by warlords, occupation forces, Taliban insurgency, drug money and guns, no one can expect a legitimate or fair vote.
Among the people on the street, a common sentiment is, ‘Everything has already been decided by the U.S. and NATO, and the real winner has already been picked by the White House and Pentagon.’ ...
Hamid Karzai has cemented alliances with brutal warlords and fundamentalists in order to maintain his position. Although our Constitution forbids war criminals from running for office, he has named two notorious militia commanders as his vice-presidential running mates...
Deals have been made with countless fundamentalists in Karzai’s maneuvering to stay in power. For example, pro-Iranian extremist Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, who has been accused of war crimes, has been promised five cabinet positions for his party, and so he has told the media he’s backing Karzai. A deal has even been done with the dreaded warlord Rashid Dostum – who has returned from exile in Turkey to campaign for Karzai – and many other such terrorists...
The two main contenders to Karzai’s continued rule, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah, do not offer any change; both are former cabinet ministers in this discredited regime and neither has a real, broad footing amongst the people. Abdullah has run a high profile campaign, in part due to the backing and financial support he receives from Iran’s fundamentalist regime...
Democracy will never come to Afghanistan through the barrel of a gun, or from the cluster bombs dropped by foreign forces. The struggle will be long and difficult, but the values of real democracy, human rights and women’s rights will only be won by the Afghan people themselves... (link)
Jean MacKenzie, who for some years has headed the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Kabul and has managed to get out to the less-visited places of Afghanistan with some regularity. Her frank assessments of the war have often presented some surprises, and she does not disappoint this time, bitterly explaining many of the short-comings of the Afghan election:
Afghanistan's Sham Vote
By Jean MacKenzie - The New York Times
AUGUST 25 - The dust had barely settled on the Afghan elections before the U.S. government, the United Nations and the European Union were hailing them as a success, commending voters for their heroism and election workers for their relative efficiency.
This would be laughable if it were not such a great shame. The elections were severely marred by violence and widespread fraud, and the results are unlikely to placate a population already frustrated by eight years of mismanagement and corruption.
The haste with which U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide held a press conference to say that Aug. 20 was “a good day for Afghanistan” merely served to underscore the central, if unappetizing, truth about the Afghan poll: It was never meant for the Afghans.
Instead, it was intended to convince voters in New York, London, Paris and Rome that their soldiers and their governments have not been wasting blood and treasure...
If last Thursday was, indeed, a “good day,” one would have to wonder what a bad day looks like. There were three explosions in Kabul by 8:00 a.m., and several more during the voting period.
Reporters calling in to our news bureau from the south were dodging rockets all day — we could hear explosions in the background as they filed their stories. By day’s end 14 rockets had fallen on Helmand Province, 17 on Kandahar.
At least 30 people died, and possibly many more. How many we do not know exactly, since the Afghan government imposed a news blackout on reporting violence during the elections.
Turnout was minimal. Even in Kabul, polling stations were half empty. During parliamentary elections in 2005, barely 36 percent of registered voters in the capital went to the polls. What I saw last Thursday fell far below even that modest threshold. Nevertheless, the Independent Election Commission is claiming the turnout was between 40 and 50 percent.
The figure is merely notional. For one thing, in a country where there are no voter rolls, there are not even approximate figures for how many voters there actually are. The I.E.C. can say with confidence that there have been about 17 million voter registration cards issued in Afghanistan since 2004. But many voters have multiple cards, or have lost their old ones and acquired replacements.
Media sources claim that 7 million people voted last Thursday. What they actually mean is that 7 million ballots were cast. This is far from the same thing. Voting requires merely the number of a voter registration card. There are no signatures, no thumbprints. Tribal leaders (who in many cases were administering polling stations) have been collecting and copying voter registration cards for weeks, telling villagers that it was necessary in order to register them for material assistance.
All that was needed on election day was a low voter turnout. If by day’s end, for example, 100 people had voted, but there were actually 500 registered cards in a district, the polling center administrator could cast up to 400 ballots for the candidate of his choice.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on what is, essentially, a charade. But that is not the real tragedy of these elections. What the international community has done is demonstrate to Afghans that democracy is a sham. Trust in these elections has been very low among Afghans from the outset... (link)
While MacKenzie's piece notes the elections were "seriously marred by violence," much of the mass media seems uninterested in that story. Time Magazine is an exception, thanks to journalist Jason Motlagh:
"Raging gun-battles in Baghlan province resulted in the deaths of at least 21 militants and forced polling stations to close. Overall, however, the south fared worse. Just one voting station opened in southern Helmand province..." (link)
Agence-France Presse expands on some of the issues put forth by MacKenzie:
'Biased' Afghan vote commission under fire
By Emmanuel Duparcq
KABUL, Aug 24 (AFP) - Afghanistan's election commission, which is due to release Tuesday the first results from contested polls, has come under fire for bias and allegedly colluding in fraud to the advantage of President Hamid Karzai.
Suspicion emerged two years before the election with a presidential decree appointing Azizullah Lodin, a former academic and Karzai advisor in the western province of Herat, head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC).
His appointment was announced on January 3, 2007 and Karzai repeatedly ignored calls from political opponents for Lodin to be approved by parliament.
On election day, Lodin went before the media to congratulate the country on "massive" turnout despite reports from independent observers that participation was the worst of any election in recent memory.
