Archive for the ‘Politics + Current Affairs’ Category

Afghan election roundup

November 5, 2009

For those of you who, like me, are wondering what the hell just happened with the elections in Afghanistan, here is a simple recap of recent events:

Elections happened (Yay for democracy!)

Karzai won (well done old chap)

They were fraudulent (Doh!)

General dithering over what to do next (um, well, err…)

Some votes were recounted (one, two, three…)

Karzai lost (ohh)

A second round was suggested, along with some changes to the procedures to reduce likelihood of fraud (hear hear)

Karzai agreed to a second round but declined to make said changes (hold on a minute…)

Abdullah realised he could both avoid an embarrassing defeat and still look really cool, in fact look like the only person with an inch of credibility in the whole show (not saying much), by declining to participate in a second round of fraudulent elections (scab!)

Karzai figured that since it was now a one-horse race he may as well forgo the vote rigging part and just win (all bets are off)

Karzai won (Hey, I think I’m getting the hang of this…)

International community stood around scratching their heads looking a little shocked (um, well, err…)

The whole process has had all the ‘legitimacy’ of a celebrity UNHCR ambassador caught killing refugees, boiling them down to make glue and sniffing it. All that money and all those people who died – including some of those in last week’s attack on the UN in Kabul, plus many more foreign soldiers and many more Afghan civilians and civil servants – were for what exactly?

Can we just pretend none of this ever happened? For the first time I found myself thinking maybe foreign troops should pull out; they’re being taken for a ride by the government they’re there to support. On reflection I still don’t, as the rural poor would be the ones to suffer the consequences the most. But ye gods, it’s all befuddlingly depressing. Foreigners trying their damndest to shape the course of events, and failing miserably; Karzai demonstrating a lack of honesty and honour worthy of a much better fucking politician than he is; while the UN dithered and appeased so much they surely loose all semblance of their hard-won credibility in the eyes of most Afghans.

Maybe none of this really matters. Maybe Karzai is just as useless as any other but he does at least have the benefit of having won more votes cast than any other, and no on really expected otherwise. Maybe, as an AREU paper suggests, the elections have changed the political landscape at the local level, providing a peaceful means of changing the balance of power.  Maybe a large chunk of Afghanistan’s rural population had the political nous and foresight to see through the whole thing from the start and won’t be greatly perturbed by these parlour games.

Things will muddle through one way or another as they always do, but a great deal of damage has been done to all concerned in the process, not least the UN.

Domestic clashes

October 10, 2009

Afghanaid discussion 3992719891_9ec724b602

One of the (many) challenges of having moved from Afghanistan to Britain is suddenly having to have an opinion on, and argue about, the question originally posed by The Clash: should (foreign forces) stay or should they go now? Being in Afghanistan the answer seemed obvious enough, or irrelevant enough, as not to have to bother thinking about: trouble either way but, contra The Clash, if they go it would be double.

Obvious, because if foreign troops pulled out, all hell would break loose and make life for rural Afghans considerably worse. Irrelevant, because when one’s work focuses on humanitarian relief and development the military side of things isn’t one’s main concern. Plus, one is far too busy planning the next party and swapping stories of daring-do to have time to analyse anything.

In the UK though, the focus is on the images of returning body bags, which obviously puts a slightly different spin on things and generates a whole lot of debate. Its domestic-centric approach doesn’t hold much interest for me but it does mean I now have to buck up my act and think of some clever things to say while propping up the bar.

So the recent BBC radio debate came in handy. As did a discussion put on by Afghanaid  that I went to this week (a small part of which was also covered by the BBC. Both of these programmes are only available for a limited time.)

I thought the Afghanaid one would focus more on the elections but the presence of General Richards swayed things back to the military. I wanted to try and change the direction a bit with a question following on from Captain Cat’s superb post about the corruption of the IEC and the poor showing of UNAMA and danger to its credibility, but never got the chance.

I hadn’t come across Francesc Vendrell before but for me he was the star of both shows. He argued that the elections are an indictment of our (western) democratic credentials and we, having paid for them, cannot sit silently by. Instead, the international community should demand a recount of 25% of votes cast as the EU have suggested, with an interim government to take over until further elections next spring; either a run-off or a re-run of the presidential vote.

Dawood Azami seemed to agree, but pointed out the challenges of holding another election: money, weather, security, the probability of even lower turnout, and all with no guarantee that they would be any better.

Horia Mosadiq then asked aloud if we can expect even worse fraud in the 2010 parliamentary elections, when a whole jolly bunch of miscreant warlords and others will be jostling for power. A good question, with a disturbingly predictable answer. Something to look forward to.

