The Vote Comes to Afghanistan’s Peaceful Heartland

At the polls in Bamiyan, the anti-Taliban province that's seeing a resurgence of female participation.

BAMIYAN, AFGHANISTAN -- On the day before Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, Razia Hussaini, 30, one of six female candidates from Bamiyan province, was making a valiant effort to be polite to an American journalist and election observer. Sitting on the floor of her family's humble home in the Hindu Kush, overlooking the old Silk Road, the high-school educated political neophyte had a lot on her mind. Two cell phones in front of her buzzed regularly with updates from campaign workers, to whom she relayed terse directions. Her proud but nervous male relatives sat quietly across the room, serving her guests tea and sweets. If history were a guide, Hussaini, of the ethnic minority Hazara, should have been the one serving. But Hussaini is no victim of history; with these elections, she and other Hazara women hope to write their own.

"I'm waiting and excited," she said. "I just pray that the elections will be peaceful. Afterwards, I pray that I will be able to help my people in the parliament." On E-Day, Saturday, Sept. 18, her first prayers were answered, at least in Bamiyan, the Hazara heartland. It may take a month before the certified count will determine whether or not she will join at least 68 other women, whose seats are allotted by law, in the lower house. Win or lose, she and the other Hazara candidates expressed gratitude to be living in what is today Afghanistan's most peaceful, and in many ways most progressive, province.

Hussaini is not the only female Hazara politician who describes these as Halcyon days for the province. "Today I feel very lucky," said Bamiyan's Governor Habiba Sarabi, 44, on Saturday morning. Sarabi had just cast her vote at the Saed Abad Girls School, which served as a women's polling center here. After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Sarabi had fled to Peshawar, Pakistan, with her family and began secretly teaching girls on both sides of the border, in defiance of her country's new rulers. "Ten years ago around this time, I remember being in Pakistan for its independence day. I cried because I could not celebrate my own nation's independence."

In March 2005, President Hamid Karzai made history when he asked Sarabi, then serving as his minister of women's affairs, to return to Bamiyan as the nation's first and only female provincial governor. The place was still broken from the Taliban's harsh rule: they had destroyed Bamiyan's famous stone Buddhas, banned education for girls, and attempted to eradicate the Hazara. Sarabi went to work to repair the damage, and quickly established an international reputation as an environmentalist, winning support for a long-discussed national park which included Bamiyan's five, sapphire, mineral-rich Band-e-Amir ("Commander's Dam") lakes; and as an educational reformer, overseeing a gradual increase in the overall literacy rate of her very poor province. Today, Bamiyan high-schoolers score above national test averages.

Most visibly, Sarabi is known as a staunch defender of women's rights. In solidarity, then First Lady Laura Bush visited in June 2008, an act that brought the improbable governor a minor coup in the realm of Afghanistan's fraught "road politics." Road construction is an indicator of political clout here, and while thousands of miles have been built across Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban, precious few have been built in Bamiyan. That changed with Bush's visit, as the government gave Bamiyan's eponymous capital city its first few miles of paved roads-which extended to her precise travel route, and little else.

Today, Bamiyan's women are arguably positioned more favorably than those of any province in the country. On E-Day, Sarabi waved her purple finger as she beamed about the fact that nearly half of all Bamiyan's girls are in school, and that under her watch the province had accepted Afghanistan's first female recruits into the Afghan National Police. Behind her at the polling center, a line of women dressed in everything from traditional burqas to loosely-fit, sequined hijabs, became longer and longer, and eventually unruly, as the women kicked up dust and accidentally broke a window while pressing forward to exercise their suffrage. Bamiyan was Afghanistan's only province where female polling stations outnumbered male ones, yet the Saed Abad Girls School and others still couldn't keep up with demand, and ran out of ballots well before the close of the polls.

"I'm voting for a woman," one eager, middle-aged voter in full burqa told me from a nearby mosque-cum-polling center. "Only a woman understands us, and can help us."

Sarabi's unlikely journey, and that of other Hazara women, reflect those of many in the province. 1,500 years ago, Bamiyan, then predominantly Buddhist, held out against the Arabs for a century longer than did Kabul. But by the end of the nineteenth century, many Hazara were slaves to the Pashtun. Cheap slaves, at that: a healthy Hazara could be traded for just 150 pounds of wheat or barley at the time.

