The real fraud about Afghanistan’s election

April 16, 2014

Helen Redmond challenges the media myth-making about the election in Afghanistan.

THE U.S. media celebrated Afghanistan's April 5 elections as a success story. The country's Independent Election Commission reported that more than 7 million voters participated in the presidential and provincial council voting, a higher turnout than the 2009 election.

But there's more to Afghanistan's election than met the eyes of the Western press.

The ballots were still being counted as this article was being written, but it appeared that Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, two of the three frontrunners according to pre-election polls, were in the lead, and an acrimonious runoff election between them is likely.

In reality, there was very little opportunity for Afghans to express a real choice in the election. Underwritten by $100 million from the United Nations and foreign donors, the voting featured a rogue's gallery of candidates that included Western-educated World Bank technocrats, murderous and misogynist warlords, and corrupt officials who rose to prominence in the regime of Hamid Karzai, the puppet president installed by the U.S. occupation who has ruled for more than 12 years.

Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah
Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah

Abdullah Abdullah is a physician. He was a foreigner minister in Karzai's first government. In 2009, he challenged Karzai for the presidency and won enough votes to force a second round in the notorious fraudulent election.

Ashraf Ghani received a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and worked at the World Bank--he served as an economic adviser to Karzai. His first vice presidential candidate is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord and CIA informant who was implicated in the massacre of thousands of Taliban prisoners in 2001.

The third frontrunner in the election was Zalmai Rassoul, a doctor who, like Abdullah, served as a foreign minister for Karzai, but during his most recent term. Rassoul's running mate for second vice president is a woman, Habiba Surabi, the former governor of Bamyan. Rassoul is the only major presidential candidate who committed to a cabinet that would be at least 20 percent female.

THE MEDIA spun the election as a watershed moment for democracy and a "new beginning" for the people of Afghanistan. Photos of jubilant voters with blue ink-stained index fingers--the indelible ink is proof that someone voted--were featured as evidence that Afghans ignored Taliban threats against anyone who dared to cast a ballot.

Nagieb Khaja, a journalist and documentary filmmaker, said the large turnout was a testament to the desire of Afghans to participate in the political process. "[T]he only thing we know for a fact is that the determination of the Afghan people was definitely impressive--that despite so much misery and corruption, people try to fight on and want to have say over their destiny."

Still, the media's hopeful picture was actually based on deliberate censorship. As one correspondent told the New York Times, "The Afghan journalists separately made a collective decision that they would not report negative news on the Election Day, not only negative news, but anything which could undermine the election process."

Khaja said the selective reporting was "an activist stance so people wouldn't be afraid to vote. But the day after, [journalists] said that the violence was worse than in the previous elections."

The violence took place all over the country, against civilians, foreigners and journalists alike, in the run-up to the election. Kabul was badly hit in January when a popular Lebanese restaurant was raided, commando-style--21 people died. In March, armed gunmen breached the security of the heavily fortified Serena hotel and shot nine people to death. The prominent Afghan journalist Sadar Ahmad, his wife and two of their children were among those killed.

The Independent Election Commission and Interior Ministry were attacked by suicide bombers. The day before the polls opened, in the town of Khost near the Pakistan border, Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus was shot to death and Canadian journalist Kathy Gannon was wounded--the two had been traveling with a convoy of election workers.

There were other problems with the voting. While the overall turnout was larger than expected, the gender breakdown of voters was skewed--it's estimated that 65 percent of men and 35 percent of women cast ballots. There are also reports of fraud--the election commission says it has received 870 allegations of vote fraud classified as serious enough to affect the outcome.

IN GENERAL, the hope and optimism portrayed by the Western media is confined mainly to Kabul and other urban centers, which are relatively secure and have benefited from the infusion of Western donor money and the sustained presence of NGOs that have created jobs, small businesses and a nascent TV and print media. Life for a thin layer of Afghans in cities has improved.

