The first round of the Afghan elections received virtually no coverage on major television networks in the United States. Newspapers fared only a little better. This was not entirely surprising. I am continually astonished by the lack and quality of reporting on global events in the U.S. media. But Afghanistan should be different. It hosted the United States’ longest war, with more than $150 billion spent on development aid, democracy promotion and military involvement for over a decade. As such, one would expect more coverage of landmark elections in a country where the U.S. is still engaged in combat, including drone strikes and a counterinsurgency campaign, while trying to win hearts and minds.
What little coverage the Afghan elections received almost unanimously branded the first round of the presidential race between candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani a success. In an op-ed published by The Washington Post last March, just before the first round, Ronald E. Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Noah Coburn, a political anthropologist at Bennington College who was an official election monitor, acknowledged that election fraud and manipulation were “inevitable” while simultaneously downplaying public outrage. The authors predicted that the elections would be a success by Afghan standards because, they wrote, “Afghans are likely to tolerate many types of procedural irregularities and small-scale fraud.” They continued, “It will take generations for democracy to take root in Afghanistan,” incorrectly assuming that democracy is a new phenomenon that the U.S. introduced there.
Coverage of the elections by the Afghan press, on the other hand, paints an entirely different picture. Disillusioned and angry about the choice of candidates and the blatant engineering of the electoral process, Afghans have reached a critical point in tolerating undemocratic practices. Recently, as people took to the streets in massive numbers protesting fraud during a contested runoff, the U.S. media have finally started reporting on the escalating situation. However, the focus on the disputed result conceals the uproar that was observed from the outset of these elections.
One source of the voter outrage is the public opinion surveys conducted by two U.S.-funded firms, Glevum and the Democracy Institute. Tolo TV, part of Afghanistan’s largest media empire, which is also partially funded by the U.S., echoed the results of the surveys with its own poll. The surveys put Abdullah and Ghani as the front-runners out of the 12 candidates. While elections are not new in Afghanistan, polling is unprecedented and the skeptical public saw it as a way of managing public opinion to influence the outcome in favor of candidates preferred by the U.S. In January thousands took to the streets opposing what they perceived as U.S. interference in the presidential race. The protests, amplified by local media coverage, forced the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to cancel the remaining polls it had planned to fund. But most Afghans felt the damage had already been done: The polls had manipulated public opinion, helping Abdullah and Ghani take the lead in the first round.
Fear and hopelessness
The results are now marred by counterclaims of fraud halting the election process. Abdullah’s campaign has released audio recordings of members of the election commission saying there was collusion within the body to stack the votes as evidence of widespread election fraud by Ghani’s campaign working in concert with the administration of outgoing President Hamid Karzai. Abdullah has refused to accept the preliminary election results that have put Ghani in the lead.
As was the case during the 2004 and 2009 elections, it is no secret that the U.S. indeed has favorites. In 2004, Karzai’s opponents charged the U.S. with behind-the-scenes maneuvering. In 2009 the tables turned, with Karzai accusing the U.S. of favoring Abdullah. He refused to participate in televised debates carried by Tolo TV. Recently, the relationship between Karzai and the U.S. government sank to a new low after he refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would grant U.S. officials and soldiers full immunity in Afghan and international courts for acts committed on bases, in prisons and in other facilities in Afghanistan.
Such political dealing is partially to blame for the current turmoil in Iraq. When people do not have any input in determining their future and feel that the democracy that has been promised to them is a rhetorical farce, it leads to anarchy and extremism. Groups such as ISIL and the Taliban capitalize on these fears and hopelessness.
However, voter outrage is not fueled only by external influence. This is also the kind of nuance that goes unreported in the U.S. media. The two candidates — both moderate, educated, urban professionals — have aligned themselves with notorious warlords whose political parties have long histories of ethnic and gender violence. By selecting Mohammad Khan as his vice president, Abdullah allied himself with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Party of Islam. Hekmatyar is well known for throwing acid on schoolgirls and women at Kabul University. Ghani’s running mate, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was involved in multiple ethnic massacres documented by Human Rights Watch. It is for this reason that many Afghans simply abstained from voting.
Afghan voters have a much higher standard for fair and free elections than Americans do. It is time to take a lesson from the Afghan people and demand more from our media and elected officials.
All Afghans — across ethnicity, tribe, and gender or class lines — have been tormented by the zoor awarah (strongmen) of the Taliban and various warlords. The warlords ran in numerous past elections, including Abdul Rasul Sayyaf’s most recent attempt in the primaries, but they failed to amass even minimal votes.
Yet because they wield so much power within and outside the government, warlords are a force to contend with. By sharing their presidential tickets with zoor awarahs, Abdullah and Ghani are, at minimum, acknowledging the power of the warlords in Afghan politics. And, by doing so, they are upholding the legacy of corruption, religious extremism and violence that have plagued Afghanistan for more than three decades.
Needless to say, people are unhappy with both candidates and with having to choose between the lesser of two evils. Many Afghans lost family members at the hands of these notorious warlords. Besides, the elections have caused ethnic, religious and gender tensions and trauma to resurface.
But this is not only a problem for Afghans; further empowering warlords by inviting them inside the government will have global repercussions. The warlords’ regressive practices and beliefs toward women, ethnic, and religious minorities, coupled with their attempts to control and censor the media, are not unique to the country and are gaining ground across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.
In the end, perhaps Afghanistan’s elections look successful because they eerily resemble ours: skewed media coverage, obsessive polling and a choice between two candidates who barely differ in their politicking for power. In that sense, we have indeed successfully exported our warped version of democracy to Afghanistan.
But if the sheer size and number of protests in Afghanistan are any indication, then Afghans certainly have a much higher standard for fair and free elections than we do — and rightly so. Decisions by our elected leaders and political systems affect every facet of our lives. It is time to take a lesson from the Afghan people and demand more from our media and elected officials.