I’m listening to the BBC debate as I write, so this is going to be like a live commentary:

Bloody hell but the Stop the War Coalition piss me off. Once upon a time I marched through London with a Stop the War placard in hand. Now I’d be tempted to march in protest against them over Afghanistan.

‘National interest has got to be the bottom line’ or some such was the final word, by someone. No god damn it no. (In a 45 minute programme that’s all the live commentary I can manage. Slow typer, and too busy listening.) Now I just need to think of a way of explaining why without appearing like a callous, war-mongering bastard. So far, outbursts along the lines of ‘so what if more than 200 British soldiers have died in eight years? You know how many died in three months of the Falklands, or how many Afghan civilians have been killed in the last year?’ haven’t been winning me many friends.

[Photo from Afghanaid’s Flickr thing]

Salam

September 21, 2009

Eid mubarak and peace be upon you for the international day of peace.

Peace day? God but the UN are a bunch of hippies.

I guess blogging will continue here but probably not so often, at least for a while, so don’t hold you breath.

Election observations

August 24, 2009

So then. Free and fair elections in Afghanistan. Democracy blooms. My work here is done.

Well, freeish, and kinda fair. It’s all relative.

OK, so maybe not, but it’s so much easier if we pretend. Then we can all go home for tea and cake.

I was going to give a round-up of all the events across the country on election day, but there were 86 reported security incidents from the eastern region alone, so such a summary would be pretty boring for all concerned.

Sitting at home on the morning of election day, listening to the BBC reporters dotted around the country, and reading the ANSO security updates that streamed into my computer, and things seemed to be getting rather lively. In the end though, after planning for the worst, the day was strangely anti-climatic.

It’s one thing to stay at home relaxing; another to be forced to stay at home in mind-numbing boredom (yet getting a strange kick out of the constant updates on bombs across the country. like watching the on-line live text updates on the cricket. hmm, people getting killed and a very peculiar game: too crass a comparison perhaps? not if you’ve studied your Douglas Adams.)

The attacks that took place seemed to be aimed at disrupting the elections rather than killing, so causality figures were thankfully low (gee, thanks guys for killing only 26 people, that’s real swell of you). Voter turn out was low as anticipated, guessed to be around 40%. Fraud, intimidation, and general fuck-ups were aplenty, but hopefully not disastrously so. It could have been a lot better, and it could have been a whole lot worse.

Yep, that’s the extent of my analysis. The closest I’ve been to the elections this week is shaking a few people’s ink-stained hands. But since voters observed 10 observers for every voter, you don’t need me to stick my oar in and so I can concentrate on the serious business of being flippant.

Hamesha provides a much more interesting account, of his trip to the polling station. And of the televised debate between three presidential candidates a few days earlier, including the incumbent. I watched a bit of it (with a running translation from a friend) and was likewise mightily impressed. Afghan media may have mostly obeyed the order to not broadcast any bad news on the day (we don’t want to scare anybody off now do we? much better that they die trying, in joyful ignorance, then stay at home in heart-still-dejectedly-beating apathy), but sometimes the press provide much needed optimism.

The very next morning after the election, two people claimed to have won, which I thought was a pretty impressive feat. And the main candidates have promised Holbrooke that whatever the outcome they’ll kiss and make up afterwards, so that’s sweet. (Although I then read this morning that Abdullah’s accusing Karzai of fraud – shocking! – and continued doubts about the legitimacy of Karzai if he does win. who’d a thought eh.)

Election contingency planning

August 18, 2009

Things are getting a little bit tense around these parts, what with the elections, the suicide attack on Saturday and the odd wayward rocket.

But we are well prepared, and as all the Afghan staff are on standby, I have the office to myself at the moment so can relax with music, talk to myself and concentrate on the work I need to do, which makes for a pleasant change.

I am finishing my job and leaving Afghanistan in three weeks time, so a lot to do before then. A lot I could write about my departure as well but maybe another time. Will be happy to be home but it’s never easy to leave, so. Anyways.

If things really go belly-up with the elections – very unlikely but as I said, we are well prepared, and it’s quite fun to ham these things up – I may be leaving before then. My grab bag is ready and my radio tuned to the World Service, over which the embassy has said they will communicate the code word for evacuation.

Which is rather exciting, but I am slightly concerned. If they announce it during the business news I think I will realise, but if somebody says ‘the goose is stuck in the oven’ during the cricket it would be very easy to assume it was just another esoteric technical term rather than the order to flee; something akin to a ‘duck in silly leg-off’, perhaps.

