Tag Archives: Kabul

Back From Kabul: impressions

Smog in Kabul (Image: FRE/RL)

 

I recently got back from three weeks in Kabul.  Here are first two impressions. More to come later.

1. Until last week, it had not rained or snowed in Kabul. For the Kabulis, if nothing else hurts them the environment will. Pollution in this  small city is at extreme degrees. During the day, particularly in the afternoons, visibility beyond 20 meters is impossible due to dust and smoke. Quite a depressing situation. To imagine that people on the streets breath this air 24/7 is a dark reality. Cars are abundant on the street, vast construction creates tremendous dust, and on top of all that you have at least 2-3 stoves in every home that burn material ranging from wood and coal to diesel and trash.

2. The extent of women involvement in public life is much more visible. One small example speaks for it: at the airport, you see as many young female workers doing the routine security checks as male workers. Most of them in their 20s, a representation of the vast potential in Afghanistan. I hear that close to 60% of the country is between the ages of 18-35, which is quite a heartening statistic.

As dusk took over Kabul Airport and I walked up the stairs to board the plane, there were workers at the bottom of the stairs, checking the boarding passes one last time. One of them was a petite and pretty young lady, wearing a lime fluorescent jacket on top of her blue uniform. Her hands in the pockets of the her jacket, she paced about with an air of tremendous confidence. It was a fantastic little scene, very telling of some of the progress in the country.


Absurdities revealed in WikiLeaks

 

I will be updating this post with some of the absurd things from the Wikileaks, relating to Afghanistan.

Here is US embassy in Kabul’s analysis of a minister proposed to the Parliament by President Karzai. What a Genius!

--Commerce - Ghulam Mohammad Elaqi (Hazara). 
He was the Central Bank Chairman in 
the 1990s, and former Chamber of Commerce President until 2008. 
He was allegedly accused of corruption in 2001. His nomination 
was supported by Mohaqqeq,although he also has a relationship with 
competing Hazara powerbroker Khalili. 
Khalili appointed him as a secondary representative at the 2001 
Bonn conference. He reportedly owns a factory in Tashkent used to
 export special bags made from sheep stomach that are used frequently
 by heroine smugglers to prevent detection. Also, reportedly he took 
about $1.5 million from small businessmen in Afghanistan in 1995 to 
open a trading company, but instead absconded with the funds.

The Parlimentary Elections: More Positive than you think

Afghanistan Parliamentary elections. Image:AP

Alissa Rubin writes in today’s New York Times that 1.3 million votes from Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections have been disqualified. The number is significant. But the fact that the Election Commission has carefully weeded out these fraudulent votes is even more significant, both to this vote and to the future of democracy in Afghanistan.

Ms. Rubin writes:

Despite rampant fraud in the parliamentary elections last month, whose preliminary results were announced Wednesday, the Afghan Independent Election Commission appears to have tried to do an honest job of counting the ballots, an effort that was lauded by the United Nations and even by some losing candidates.

Often, people are quick to jump at conclusions when they read about the sheer magnitude of the fraud. They ignore the context of this vote: an on going war that influences every aspect of the vote, the voter, and the candidate. They also forget that voting and nationwide elections is a new practice in Afghanistan. The preventative measures that have been fine-tuned over long years in the west do not even exist in Afghanistan. What exists is warlords and powerful men who have always had their way, through their gun. Fraud, as a result, is only natural.

But I see this as good news. At this time, Afghanistan does not need “successful” elections. It needs corrective measures like this to fine-tune the process of democracy there and build a strong foundation.  It is better to have fraud that is weeded out and corrected than to have an election that is considered a “success” and its irregularities  are ignored. For Afghanistan, that would be unnatural, extremely dangerous, and hopeless to the future of democracy in that country


Lose the Pride, Save the System

A reflection on the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan.

The future of the vote needs to be protected. (Image:FEFA)

The initial reports about the recent parliamentary elections in Afghanistan  were heartening. It showed that despite tremendous challenges, improvements had been made since last year’s presidential elections. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) observed in their report that campaigning was much more lively this year than 2205, the first parliamentary elections:

Nearly 2,500 individuals put themselves forward as contenders. Women and youth candidates ran in greater numbers than in 2005, and many campaigns reflected increased understanding of the value of reaching out to voters, campaigning on issues, and appealing to interest groups. The media was more adversarial this time around, and covered the campaigns and concurrent electoral processes with increased professionalism.

FEFA, however, highlights that security and intimidation remained a hurdle. Candidates and campaign workers were repeatedly threatened and even kidnapped and killed. And the security forces failed to create a effective mechanism for their protection.

