Tag Archives: Elections

Refugee Camp

Afghan Perspectives on the Presidential Election

Kabul billboard - Politician hugging a child, photo of girls at school underneath.
Politician hugging a child, photo of girls at school underneath.

by Beth Tichborne

The Afghan elections did not go well, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have gone well, although you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage. You might know that there were Taliban threats and violence. There were thousands of news stories written about the threat of violence even before the assassination attempt on Abdullah. You’re less likely to have heard that half of the election commission staff were sacked between the first and second rounds because of suspected participation in fraud. Only a handful of media outlets covered that story. There are stories that fit the narrative and those that don’t. This emphasis serves a political purpose. A functioning democracy in Afghanistan is offered to us as proof that the long occupation, and its huge cost in lives, has been worthwhile.

The elections represent something different for everybody involved, and needless to say the coverage in Afghanistan has a very different emphasis to the coverage in Britain or the US (did any Western media mention the Durand line, a major topic in the presidential debates, but a forgotten relic of empire to most British people?). Even the medium is different: low literacy rates, poverty and unreliable electricity supplies make radio and mobile phones a much bigger part of communications than television or newspapers.

One of the many refugee camps in Kabul, home to some of the 600,000 Afghan IDPs
One of the many refugee camps in Kabul, home to some of the 600,000 Afghan IDPs

I spoke to some young peace activists living in Kabul before the first round of the elections. They are well placed to understand different perspectives on its significance. They live in the city, but mostly come from a rural background. They work alongside people from across the deep ethnic and class divides, from refugee camps and street kids through to teachers and NGO directors.

Nasrullah is 17 years old, and already a veteran campaigner. He’s also a budding photographer, although his sensitive portraits and evocative scenes of Afghan street life are only shared on his Facebook page with his friends. Alongside his peace activism he goes to school, although he doesn’t feel that he learns much there. I asked him what he thought about the presidential candidates. “If someone does politics I don’t trust them, I don’t trust politics at all. There was one person that I trusted, Malalai Joya. She defended the voice of the people. But in the end she was pushed out of parliament.”

Have previous elections been democratic? “I don’t think the last election was right, and it can’t be right this time. Whoever wants to be president has to get a pen and sign a paper [the Bilateral Security Agreement]. And the people of Afghanistan have no choice. If you [in the West] want Abdullah to be president then he will be president.” He said that young people want to change things, but have no one to inspire them, and that on the whole “people are busy with their own daily lives, everyone works to find bread, no one has anything to do with politics at all.”

Kabul Street Scene
Kabul Street Scene

Bayat is a 16 year old who would have voted in the parliamentary elections if he was old enough, but not in the presidential elections, “because there isn’t anyone to vote for!” He, like Nasrullah, grew up in rural Bamyan, and spoke about what democracy looks on the ground in much of the country. “It’s less easy for someone to read the news and see what’s going on. There are some places in Bamyan you can go and watch the news on TV, some people do work during the day and go watch the news at night if they can.” He also talked about fear and bribery around the process “the ordinary workers aren’t going to dare go out and say you need to do this or that, even though they’re unhappy. I remember [at a previous election] some candidates attracted people by giving out free food on campaigning day, I saw this happen. I think that they just did that to make people support them. When it came to it they didn’t help anyone. Changes don’t happen.”

What about the international presence in Afghanistan? “They say that their goals for being here are for democracy and freedom, but when you look at the last 10 years all you see is more violence, more war, more rape. Well I say that their goals are purely political. They just want some power and control. When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power. I see for myself that these days everything comes from America. Even if everyone in the whole country, from a soldier to the president, put their efforts towards one thing… Americans are the ones putting the money through, you realise it’s not us that has the choice, we’ve handed it over to someone else. The politicians don’t have any freedom, they are pressured to sign things, they tell them that if you don’t sign this we will cut funding.”

"When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power"
“When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power”

Salim is 16, and met the others when he was working in a chip shop where they used to meet and talk about their plans. He started working as a street vendor when he was about 11 years old. He shared this cynicism about the intentions of outside powers “There are all these politicians… they think it’s all about them, and they all think about their own pockets. They think about everything from the perspective of what benefits them. They come here and say things like ‘we defend women’s rights!’; or ‘Democracy in Afghanistan!’;” And is there democracy in Afghanistan now? “Democracy? I haven’t seen any…” He pretended to think, while everyone laughed “No…really, I haven’t!”

Asif is Nasrullah’s older brother. His earliest memories are of going to school and enjoying learning. A little later, as a 10 year old, he carried his younger brother across the snow-covered mountains in winter, to escape from the Taliban. He doesn’t tell the story himself, but his friends and family talk about how after the long trek Abdulhai’s infant body was frozen, and he had to be thawed out by a fire for two days. As Asif grew up he felt that the worries of war and premature responsibility clouded his mind and he now finds learning is much more of a struggle. In the daily life of the community he’s quiet, cheerful, and hard-working. He likes walking in parks to relax, although green space is hard to come by in Kabul, and he dreams of going back to Bamyan, but stays in Kabul with his brother to study and to work for peace. He finds hope in the group, with its mix of ethnicities working together. He says that he doesn’t know if change will come in his lifetime, but that being human means keeping on trying. I asked if he would be voting in this year’s election.

“In the past I used to take part in voting, but my heart has become cold, and I don’t like voting. I’ve become numb to this whole subject. Whether I vote or not the same thing will happen. There is no meaning to it.”

Is that how many young people feel? “My friends don’t really understand anything about the current situation. If they have a good day, they have a good day.”

