The other presedential elections

Presidential elections are due to take place next year in Afghanistan. The first stage is voter registration, which is taking place at the moment. They are starting with the most inaccessible provinces before the winter snow shuts them off. My trip to Ghor coincided with the process, and the presence of some 300 Afghan National Army soldiers to ensure it goes without a hitch. I wasn’t greatly pleased with this coincidence, concerned by the security implications and the effect it might have on our work.

We were there to carry out an evaluation of a project, and I was worried that our asking of questions might get mixed up in people’s minds with the government’s asking of questions, so we had to take pains to separate the two. As for the security, I was assured that unlike the police, the army would actually quieten things down not stir them up.

Driving through a district where I would have preferred not to stop, we did. Just as I was beginning to protest, the driver pointed to a cloud of dust on the road ahead. We pulled over to let the convoy of 40 or 50 vehicles past, and took the opportunity of having a picnic upwind of the road. As we sat on the grass tearing at our bread and meat, we shyly waved at the guys in the back of the pick-ups, their black balaclavas pulled tightly down to keep out the dust. Pick-ups, supply trucks and an oil tanker, an ambulance and a couple of humvees rolled passed, slowing in the bottleneck of a little village then speeding away up the valley.

On a hill above our picnic spot was the ruins of some old building: a stack of stone pillars worn down but amazingly still standing. There were several sites like this on our trip. I was told they were watchtowers, positioned to survey movement up the valley, built during the Ghorid empire that ruled here in the twelve century. There was an apt juxtaposition between these and the army convoy: of ruling powers trying to patrol, monitor and protect their domain.

Struggling to count and name villages in just a couple of districts, I dread to think what it must be like trying to get an even remotely accurate electoral register. That though is probably the least of their problems.

There have already been reports of voter intimidation in Logar province, and there are worries that using schools and clinics as registration centres will make them into political targets, endangering those inside. I don’t see it being possible to do what they are doing now in Ghor in large parts of the south and east of the country. They would need a much larger convoy, and even then it’s hard to think that the security situation will allow the unfettered registration of voters. And as these parts of the country are where the majority of Pashtuns live, if the registration process is seen as at all incomplete, then a large proportion of the population will see themselves, and probably will be, as under-counted and politically disenfranchised. That will not make for a happy election.

(I’ve just read a newspaper article saying some folks are pushing to have the election cancelled altogether.)

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