Actually, I have a choice of where to flee: into the arms of my own embassy or that of my organisation’s and colleagues’ home country. As the pick-up point for them is in a place that just happens to be well stocked with cold beers (and wine, if there’s no electricity and the beer is cold. must consider every worst-case scenario, however unpalatable. not that wine is unpalatable of course, just that when the weather is this hot, something chilled is preferable) I think I might go with them.

If the news is bad and things go a bit quiet here for the next week, rest assured I’ll be safely passed out under the bar waiting for the cavalry to arrive.

Kaboom in the ‘green zone’

August 15, 2009

A man drove a car down the road towards the entrance to ISAF HQ and the US embassy this morning, and blew himself up. Seven people killed at the last count, all civilians, with the Taliban claiming responsibility.

It’s a part of town I rarely visit but I happened to be in the same place yesterday, visiting a friend who works at ISAF.

In the various reports about the attack today, much has been made of the fact that it happened in a high security area; a ‘heavily fortified security zone’ Martin Patience on the radio next to me has just described it, ‘the safest street in the Afghan capital.’

Which in a way it is. But then again, yesterday I drove in an old Toyota Corolla – the most common car on the streets of Kabul – with no visible identification or security pass, to within 25 meters of the entrance to ISAF without being stopped or searched once. And not just because I was a foreigner. We could have got closer but I preferred to get out and walk the last bit rather than negotiate the concrete barriers snarled up with large unmarked armoured vehicles.

To get into ISAF itself is not so easy, but that a bomb should go off where it did today is not as remarkable as the fact that there have not been more attacks like this. Security checks in Kabul may still sometimes appear pretty farcical, but the police and intelligence services have definitely got their act together compared with previous years. But it’s impossible to stop everything getting through.

It seems most of those killed were people walking to work at the nearby Ministry of Transport, and several of the Macedonian soldiers on second-line defence, and the Afghan soldiers outside the main gate, must be among the wounded. I was chatting with one of those Afghan soldiers yesterday as I waited for my escort to pick me up, a very young man, bored and friendly. Hope he’s alright.

Election fever

August 6, 2009

DSC02356

My, elections are exciting, aren’t they? I’ve been resisting commenting on them for fear of jeopardising my humanitarian impartiality* but can no longer resist the allure of politics and power (and the guy above telling me to vote). So, with only a few weeks to go, here’s a rough round-up of what’s been going on.

Things kicked off in earnest with Karzai winning the election, then some argy-bargy about who was allowed to run for the Provincial and Presidential elections, various complaints about certain candidates, the role of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), who was going to get to be the bestest friend of the USA, some small concerns about the actual date of the elections and something to do with the Constitution, and a few even smaller concerns about the possibility of ever holding free and fair elections given that the Government has no control in several districts of the country (nearly all of which happen to be Pashtu, thus just possibly leading to a slight sense of disenfranchisement, or of just being a bit pissed off, from a fair proportion of the country’s electorate). I may have the order of these events a bit mixed up – it’s all been going on for a while now and I’m forgetting the finer points.

Who that electorate is is another question. In some places it seemed that there were more women on the electoral register then men. Given the general situation of gender equality and women’s suffrage, that surprised some (those hard-nosed cynical nay-sayers, mostly. They’re never satisfied). Actually I was slightly surprised anybody was able to register at all after reading about Hamesha’s attempt to do so in Kabul.

As many as three million duplicate registration cards may exist according to one unnamed election observer in a newspaper article, out of a total 17 million registered voters. With what’s been going on so far, there’s a chance – an outside chance that you wouldn’t want to bet on maybe, but still a chance – that nobody will accept the results whatever they are, and that whoever does win will have less legitimacy than Karzai after the last elections.

r595494828

Afghan man, Haji Rozuddin shows fraudulent voter registration cards in Logar province July 1, 2009. Buried outside his house near the Afghan capital, Haji Rozuddin keeps hundreds of fraudulent voter registration cards to sell to anyone wanting to vote in next month’s presidential election. Picture taken July 1, 2009. REUTERS/Hamid Shalizi

The British ambassador has said “We have to recognise that these elections are going to be pretty rough and ready in places. They will not be up to the standards of a western democracy. The test of success is whether they are credible, secure and inclusive enough that they are seen as credible by the people.” Which to me sounds like “The elections will be successful as long as no one makes a fuss and we can paper over all the problems and pretend everything’s fine and dandy.”