The next generation of Hazara, including Hussaini, also bears the scars of a long struggle. After the 1979 Soviet invasion, Hussaini and her parents fled to Iran, a country whose rulers, like the Hazara, are Shiite. In so doing, she left behind the land that she loved, along with many of her relatives. While in high school in the fall of 1998, desperate for news of her family, she could gather only fleeting, but terrifying, reports about her homeland.

Until that point, the Hazara had held out against the Taliban's campaign, including attempted starvation through blockade. Considered infidels by the Sunni Taliban, the Hazara were doubly targeted because they were socially progressive, at least more so than their Iranian counterparts; and triply targeted as they had resisted the Taliban alongside Ahmad Shah Massoud and the Northern Alliance.

Some Hazara were saved when their defenders, Northern Alliance commanders such as Ustad Akbari, defected to the Taliban. Thousands of others faced a harsher fate in mass graves, the victims of attempted genocide. And Hussaini, along with the rest of the world, watched agape in April 2001 as Bamiyan's new rulers' committed their most infamous act of barbarism: the destruction of the towering stone Buddhas, 1,500-year old icons of its Buddhist past. "Those statues were the history of Afghanistan, not only Bamiyan," she said. Principally, however, she was heartsick for her remaining family, with whom she had no contact. "Once they destroyed the statues, we feared they had wiped out all of my home."

Overjoyed at the fall of the Taliban, she returned shortly thereafter to a shattered province, but one that was rapidly recovering. Inspired in part by Sarabi, she began working immediately on women's development projects in the capital, and created the first women's festival, along with a weekly market, three years ago.

Since 2005, Hussaini and her fellow Hazara have watched nervously as the Taliban insurgency has exploded around the country. In the south, Hazara have fought ferociously with the Afghan National Army, yet until 2009, their homeland remained calm. Recently, violence from neighboring provinces has spilled over. Prior to last year's presidential election, the New Zealand military, which commands the Provincial Reconstruction Team here, up-armored their vehicles. On August 3 of this year, insurgents killed one soldier, the first death of a New Zealand soldier during the war, and injured two others, in a nearby ambush.

The latest Taliban threats did not dissuade Hussaini from stepping into the political breach. After receiving the blessing from local mullahs -- an act reflecting both political shrewdness and the challenges still faced by women in Hazara society -- she ran a vigorous upstart campaign, distributing hundreds of posters, and handing out cards to farmers, government officials, and anyone who would listen to her stump speech.

She backs the governor's agenda, pressing for more funds for girls' education, and calling for the creation of an international airport -- which could further open the placid and mineral-rich province to tourism and investment. (Bamiyan sits on at least $1 trillion worth of iron ore, among other riches, according to a recent study.) She has also called for refilling the niches that loom over the central valley, which UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 2003, by cooperating with Japanese and other international partners to rebuild the Buddhas.

Bamiyan boasts stunning topography, featuring dramatic, snow-capped peaks overlooking verdant valleys and spring-fed streams. Yet despite that, and its rich archeological wealth, the province drew just 750 international tourists last year, thanks to the degenerating security situation in other parts of the country. On the day after E-Day, I climbed through the myriad caves, layered with history and art of generations of dwellers that interlace the Buddha niches. The sites official guide seemed genuinely bewildered to see foreign visitors. On a good day, he said, he'll show five people the site.

"I speak to the few tourists that come to Bamiyan, and they say that all they hear about Afghanistan in their countries is violence and killing," Hussaini lamented. "We feel as if Bamiyan is not a province of Afghanistan. This is like a totally different country."

Hussaini's bold pronouncements are not limited to Bamiyan pride: she does not shy away from the hardball tactics needed by any long shot candidate. She says that Safora Yalkhani, the incumbent in Bamiyan's allotted woman's parliamentary seat, "has done nothing for the people, and particularly the women, of Bamiyan. In five years, she has brought just one bridge for the [the province]." She also accuses Yalkhani of corruption.

She leveled particular scorn against Ustad Akbari, the former commander who had collaborated with the Taliban, and is now an influential power broker and member of parliament. Last year, Akbari made international headlines when he pressed for a Shiite personal status law, backed by Iran and rubberstamped by Karzai. The law included retrograde provisions that women submit to their husband's sexual demands, and remain in the home unless accompanied by a male relative.