But Afghanistan is still an overwhelming rural society--over 75 percent of Afghans live outside of cities. Life for this vast majority has not improved--or has gotten worse.

The war in southern Afghanistan grinds on with drone bombings, night raids and fighting on the ground between the Taliban, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and NATO forces. The war has all but destroyed the agricultural economy, the primary source of employment. Despite billions of dollars allocated for agricultural development projects, the percentage of the population living below the official poverty line is 36 percent, which makes Afghanistan second only to Bangladesh as South Asia's poorest country.

The most viable crop for farming is opium poppy, even though it's illegal. Millions spent on poppy eradication teams and alternative livelihood programs have been wasted--Afghanistan still produces 90 percent of the world's opiates.

The war and unemployment have caused a mass exodus from the south to the north. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that there are 600,000 "internally displaced people" in Afghanistan. Over 35,000 Afghans live in two refugee camps in the middle of Kabul with no electricity or heat. Mohammad Yousef, director of a refugee aid group, told the Times: "They don't have access to anything--health, education, food, sanitation, water. They don't even have an opportunity for survival."

When a group of men living in the Charahi Qambar camp in Kabul were asked if they planned to vote, Mohammed Fatih summed up for a journalist what many Afghans believe: "What difference does it make? We voted in 2004 and 2009, and we're worse off than ever. Politics is for the rich and important people, not the landless and unfortunate."

Meanwhile, in the insecure and remote areas of Afghanistan, the election played out differently. In Kunar province, residents received "night letters" from the Taliban warning them not to vote. In Wardak province, journalists reporting for Harper's found what they called a "ghost polling center"--a compound some distance from the locked-up official polling station where the ballot boxes were being stuffed. A supervisor from the election-monitoring organization confided that in one part of Wardak, only eight out of 35 polling centers were functioning on Election Day.

The initial reports that the election was largely peaceful were refuted by U.S. Brig. Gen. Dave Haight, "It was one of the most violent days in Afghanistan...It was not lost on the enemy that the election was a pivotal event."

THE ENORMOUS pressure to promote the fantasy that the election was free, fair and peaceful is the result of several factors.

After more than 12 years of a disastrous war and occupation that was supposed to bring democracy to Afghanistan, the U.S. wants to demonstrate it was worth it. The image of a "clean" election allows the Obama administration to claim that at least part of the mission was accomplished--despite the obvious fact that the U.S. didn't win the war nor defeat the Taliban, with whom all the major presidential candidates are planning to meet for peace negotiations.

The political elite in Kabul as well as the presidential candidates are concerned about their credibility, at least superficially--in order to secure $40 billion in aid from the U.S. To get the billions, though, the next president will have to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA).

Karzai, in a rare instance of standing up to his Washington masters, refused to sign the deal. His points of disagreement were the U.S.'s demands for 10 permanent military bases on Afghan soil, an ongoing force of 10,000 troops, immunity from prosecution for U.S. soldiers, and the continuation of night raids and house searches.

The BSA is pure blackmail--everyone knows that without U.S. funding, the government, the Army and the police force would collapse. No surprise, then, that Abdullah, Ghani and Rassoul have all pledged to sign the BSA.

The truth about the April election was summarized by Sonali Kolhatkar, co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence:

Neither of the top two vote-getters in the Afghanistan election really have the legitimacy to lead any kind of a democracy. The fact that there has already been more fraud in this election compared to the last election is an indication of how ludicrous the whole charade is. Neither candidate is against signing the Bilateral Security Agreement. That isn't surprising given that the U.S. has always protected armed and extremist figures in Afghanistan.

The question is what will this election mean for the vast majority of ordinary Afghans? In my opinion, it will mean very little.

Afghanistan's future doesn't hinge on this vote. Casting a ballot won't change the political or economic reality of 13 years of imperialist occupation, unemployment and poverty that has left Afghanistan as far from true democracy as ever.

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