And why are other countries involved in Afghanistan? “To be honest, I don’t understand. What I do understand is that every single country that has come to Afghanistan has done corrupted work, and it’s very evident that they have corrupted goals. War has been going on for so long. If things could change then war wouldn’t have gone on for so long already. The people of Afghanistan could have changed things themselves. The work that is done here is not transparent, people lie. War has been going on for so long… with all of these interventions the people of Afghanistan have only seen more war.”

Scratching a living:  40-60% of men in Afghanistan are unemployed
Scratching a living: 40-60% of men in Afghanistan are unemployed

Guide to the Afghan Elections

By Beth Tichborne

Abdullah Abdullah in October 2009Abdullah Abdullah: In contrast to some of the other presidential candidates, warlords and deputy warlords, Abdullah Abdullah is presented in some media as an urbane and guilt-free man. However his short political career has given him opportunity to reveal where his own interests lie. He stood by the war criminals of the current government in 2007 when the “National Stability and Reconciliation” bill was discussed, and passed, granting themselves immunity from prosecution for past war crimes. If ever the waters of Kabul politics seem muddied with compromise and a confusion of alliances, votes like this one reveal the starkness of the issues at stake, and the unity of the elite power players on certain matters. Of all the harm done by the Western-installed government of Karzai, this vote must be one of the more damaging single events. It institutionalizes the turning away of the elite, whether they were directly involved or not, from the wounds in Afghan society.


Ashraf Ghani AhmadzaiAshraf Ghani Ahmadzai is certainly not a warlord. But the proud banner on his website “Global Thinker. Economist. Anthropologist. Politician.” doesn’t tell the full story either. He has received extravagant praise from Western think tanks, politicians and the media, for his financial ‘wizardry’ during his time in Karzai’s government.

His expertise is in the apparently politically neutral ‘technocratic’ measures of financial reform and institution building. He developed this expertise in and academic career in the US and subsequently in working for the World Bank. His absence from the country gives him the advantage of a clean record in terms of war crimes, dealings with warlords and complicity in the barbarism of the past 30 years. But it carries also the disadvantage that he appears to be more a part of a global elite than of Afghan’s own political society. In his quarter of a century absence from the country he has worked at hawkish think tanks (namely the Brookings Institute. He has also co-founded the ‘Institute for State Effectiveness’, a think-tank that sets out the requirements citizens should have of their states (most of these just read like the definition of a functioning state, rather than being an attempt to formalise standards of accountability or legitimacy). He’s no neo-liberal, or he doesn’t talk like one. But a closer look at the output of the ISE shows us who he’s talking to, when he recaps some of his ministerial acheivements “Since 2002, the Afghan government has significantly improved the investment climate. Our new investment law allows for 100% direct foreign ownership.” (Afghanistan craves investment” Ghani 2004). If the message wasn’t clear he appealed to expats for support in standing, when first considering running for president, rather than any societal base within Afghanistan itself.

However, as any presidential candidate must do, he has chosen Vice Presidential candidates to stand with him that complement his own strengths and shore up his weaknesses. No warlord himself, Ghani has certainly more than compensated for the lack of blood in his past with the choice of Dostum as a running partner. Dostum, while he was a US ally, was responsible for the Dasht-i-Leili massacre, in which hundreds, or possibly thousands, of prisoners were suffocated to death in metal containers. Ghani will be hoping that Dostum’s presence on his slate will bring him block Uzbek votes, although it seems likely to cost him a number of votes as well, as it makes it harder for those who would like to vote for a mainstream candidate without voting for past war-crimes.

RassoulRassoul is one of the big names in the presidential election. He resigned as Karzai’s foreign minister in order to stand for the elections, in October 2013. He is cosmopolitan, speaking a number of European languages, and having studied medicine in Paris as a young man in the early 1970s.

In his position as foreign minister he took opportunities to speak to the press, Afghan and international, about the requirements that must be made of the next president. To a certain extent his position helped him to shape the battlefield which he has now entered as a participant. Like other former ministers it has also increased his international audience. External support often depends, to a depressing, but perhaps not that surprising degree, on the proficiency in English of a candidate. He talks to foreign journalists about the Afghan people’s gratitude to the international forces, while politely reminding them that they are there at the will of their own governments and for the stated interest of their own protection.

Qutbuddin HilalQutbuddin Hilal is standing as an independent candidate, not as a representative of the notorious Hezb-i Islami, which he has been involved in for many years, as Hekmatyar’s deputy. This is just as well, as his stated focus on peace and equal access to education for girls is a bit of a startling contrast to his political career to date. Of all the mujahideen factions, Hezb-i Islami was one of the most feared and brutal. They received huge amounts of American money, channelled through the Pakistani ISI (along with money from Pakistan itself). They fought the Soviet occupation, but also used their position of best-funded militia to manipulate, betray and assassinate rivals, getting a head-start in the civil war before the resistance to the Soviet occupation had even come to an end. Hezb-i Islami were responsible for much of the shelling of Kabul that devastated the city in the early 1990s.

Abdul Rahim Wardak - Dec 17th 2011Wardak combines the unpopularity that comes with a close relationship with the US with the complications of a high-ranking mujahideen past. He fought with the National Islamic Front, known as one of the more ‘moderate’ of the seven major factions of the Soviet era.
Wardak is unlikely to be considered a serious contender by many. He resigned from his post as Foreign Minister in 2012, following a vote of no-confidence from the parliament, due in large part to his US connections.