"The wife of the Holy Prophet of Allah: she can go everywhere!" said Hussaini. "The Prophet, peace be upon him, never said anything like that." She added with a wry smile: "Bamiyan's people follow the example of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Who is Ustad Akbari to speak against him?"

Speaking on E-Day, Governor Sarabi declined to endorse any one candidate, preferring to "give blessing to all of the candidates." She did single out Hussaini for special praise, however: "She represents the power of the young generation of Bamiyan," she said. The power of that generation faces a stern test, regardless of the election's outcome, in managing Bamiyan's tremendous potential in the face of national leadership that can most charitably be described as indifferent towards the province.

Across the country, early reports from E-Day 2010 seemed to indicate that both insurgent attacks, and voter turnout, were lower than expected. The Taliban claimed responsibility for some 150 attacks, significantly fewer than in 2009. At least 16 people, including two British soldiers, were killed. And the initial Independent Electoral Commission report indicated that overall there were about one million fewer votes cast than in last years presidential elections.

In Bamiyan, the trend was in the other direction. As is true on most other days, there were no reported security incidents across the province. And election officials stated that turnout had been so strong that thousands had been turned away from the polls due to insufficient ballots. These people of a peaceful province surrounded by war never questioned if they could afford the risk of voting. They questioned when the goods promised by their democracy will finally be delivered.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images


E-Day in Kabul

Afghanistan's parliamentary elections on Saturday may be the country's last chance to establish a true democracy.

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.

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.

Few inside or outside the country feel that the election will be clean. Afghans like Ahmadzai are working to ensure that what fraud does occur is contained and doesn't become systemic, undermining Afghans' already shaky belief in their fledgling democracy. E-Day represents a chance -- perhaps a last chance -- at consolidation.

There are signs of hope here. A recent poll conducted by U.S.-based Democracy International, an organization for which I am currently an election observer, found that 58 percent of Afghans surveyed still believe that their country is a democracy; and 76 percent said they planned to come to the polls on E-Day (last year, voters turned out at less than half that rate). Urban Afghans in particular believe that if they participate in elections, their lot will improve.

The challenges are enormous. This week, Afghan intelligence services confiscated thousands of fake voter cards apparently printed in Pakistan. The cards were a waste of some would-be vote-riggers' time, given that they would only work if they were held by thousands of otherwise ineligible Afghan voters, a highly unlikely and nearly impossible feat of mass deception. But the cards captured local headlines and thus eroded the electorate's confidence. Stuffing ballot boxes that are currently being transported, sometimes by donkey, over mountainous terrain, also remains a threat.

Another factor, albeit a licit one, that threatens to undermine public confidence, is Afghanistan's current voting scheme. The system, known as the single nontransferable vote system or SNTV, is a blunt electoral tool that impedes the development of a multiparty system. Under SNTV, one voter casts one vote on a ballot listing dozens of candidates, and just the top few win office. Voters don't rank candidates, and supporters of losers get nothing. Warlords and other regional power brokers love it because it all but ensures that any local opposition stays fragmented.

This fragmentation means that, while the last election galvanized the opposition to Karzai, Afghanistan lacks the caucuses and horse-trading systems that might otherwise affirmatively move policy and provide a durable check on executive authority. Afghans generally mistrust political parties, and the vast majority of this year's candidates accordingly identify themselves as independent on the ballots, regardless of their de facto party affiliations.

SNTV also means that many of those voters will essentially "waste" their votes and thus feel alienated by the results. The last-place candidate from Kabul to actually win a seat in the lower house in 2005 squeaked in with just over 2,000 votes. In neighboring Nangarhar province, 81.23 percent of voters backed losers.

"Speaking as an individual, I think that SNTV is no longer a system that is practical in Afghanistan," says Ahmadzai, the elections chief. "Political parties need to be strengthened in this country."

As is true in the United States, there is broad voter dissatisfaction with the performance of the current national representatives. Seventy-eight percent of the incumbents are up for re-election, and many still have work to do to prove that they can do a better job of steering Kabul's funds to the provinces. Saturday's vote might well prove to be a broad rebuke of the existing parliament.

Any last-minute politicking to avoid such a fate, however, is taking place quietly. For a country on the brink, it's a welcome calm, even if a storm will follow.

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