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Afghanistan Holds National Elections Amidst Violence, Fraud Allegations and Media Censorship

StoryAugust 20, 2009
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Millions of Afghans are voting in presidential and provincial elections today amid tight security and threats of violence from the Taliban. There are also widespread concerns about corruption, with reports of voting cards being openly sold and of candidates offering large bribes. We speak to independent journalist Rick Rowley in northern Afghanistan and get analysis from radio host and author Sonali Kolhatkar. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Millions of Afghans are voting in presidential and provincial elections today amid tight security, amid threats of violence from the Taliban, and with thousands of foreign troops still occupying the country, led by the United States. Some 300,000 Afghan and international troops have been deployed to protect voters, but there were a number of reported attacks, including mortars being fired at polling stations in the southern city of Kandahar and elsewhere.

About 17 million people are eligible to vote, with 6,500 polling stations open in 364 districts across the country. The interior ministry has said about a third of the country is at high risk of attack. There are also widespread concerns about corruption, with reports of voting cards being openly sold and of candidates offering large bribes.

AMY GOODMAN: Opinion polls are indicating a lead for President Hamid Karzai with 45 percent of the ballot. And without an outright majority of 50 percent, Karzai would be forced into a run-off with his closest challenger, which is expected to be his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.

Meanwhile, the Afghan government has called for an international media blackout on reporting violence on this day of the election, and some journalists have reported being harassed and beaten by security forces.

We go now to Afghanistan, where we’re joined by independent journalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films. He is on the line with us from Mazar in northern Afghanistan.

Rick, welcome to Democracy Now!

RICK ROWLEY: Thanks, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe what you see there today, what you’ve found. You’re in the area of Dostum, right? The notorious warlord who was just brought back by the President, Hamid Karzai, to get out the vote.

RICK ROWLEY: Yes, absolutely right. Here, the polls have just closed in Afghanistan around ten minutes ago. And we’re gathering reports from around the country. And [inaudible] it seems that turnout has been down nationwide and down especially severely in the Pashtun south, where there has been a lot of violence. It’s been calm here in Mazar. Mazari Sharif itself, turnout seems to be low at the polling stations we were at. But we also traveled to Sheberghan, which is the sort of fortress stronghold of warlord Rashid Dostum, where turnout was actually exceptionally heavy.

Rashid Dostum, as you said, returned two days ago to Afghanistan with the offer — under the offer of immunity from war crimes prosecution from Hamid Karzai, and he promised to deliver two million votes to President Karzai. So, really — and, you know, there have been attacks around the country. In Kandahar, the New York Times is actually reporting that there were hangings, that the Taliban hanged two people who turned out to vote.

But a lot of the low turnout seems to be also from voter apathy, because of a general dissatisfaction with the political system here. I mean, elections are supposed to be demonstrations of the viability of a good functioning state and a good functioning democracy. But here, these elections are being seen by many Afghanis as the end of the hope of a strong central government.

In 2004, when Hamid Karzai was elected, there was a lot of hope that he would end, you know, decades of warlord rule. And he made initial moves to try to sideline some of the most notorious warlords, like Fahim and Ismail Khan. But in this election, Fahim is running as his vice president, and he has allied himself with Dostum, with Mohaqiq, and with a whole slew of other warlords who are promising to deliver votes and who run their areas of the country like small kings.

So, instead of this election, we had — showing — being a symbol of a smoothly functioning democracy and a strong, viable central state, many Afghanis are seeing this election as the end of that and of the beginning, you know, of — instead of the central state capturing and controlling the warlords, the warlords are capturing and controlling the electoral process at the heart of the democracy here.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Rick, how visible is the military presence, both of the Afghan army and of foreign troops, around these polling places?

RICK ROWLEY: Well, in the polling places I’m at up here, there is a, you know, pretty heavy presence of Afghani police. There is no — there have been virtually no foreign soldiers here on the ground. I mean, we’re in one of the most stable parts of the north, that is, you know, pretty heavily — you know, securely under the control of warlords like Dostum, and there has been very little violence here. So there’s a heavy police presence, but no military outside of that.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Rowley is speaking to us from northern Afghanistan, from Mazar.

We’re also joined by Sonali Kolhatkar, host of Uprising on Pacifica radio station KPFK, co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan: Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence. And she co-directs the Afghan Women’s Mission.

Sonali, your take on today’s elections, their significance and President Hamid Karzai, the incumbent?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, you know, on the surface, it seems as though, and most mainstream media are reporting, that the legitimacy of the occupation by the US and NATO are linked to the legitimacy of these elections. And by that standard, that’s already failed, just given the very widespread voting, the fact that Hamid Karzai has essentially bought and paid most of his supporters, has persuaded other candidates not to run. His family has used bribes. And the US already knows that. And the fact that he is going to end up the winner through this illegitimate method already suggests that the election and, by extension, the occupation is illegitimate.