There was much excitement about the sudden flowering of campaign posters all over Kabul, with pictures of the main candidates plastered over every wall and bus, some even tattooing their images onto the backs of goats. Not just in Kabul neither; posters have been sighted running in the wilds and up the highest mountains populated only by a single shepherd. Every vote counts.

DSC02404

Most prominent among these pictures have been the handsome faces of Karzai, of course, and his main rivals Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. What’s not to like about a man whose first name is the same as his second? Especially when it caused such confusion for the BBC and their standard line that ‘many Afghans only have one name.’ There are 38 other names on the ballot paper, minus the people who have already given up (perhaps a bit late since the papers have already been printed, possibly confusing a few people, but at least they tried huh?).

Karzai’s failure to appear on the much-heralded first televised debate between the main candidates didn’t look too good (the reason given in one report for his last minute withdrawal was that he hadn’t had time to prepare his policies) but probably hasn’t dampened his chances unduly. At least no more so then appearing and getting a mauling, as he would have done.

If he doesn’t get 51% of the vote then it goes to a second round with another vote a month and bit later. If this happens it could really spice things up.

One of Abdullah’s chaps has already said if Karzai wins, it won’t be fair, so Kalashnikovs at the ready. Which is obviously a great start, especially as Karzai is still the most likely to win. Whatever you may think of him, he’s a canny politician for sure, and seemed to have things wrapped up even before they began simply by getting the ‘right’ people (read the most powerful, unsavoury, possible-war-criminal type people) on his team, dividing and ruling the opposition.

Admittedly, Abdullah has got some reason to complain. At first it was allegations that Karzai’s supporters were tearing down his posters. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a couple of RPGs have been fired at a political rally held in his favour, and one of his key supporters has been assassinated.

At least four Provincial Council Members have been killed and several more wounded or abducted up to June, according to the ANSO 2nd Quarter report.

With all this going on, a few NGOs are beginning to wonder what to do. Going on holiday in late August appears to be the favoured tactic at the moment (though I’ll be sticking around to give you a blow by blow account of the protests that will follow. And to use the 50 voter registration cards I bought in the bazaar yesterday. Think I’m going to vote for this guy as he’s also a competitor in the Tour de Kaboul).

Taliban are boycotting the elections, and suggesting to others, in the nicest possible way, that it would be best if they didn’t vote. Which, if you squint a bit, could be seen as a good thing as it does mean they are at least taking them seriously (nothing worse than an insurgent group just shrugging its shoulders with a Gallic ‘buff’ and generally being a bit patronising about the legitimacy and importance of your elections, especially when you’ve gone to all that trouble…).

There are 7,000 polling stations (with 600 odd unlikely to open due to security). Getting the ballot papers there and back is what’s known in the trade as a logistical nightmare. One convoy carrying equipment has already been attacked. 3,000 donkeys are going to be employed to transport papers to the more remote corners of the country, stuff ballot boxes and make tea for the handful of election observers.

Some of those polling stations have been set up in schools and hospitals. This has worried many, who don’t want to see a rocket through their nice new project just ‘cause it’s tainted with election fever.

I could go on and on, and more good news comes pouring in every day, but best leave it there for now as I’m out of breath.

UN special envoy Kai Eide has gone so far as to borrow my favourite response when anybody back home asks me about Afghanistan, describing the elections as ‘complicated.’ ‘Nough said.

 

* The staff at our NGO have been required to sign a statement, agreeing to resign if they happen to be running for President (none of them are, but you can never be too sure) and generally trying to draw a line between whatever they think and do in their own free time, and what they get up to as official employers of the organisation. The whole ‘Non-Governmental’ thing tends to preclude electioneering during the lunch break, and perceptions of neutrality are often matters of live and death in Afghanistan. One paragraph read: “Political debate and discussion about candidates are strictly forbidden in … compounds and during working hours, both between … colleagues and with other people (including beneficiaries).” I understand the reasoning behind this, but it makes the elections much more boring for me. I’d be interested to know from others if their organisations have ever taken similar steps.

The politics of lunch

July 14, 2009

A chap got fired from IRD for complaining about the separation of Afghans’ and expats’ eating arrangements. Culinary apartheid.

In many INGOs I know the expats eat separately from the national staff in Kabul. In my last outfit, we ate together, apart from some expats who preferred to go to a café for lunch or bring in their own from home.

My current gig operates a two-tier system. The expats tend to eat separately, outside the office at home, and pay more for the privilege of marginally better fare.