The commission predicted turnout at 50 percent. Monitors put participation as low as 10 percent in some Taliban strongholds -- a dubious achievement even for the first election organised by Afghans themselves since the 2001 US-led invasion.
One Western diplomat slapped aside 50 percent as a "joke," pointing to weak turnout in the south and southeast, where Taliban insurgents are strong and where they threatened death for voters who went to the ballot box.
The IEC has yet to publish official turnout figures. It should start trickling out partial results from Tuesday but the final result is not expected for another two weeks.
Analysts have raised concern about the length of time before the results are announced, warning this might further raise suspicions against the IEC...
From the outset, US-based group Human Rights Watch said the independence of the IEC was compromised by Karzai's appointment of Lodin without parliamentary oversight and accused Lodin of displaying "clear bias".
This was manifested against "some opposition candidates, including attempts to pressure the Electoral Complaints Commission to exclude certain candidates and publicly criticising the calibre and mental health of others," it said.
"There have also been complaints made by candidates and monitoring officials also have raised questions about the impartiality and behavior of some of the commission's field staff," said HRW.
The election commission and its staff have also faced accusations of massaging the process in favour of Karzai on polling day.
"There were reports from some provinces that the commission exerted pressure on its staff in a manner which raised questions about its impartiality," said a preliminary report from the EU mission monitoring the election.
Leading local monitors, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan which deployed nearly 7,000 observers on election day, also quoted witness accounts denouncing IEC staff for pro-Karzai attitudes... (link)
If it were not enough that official voting rates are a "joke," and that the actual rates were "a dubious achievement," two AP reporters find that the elections may signal a setback for women:
Afghan elections seen as a setback for women
Nahal Toosi and Noor Khan
KABUL, Aug 24 (AP) - For women, Afghanistan's recent elections appear to have been more of a setback than a step forward.
Early reports strongly suggest that voter turnout fell more sharply for women than for men in Thursday's polls. Election observers blame Taliban attacks, a dearth of female election workers and hundreds of closed women's voting sites.
Some worry the result could be a new government that pays even less attention to women's concerns in a country where cultural conservatism already restricts female participation in public life...
At least 650 polling stations for women did not open, according to the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent vote monitoring group. In the southern province of Uruzgan, only 6 of 36 women's polling stations opened, the group said.
That was partly because authorities couldn't find enough female staffers... (link)
Showing no small amount of bravery in the face of government bullying of the press, Pajhwok Afghan News reports on voting fraud:
At a polling station in Gardez Girls High School, some monitors alleged minor girls cast votes. Torpikai, head of the 5th polling station, said most of the girls were aged between 12 and 15.
She griped security forces did not bother preventing the girls from entering the polling station. Election workers allegedly told the girls the names of several candidates they should vote for.
Pajhwok Afghan News saw the voter registration card of a 12-year-old girl... (link)
Pajhwok also ran another story which raised questions of voting irregularities. It cites the Asian Network for Free Elections and their criticisms of the polling:
ANFREL observers believed lack of awareness among females and security problems reduced the number of women casting votes, the chairperson added.
The influence of tribal elders, misuse of government resources in favour of a specific candidate, use of low-quality ink, multiple registration cards and the participation of ineligible people were some of the irregularities noted by the delegation.
Afghanistan being a fledgling democracy could not be expected to show the highest standards of democratic values, he remarked, acknowledging election violations existed everywhere.
The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan also spokes of violations and low turnout in the elections.
ANFREL observers suggested Independent Election Commission officials should be appointed through a balanced system by parliament and not by an individual. There were complaints of the IEC workers demonstrating partiality, he concluded. (link)
The Toronto Star's Rosie Dimanno also runs down the sins of the Afghan election:
What the observers saw: Underage voters, illiterates being told who to mark their ballots for, monitors ejected from polling centres, men acting as proxy voters for women and, in at least one case, somebody hauling a pre-stuffed ballot box into a polling station... (link)
Lastly, Patrick Cockburn, who possesses a remarkable depth of knowledge, sums up the more general situation. He writes that the US/NATO war has become both an intervention on one side of a civil war, and an occupation which has little chance of winning over the population:
The Truth About The Afghan Election
In Iraq and Afghanistan American and British forces became participants in civil wars which their own presence has exacerbated and prolonged. The US and UK governments persistently ignore the extent to which foreign military occupation has destabilized both countries...
Foreign military presence was originally acceptable to Afghans in a way that it never was in Iraq. This is partly because Iraq was occupied outside Kurdistan, but most of Afghanistan was not. While only 25 per cent of all Afghans say they support attacks on US or NATO/ISAF forces, this figure jumps to 44 per cent where people report shelling or air strikes in their areas according to an ABC News/BBC/ARD poll. Contrary to Washington’s plans, just 18 per cent of Afghans say they want foreign forces in Afghanistan increased and 44 per cent want them decreased. The Taliban, once vilified as Pakistani puppets, are having some success in re-branding themselves as Afghan nationalists.
One of the many depressing aspects of the American and British campaign in Afghanistan is that so few of the lessons of Iraq have been learned. One is that foreign military occupation is unpopular and tends to get more so. Iraq and Afghanistan are both countries with deep ethnic and sectarian divisions and foreign occupiers end up, willy-nilly, on one side or the other in civil strife...
The idea, popular in some Washington think tanks, that a few obvious tactical innovations won the war in Iraq, and can do so again in Afghanistan, is wholly misleading and will lure the US and Britain further into the morass. (link)