With that said, President Karzai brought certain reforms into the commission, mainly appointing a new Chief Commissioner. As a result, the commission was more transparent, and honest about the challenges.

More recently however, questions have been raised about the irregularities in the elections. While the extent of the fraud is yet to be determined, we know that it happened. FEFA,  in its preliminary report, declares that:

Violence by candidates, their agents and local powerbrokers was reported in several areas and so were a worrying number of instances of government official interfering in the voting process to sway the results in favor of their chosen candidates.

The next stage, of how the fraud is dealt with, is incredibly critical.

For a second time in a year, ordinary afghans have braved the threats to cast their votes. They have played their part in this flirt with democracy, but if serious action is not taken to ensure them that their voices matter, they will lose hope.  The future of the democratic system in Afghanistan will be in peril.  After all, what is a democracy without a belief in the power of the vote?

It is crucial that this time around the Afghan leadership really crack down on those who were involved in the fraud. For the sake of saving any hopes of democracy, the government and the leaders need to forget about their pride. They need to man up and accept that there were enormous shortcomings. Rather than questioning its extent and blaming others, they need to take action: punish those who committed systematic fraud, ban them from participating in politics, and perhaps even redo the voting process in certain districts with tighter security and anti-corruption measures. The people need to know that democracy is not corrupt and rotten, but individuals are. If this message is not clearly given to the Afghan people, any hopes of a democracy in the future will be childish.

Following the example of India would be a good start for us. The reason why democracy is deeply institutionalized in a place like India is because its leaders, immediately after independence, worked hard for institutionalizing it. The poor, the minorities realized that there was power in their vote: that, in fact, they could change the country’s direction with their vote. It is a well known fact today that more poor, vulnerable villagers in India go to the polls than those who have decent lives in the cities. This is because the system was institutionalized at any early stage, and the leaders stuck with it.  When someone as powerful as Indra Gandhi committed the minor crime of using a government servant in her campaign, the Supreme Court came down hard on her, removing her from her seat in the parliament and banning her from running again for six years. The Supreme Court assured its people that their vote was above everything and that every effort would be made to honor and protect that vote.

If our country has any dreams of having a democracy like India, we have tremendous work to do right now.  Because if our people are not assured of the power of their vote, and if they do not see corrective steps in bettering this process, they will lose hope in democracy completely.


The Tears of a President

As the New York Times reported, Afghan President Hamid Karzai once again broke down in tears during a televised speech. Addressing a crowd of educators in Kabul, the President sobbed as he lamented the lack of progress in the country and the uncertainty of the future.

Just like last time, when he got emotional listening to the stories of victims three years ago, Mr. Karzai will surely receive criticism for this outbreak of emotions. A president, especially one who is at war, is supposed to be strong, bold, and stern they say. He is not to cry, but to act. The realities of Afghanistan, however, are different. And so is its president.

At the moment, Mr. Karzai is overtaken with frustration and hopelessness. A dignified and charismatic man of good intentions has struggled to change the living conditions of his people. We only need to dial the clock back a few years to understand how this happened, and why Mr. Karzai is more a victim than an instigator, as Josh Foust put it on his FP blog.

A lot seems to have gone wrong for the man who came into this job on the merits of his dignity, and on the basis of his clean image. He was not a warlord, he did not have a militia, and he did not have blood on his hands.  And contrary to the popular belief, he was not parachuted from the west. He was a rare breed: homegrown, well-educated, moderate, and relatively clean off the mess the was the Afghan civil war. Above all, he had a history of activism for the sake of reaching an end to the war in Afghanistan.

His task at the time? One of the most difficult in world politics. He was mandated to hold together a country of only 30 million people, but as many warring factions. All armed to teeth. He was not only to hold them back from fighting each other, what they had done for the previous two decades, but also to establish a democracy in the country and to rid it from Al Qaeda and extremism.

Today, what frustrates Mr. Karzai to the verge of tears is that the enormity and the difficulty of the task is overshadowed by the talk of his incompetence and corruption. In the popular opinion in the west, Hamid Karzai has turned into the image of corrupt governance and insecurity. A good indication of this is when you search his name in Google: the first two associations are “corruption” and “brother.”

Perhaps, in the wake of recent events, the brother should be plural: brothers.

Much of Mr. Karazai’s frustrations lie in the fact that those close to him have betrayed him tremendously, only caring for their own pockets and power and not for the progress of the country. Internationally, his image is hurting bad from the spiraling ill-reputation of his brothers. His last name is becoming a liability. Locally, his young government is struggling to reform. The only answer that he can find to the problem of corruption, which is derailing his legitimacy, is setting up commission after commission. Security has not improved remarkably, and the war does not seem to be reaching an end any time soon.