But then, if you step back and if you judge the US and NATO occupation by its actions, which I think we really need to remind ourselves that these elections are happening in the context of this occupation that’s now gone on for nearly eight years, what it ends up looking like in context of these elections is one set of warlords — that’s us — protecting a second set of warlords — that’s Karzai and his cohorts — from a third set of warlords, which are the Taliban. And who’s protecting the Afghan people? Nobody. And that’s why they’re not showing up to vote. And I think we really need to step back and realize that, broadly speaking, this is the context of these elections. This is what it means for the ordinary Afghan person. And really, it means that this entire occupation, along with the election, is illegitimate.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Sonali, I’d like to hone in on that point. It’s been now about thirty years of warfare in Afghanistan, with a few breaks, but the impact on the Afghan people of holding elections while this continued violence culms throughout the country?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, you know, Afghans are desperate for democracy. You know, you hear a lot in the media about, well, are Afghans really ready? Are they really ready to put aside their ethnic divisions, etc.? In 2004, when they first voted, as well as in 2005, when they voted for the parliamentary elections, there was a large turnout. In fact, the largest was in 2004. And very soon, when Karzai started dealing with the warlords, people became or started becoming apathetic. There was a smaller turnout in 2005 for the parliamentary elections. And now, four years later, there’s an even smaller turnout. And I think Afghans are realizing that going to the polls, you know, means nothing. They will go if they feel that they will actually get some kind of real change.

But also remember, the Taliban has become much stronger in the past several years, which is a direct result of the US-NATO occupation. They have threatened to cut off the fingers of anybody who has an ink mark showing that they voted. And so, in the southern areas of Afghanistan, where the occupation is the strongest, it’s the hardest for anybody to vote. And that is a direct link I think we should understand and not miss.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about women voting in Afghanistan, Sonali. And then I want to talk about just the status of the humanitarian crisis there. How do women vote?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Absolutely. Well, it’s very difficult. I mean, if you live in Kabul, in and around Kabul, and in the northern areas, it’s probably easier for you to vote. But in the southern areas, in particular, the Pashtun-dominated region, where the Taliban is the strongest and where the fundamentalist influence is the strongest, women have essentially been told they cannot vote.

And what’s happened is that thousands of women have been registered to vote by their husbands or by male relatives, and voting has apparently been done in their name, which means that votes have been cast and that, in fact, there have been some provinces where there have been 30 percent more votes, voter registration, by — for women than even for men. That means votes have been cast for women without women’s control over them. There have been instances of men taking home registration books to get, apparently, the fingerprints of women, although who’s able to check that is questionable. And so, women have been used once more to justify, to legitimize the power play among men.

And, you know, all of this talk about liberation of women, what does it all mean, when you have the new law that legalized the rape of Shia women that was quietly passed by Karzai in July, when you have women parliamentarians being kicked out of office? What does it mean for women to participate in a democracy, when that very supposed democracy completely acts against them and, in fact, institutionalizes their oppression? And we’re supposedly protecting, through the US and NATO occupation, this liberation of women. The only people who have actually been liberated in Afghanistan are warlords.

AMY GOODMAN: And on this issue of the health of women, Oxfam coming out with this report, one in three Afghans are at risk of hunger, that a pregnant Afghan woman dies an average of every thirty minutes in Afghanistan?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: You know, these indicators have, you know, shocked the world before 9/11. And somehow they don’t shock us anymore, because we assume that they have changed. Even before the fall of the Taliban, indicators like maternal mortality, infant mortality, women’s literacy, employment, etc., were among the worst in the world. There’s one province in Afghanistan where the highest maternal mortality rates are seen. Sixty-five out of 100,000 births doesn’t have — you know, the woman doesn’t survive that birth. That’s the highest ever seen in the world. That hasn’t changed over the last eight years.

The Oxfam report exposes that those indicators — which is what really matters, right? Does it — you know, what matter more? Being able to cast a vote or serve in parliament or simply being able to live through childbirth? Even the basic human needs, particularly of women, haven’t been met. And that is the greatest indication of how women have been completely sidelined. They are used when it is convenient for occupations, for foreign occupations, for — even for the warlords in government and even for the Taliban. But when it actually comes to women’s real well-being, women are shunted aside. And we shouldn’t — we should be just as shocked now as we were before 9/11.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Sonali, the Obama administration has obviously increased the military presence and the aggressiveness of US troops throughout the country. There were large operations in July in Helmand Province. What do you think has been the impact of this increased US fighting power in the country on the elections?

SONALI KOLHATKAR: Well, the US and NATO realize that it would seem a little bit odd to continue their war fighting operations on the day of the election, so they announced with much fanfare that they were actually going to be setting aside the war fighting and turning out their forces to protect polling places and to boost the election’s safety.

But what we’ve been doing before that, especially in July, as you mentioned, Obama — under the Obama administration, 4,000 extra troops were authorized to enter the Helmand Province, where the Taliban gets the majority of its opium that funds its insurgency. And the idea is to get in there and to chase out the Taliban and/or capture them and to supposedly, quote, “clear and hold” those areas. But what the US has done is it simply spread the insurgency into other parts of the country.

Also, a huge resentment has been built up over the past eight years against the US for the thousands of civilians we’ve killed. Obama cannot expect that that resentment will simply vaporize because now we’ve apparently changed our policy from relying more on ground troops versus air strikes. All we’ve done is provide fodder for a very angry, and rightly so angry, people. And predictably, the US saw the largest number of US casualties in the month of July, because we put extra ground troops on the ground after having killed so many Afghans. Afghans fought back, some through the Taliban, some alongside the Taliban, and of course the Taliban themselves. And the more troops that Obama puts on the ground, the more troops we’re going to lose and the more Afghans are going to be killed. This year alone, just in the first six to eight months of this year, 50 percent more US troops were killed in Afghanistan than last year, 20 percent more Afghan civilians were killed than last year. And so, as you ramp up the occupation, you ramp up the killings on both sides.

AMY GOODMAN: Sonali Kolhatkar, we want to thank you very much for being with us, host of Uprising on Pacifica radio station KPFK in Los Angeles, co-author of the book Bleeding Afghanistan.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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