After six weeks in Afghanistan I was about
to board my Afghan Ariana flight for a ten hour nail-biter to
Frankfurt, Germany to connect with my flight home. I had spent
three weeks with a documentary film team following the top candidates
in Afghanistan’s first ever democratic election.
I fought my way through the chaotic crowd
and breathed a sigh of relief as I walked towards my jet (a
used plane donated a few years back by India). As men started
unloading my plane’s luggage, I had the bad feeling that the
man waving at us with the Walkie Talkie wasn’t saying good-bye.
Women in headscarves, men in turbans, children
and I filed back to the drab terminal as our airplane (which
they said had mechanical problems) was being surrounded by a
large security team. I watched as snipers took positions along
the roof of Kabul airport, teams searched the parameter of the
area, and Dyncorp security (American ex-special forces) toting
the latest weaponry circled the plane. Even an Apache attack
helicopter patrolled above. The crummy blue seats came out of
my airplane and fancy leather lounges went up. Today Afghan
President Hamid Karzai wanted to fly— he had funeral to attend.
The latest polls in Afghanistan’s historic
democratic election, which will be announced officially after
Ramadan (the Muslim holy month of fasting ending November 15th),
had Karzai with almost 70% of the total vote. Karzai’s use of
the media, government assets such as airplanes and helicopters,
and US support gave him a significant advantage. Each of the
17 candidates running for president were allowed one month to
campaign. Three members of our documentary team made a 20-minute
chartered flight to Mazar-i-Sharif for a morning of campaigning
with Karzai’s main rival for president, Younis Qanooni, a leader
strongly connected to the Afghan national hero, Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Our cameraman John Monte was on the trip:
“Upon landing, Qanooni’s guards armed with
AK-47s surrounded us as a crowd of hundreds collapsed into a
swirling mass waving signs. The handful of press was submerged
into the waves. Qanooni was whisked away in a line of black
armored Four-Wheel Drives—a line of vehicles perhaps worth millions.
An Afghan Translator quipped that if you stood close and scratched
the paint, you could easily smell the fragrance of poppies [now
one of Afghanistan’s main cash crops, and the main ingredient
in heroin production]. The motorcade barreled on into Mazar.
Trucks, busses, motorcycles and four wheel drives carved a two-lane
road into a four lane one-way highway of dust and wild euphoria.”
Massouda Jalal, a primary focus of our
documentary, was the only woman running for president. In a
dark, soviet era apartment/ campaign headquarters, her children
sat in their mother’s lap as she met with clerics, tribal leaders
and European Union officials. Despite her shoe-string campaign
budget, Dr. Jalal’s posters emanating the aura of a saint were
pasted all over the country. Even the US Ambassador, Zalmay
Khalilzad, told us he believed Jalal was the “sleeper” in this
election, although he had met her only once.
Dr. Khalilzad, appointed by US President
George W. Bush, charmingly talked with us in a sit-down interview
at the US Embassy. Khalilzad’s intellect, linguistic skills
(he speaks Dari fluently), political shrewdness, and close friendship
with Karzai has made him a highly effective operator in the
highstakes landscape of Afghanistan's emerging democracy. This
man, who looks like Peter Sellers without the moustache, is
probably the most powerful man in Afghanistan aside from Karzai.
Let us not forget he is backed by the US military.
On election morning the Kabul streets,
normally packed with diesel spewing cars, were eerily empty
as we sped through the dust storm to Qanooni’s house. Instead
lines of people, including rows of women in burqas wound around
mud brick buildings as they waited to vote. The violence, which
the Taliban vowed to inflict, never materialized on this day.
In Qanooni’s marble floored compound garnished
with sparkling chandeliers, the first signs that the well planned
election would be marred by a detail as small as ink, began
to unfold at about 9:00am. Men in turbans marched in one at
a time showing that the indelible ink (meant to last a week
to prevent voter fraud) easily rubbed off their thumbs. People
were now voting, according to some reports, as many as 40 times.
Qanooni’s distinguished face was now perplexed. As we rolled
our cameras, Qanooni rang Ambassador Khalilzad to lodge his
concerns at about 9:40 in the morning.
At about 10:15 my camera team raced over
to Massouda Jalal’s headquarters from Qanooni’s. As we arrived
we began rolling on Jalal’s husband—- the main architect of
her campaign—- who was also now on a cell phone with Khalilzad.
Here too, voters showed how the ink easily rubbed off, and one
man boasted of voting four times. Both Qanooni’s and Jalal’s
headquarters turned not to the United Nations (who set up the
election), but to the US Ambassador to clear up the mess.
We received a call at 10:45 that Qanooni
was going to lead an all out boycott with the other candidates,
with the exception of President Karzai, who maintained the voting
was fair. At this point the election seemed to be in jeopardy.
If only Karzai remained as a candidate, it wouldn’t be much
of an election. My camera team left for the meeting of candidates
threatening to boycott, which Jalal opted not to attend.
As we left Jalal’s for the meeting, our
second camera team arrived at her campaign headquarters as Khalilzad’s
motorcade of green Ford Excursions rolled up at about 11:30am.
They began filming as his extensive security detail cleared
the area. The Ambassador waved to our cameras in his cordial
way as he walked up the dusty path for his first ever visit
to Jalal’s office. Khalilzad personally met with Massouda Jalal
in a closed-door meeting at about 12:00. After the meeting Jalal
would announce she was not going to boycott, rather she would
stay in the race under protest. Karzai and Jalal were the only
official candidates remaining in the race after the other candidates
including Qanooni, did in fact, boycott. The legitimacy of the
election, it seemed, was salvaged by a mere hair. Voting continued
in record numbers throughout the day.
The bottom line was that the Afghan people’s
desire and excitement to vote, and their pure turnout, overshadowed
the political wrangling by the power seekers. The people’s hope
for a democratic Afghanistan was clear. The international media
tried to play up the ink dilemma, but in the weeks following
the candidates that boycotted, slowly trickled back. The US
Ambassador’s quick work of keeping two candidates in the race
paid off paving the way for an election that history books will
most likely remember as a mild success, despite its flaws.
Weeks later and about to leave Kabul, after
Karzai commandeered my airplane, I sat more than seven anxiety
riddled hours in the airport with my Afghan brethren, not knowing
what was in store for us (when would I be able to leave Afghanistan?).
I began to realize during my feelings of helplessness that for
the successful growth of Afghanistan, there would need to be
more than a presidential election, and the building of roads
and wells across the country. Almost more important is the fundamental
concept of democracy, as stated by Abraham Lincoln, “government
of the people, by the people, and for the people,” must take
root in the hearts of those in power in Afghanistan.
Clearly there is the potential that a democratic
system in Afghanistan may reinforce and legitimize the status
quo— a situation where guns and power and warlords are rewarded—
rather than a system that serves the interests of the people.