But what pains the President most is that all these factors have led to his people losing faith in him immensely. To his defense, Afghans have been a little thankless at times, mostly forgetting the harshness of the reality and the lack of infrastructure that Mr. Karzai began with. That is not to say that their demand for more is illegitimate. It is just that the demands have not happened with an eye on the dark recent past that country is trying to emerge out of.

And lastly, Mr. Karzai is extremely worried about his political legacy. This is his last term as President and he has given a lot to this process of national revival. Yet, things are certainly not where he would want them to be. Because of the factors mentioned above, he has struggled to turn his hopes and dreams for the country into reality. Mr. Karzai knows that Afghan politics are cruel—that he will not be remembered for his intentions and his dreams, but his actions which have been impeded by the difficulty of the situation. This, above all, frustrates the President.

For the moment, however, spare a thought for the man. His job is one of the world’s most difficult and his struggle must go on.

Was it a question of character or circumstance?


Election Coverage: Why the Negativity, NYT?

At the least, the interest in the democratic process is still well and alive

The elections deserve a much longer piece and I will get to that as soon as I get a chance. First impressions: it was not as bad as it could have/would have been. The turn out seemed decent, the number of security incidents not considerable (within the context). As for irregularities, yes as expected. The extent? initial reports do not indicate large scale, systematic fraud.

As Jed Ober, the chief of staff in Afghanistan of Democracy International, whose observers kept a watch in 15 provinces, told Al-Jazeera

“We have not witnessed any type of systematic irregularities,” he said. “We have seen a pretty predictable process so far with nothing that we think affects the process. We are pretty optimistic about the process.”

But we can only be certain once the counting unfolds and the observers reports come in.

The issue that I briefly want to raise here is the difference in the coverage of the elections in the international media, particularly the US and Europe Media. Giants such as the New York Times approached the elections with a very grim look. Their feature stories, of the election eve as well as election day, were written by Elisabeth Bumiller with Rod Nordland or Alissa Rubin. Both stories began as “Marja, Afghanistan.” It makes one question why the New York times chose to see a nationwide election through such narrow, troubled window? All the articles focused on was the small turnout, the fear of rockets, and the gloominess of the overall picture. The Times’s At-War blog too, ran only entries by Ms. Bumiler from Marja. One can only speculate the reasons for such a narrow-scope of coverage.

While there is no doubt that the elections faced some of those challenges to an extent, but to boil it down to just that is unfair to the 150,000 international and 300,000 Afghan forces who worked tirelessly to ensure the security of the vote in the face of tremendous threats. It is also not fair to the 4 million who turned up to vote despite having the bitter taste of last year still in their mouth.

European outlets were a little milder in their approach, leaving some window of optimism. The BBC, for example, raised as many concerns as the New York Times. But it was open to the possibility of a decent turn out, and an election with a relatively low degree of fraud. The Guardian too, was harsh. And so it should be. But Jon Boone was kind enough to mention the possibility of success in one his headlines.

Just for kicks. Not really sure what the source is. a friend shared it.


A Testing Election for Afghanistan

Afghanistan prepares for parliamentary elections (image from Zimbio)

Tomorrow, Afghanistan holds its second election in consecutive years. When polls open, not only will the capabilities of the security forces be tested, but also the people’s belief and trust in elections and the democratic process.

Last year’s presidential elections ended in chaos and controversy. The turn out was low because of intimidation by the Taliban. In certain provinces, the Taliban threatened to chop the fingers that had been dipped in ink. And they did.

They ignored threats and took tremendous risks to line up and vote, believing that their vote mattered in shaping their future. Did it? Most will say not really. The vote ended in shambles. And not many people, whether those who voted for Abdullah or Karzai, were satisfied with the final result. The biggest loser of all was the elections and the trust in the democratic process

For tomorrow’s parliamentary vote, the Afghan government has repeatedly assured the people that extensive security measures have been taken. 300,000 Afghan forces assisted by 150,000 international forces. The new election chief, too, has been much more honest in his dealings. He has repeatedly asserted that no polling stations will opened in unsafe places. To that end, he has closed down about 1000 polling stations.

Tomorrow’s elections, in the face of tremendous challenges, will most importantly test the international community’s patience for Afghanistan. After last year’s messy vote, the international community has increasingly lost faith in the democratic process taking root there. If tomorrow’s vote is as messy as last year’s — or messier– one can only see the international community growing hopeless.