KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- International election wonks here in Afghanistan call Saturday Sept. 18, E-Day. It isn't accidental that this diplo-speak for the lower parliamentary elections, the second Afghan-led elections in the country's history, evokes a cataclysmic military conflict. But the inevitable dull thuds of mortar fire risk muting a larger, more interesting, and more complex sound: the fitful cries of a precocious Afghan democracy.
By Thomas Ruttig
Across Kabul, the official 48-hour campaign silence period means an end to the din blasted from roving megaphones and ominous, echo-enhanced television ads. For now the only political noise is the rustle of rows upon rows of posters bearing the names, randomly assigned symbols, and most importantly, the austere visages of the candidates.
The silence will not last. And the loudest noises on E-Day won't be party rallies. SIGACTS, the aggregate term security officials call incidents of organized violence, spiked to their highest level in decades during last year's highly contentious presidential election. Insurgents launched more than 400 attacks in less than 18 hours.
As was true of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the Afghan insurgency's military effort in 2009 was technically a failure -- terrorism couldn't stop the voting altogether -- but it eroded the population's confidence that the government could protect them. More than 800 polling centers closed due to insecurity. Insurgents killed 11 officials from Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) and, during the runoff, launched a rocket attack against the five-star Serena Hotel in central Kabul, which then housed international observers. Only a third of eligible voters appeared at the polls, and the Taliban attacked a few of those who did, savagely mutilating at least three.
A year later, Afghanistan is now engulfed in a full-fledged war, and currently, SIGACTS are higher than ever. In part, this is the expected outcome of the surge of U.S. forces. Some security experts predict that the parliamentary contests will not draw as much violence as the presidential election. But recent trends point to a grimmer outcome: SIGACTS might reach an all-time high, possibly topping 3,000.
Although Afghan commanders have downplayed the threat of convulsive violence, they nonetheless have deployed 60,000 troops to secure the election, and national officials have already pushed back E-Day four months. This year, insurgents have killed four candidates, while 30 more have retained private security companies. On E-Day minus 2, the Taliban killed two election workers, and on the night of Sept. 16, they kidnapped 10 campaign workers and eight IEC employees. Unlike last year, E-Day falls after Ramadan, and security experts warn that extremists, freshly cleansed, may feel more prepared to meet their end.
"There's no way that in an environment like Afghanistan we can have perfect elections," Abdullah Ahmadzai, the IEC's chief electoral officer, said in an interview. Ahmadzai, 35, who comes from a prominent Kuchi (historically nomadic Pashtun) family, serves as the dapper new overseer of this year's process. Some claim he is the face of the next generation of Afghan leadership.
Last December, in the wake of the turbulent runoff, U.S. President Barack Obama, while acknowledging Hamid Karzai as the victor, expressed his frustration with the massive fraud: "the days of providing a blank check are over," he said. Yet while Ahmadzai acknowledges feeling "enormous pressure to prove that we are committed to improvement," if politics is the art of beating expectations, then Afghan democracy has an unsung advantage.