The food in the office is certainly a sore point, not for who eats it but the quality. Far as I’m concerned it’s not bad – have certainly eaten far worse – but it’s still not good enough for some and is probably the most hotly debated topic at work. The cook nearly caused a mutiny at one stage.

As I’m one of the few who has my team with me in Kabul, I tend to eat with them in the office. But once a week I enjoy leaving them to it and hanging out with my foreign colleagues.

Afghan staff are not invited. Which obviously isn’t fair or nice. But it is nice to have the opportunity to discuss some issues we wouldn’t otherwise, over a cup of expensive coffee.

It would be a different story if we ate separately within the same office, but going home makes the division feel somehow less acute. I’m conscious of the inequity and not always easy with it, but I wouldn’t change it.

What I cannot accept is not being allowed to attend the 14th July celebrations at the embassy with my foreign colleagues simply because of my nationality. Bloody French connards.

Pre-emptive aid strike

June 16, 2009

From air strikes to aid strikes, my, the US military keeps itself busy.

KABUL, 16 June 2009 (IRIN) – The US military has stepped in with humanitarian aid supplies in a bid to outflank a brewing conflict over grazing land between Afghan Kuchi nomads and ethnic Hazaras in a district in Wardak Province, some 30km from Kabul.

According to a statement by the US military, representatives of 15-20 Kuchi families agreed not to encroach on pasture land in Daimirdad District after receiving sacks of beans, sugar, flour, rice and tins of cooking oil, and the promise of more aid in future.

“Three weeks ago, we went to Daymardad [Daimirdad] and it was a very positive step for us. The Kuchi elders said they would not migrate [to the area] if they were given food, water and vaccination supplies for their animals,” Joe Asher, a US military officer, was quoted in a statement as saying.

The statement said tents, water and veterinary supplies would be distributed in future so that Kuchis do not need to enter the contested area.

“We hope this demonstrates that we’re saying `hey, we’re taking the steps to alleviate your problems,'” said the 12 June statement.

“The Kuchis won’t have to move their livestock, because they will have what they need,” the statement added.

Over the past few years, disputes over access to public pasture land between Kuchis, who are Pashtun nomads, and ethnic Hazaras, who live in central parts of the country, have often led to armed clashes.

I’m blown away by that and at a loss for suitably disparaging and despairing words. The IRIN report goes on to explain why well enough for me to leave it there.

Rambling return

June 15, 2009

So I’m back in Kabul. Rest and Relaxation (or is it Recreation?) was both, and much needed.

Actually I’ve been back for a while but trying to write here feels too much like a chore at the moment, and not worth forcing. Other things to be getting on with, but one event worth mentioning.

There was a US air strike in Ghor last week. It missed its intended target and killed a few civilians so nothing unusual, apart from the fact that it happened in Ghor – a favourite haunt of mine in the past and a province usually devoid of such excitement. I was almost proud seeing the province highlighted on international t.v. for the first time.

The intended target seems to have been Mullah Mustafa, a chap who has occasionally, obliquely, featured on these pages. He has been described as a Taliban commander on some news outlets but to me is known as a local warlord in Sharak district who’s just a pain in the arse for screwing up a couple of my plans before now. So reading the first lines of a report saying he was dead, I cringe to say it, I was almost pleased.

A few lines further down though and he was reported as phoning someone up an hour later to say he was still very much alive, though several of his family members were not.

There have been a couple of other incidents in Ghor the last week that haven’t made the news but don’t make for cheerful reading, especially as I want to get out there before too long. What has been in the news is that there have been more Taliban attacks in the last two weeks than at any time since 2001, which ain’t great news either.

Kabul though remains remarkably calm. So much so that there was even an article in the latest Afghan Scene magazine commenting on the fact and comparing the sunny situation now to the dark days of last autumn. From such an august publication it must be true. They’ve even re-introduced the ‘Be Scene’ section: pictures of drunken expats gurning at the camera at all the hottest parties, previously discontinued due to a lack of parties and reluctance of Kabul’s beautiful people (I’ve never been in it. Can you tell from my bitter sarcasm?) to be publicised for fear of the Taliban using it to draw up an illustrated hit list.

The level of security in Kabul has certainly been notched up in recent months. I was stopped at police checkpoints twice just on the way back from the airport to my house. Which reminds me of the conversation I had with my driver on the way to the airport: “Check, check, check! So many checks!” I complained as we were stopped and searched for the third time. “Yes. Check, check, check, BOOM!” That had me laughing all the way to the Ariana plane, the sight of which quickly put a stop to my giggles.

airplanes in chagcharan