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RIOTS, ROCKETS AND AN ELECTION |

September 22, 2010

Name: Major Dan
Posting date: 9/22/10
Stationed in: Afghanistan
Milblog: AfghaniDan

That's the name of the game here lately. An important nationwide election looms today (Saturday, September 18th), in which all seats of Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga (or lower house of parliament) are up for sale -- oops, I mean grabs! Framing the election season, which features more than 2500 candidates jockeying for just 249 seats, was the fallout from Quran burnings in the U.S., even though that pastor in Florida never went through with it. Whether there were imitation burnings in the States (I don't even know), or old footage was aired as if it was new, or rumors simply gained traction that it happened anyway, there were a number of highly-charged demonstrations the past few days. 

Some turned into deadly riots, which isn't hard to see coming when you factor in the ingredients: A "grave insult to all of Islam" is reported across the media, and sometimes in such a way as to suggest that large numbers of Americans are taking part in the desecration; word of mouth spreads fast and furious that it is sanctioned by the U.S. Government, by NATO, by ISAF, and that we're probably burning copies behind our blast walls; insurgent groups and criminal gangs always looking for an opportunity stoke the flames however they can; and oh yes, an election said to be fraudulent already -- by those who want no democracy here and by quite a few ordinary Afghans -- rapidly approaches as all this unfolds.

Just one of the many incidents of the past few days...
Two killed in Afghan protest over Quran burning plan

The polls open in just 6 hours, as of this writing. And for the third time in just the last few months, most of the country is on edge, hopeful for a collective step forward (usually defined as "no major attacks") while fearful that instability will rule the day. Or just as likely, and more troublesome, perhaps most are resigned to the idea that their votes don't much matter, and that neither really does the national assembly. That's the sentiment I hear most often expressed in conversation with Afghans. The people are pretty disgruntled with rampant corruption in their government, for the most part -- though exactly how many want to do something about that remains highly in question, as there is still a great deal of often-puzzling loyalty to the heavyweights in charge. 

Some cool photographs here...
Perspectives on Afghanistan's parliamentary elections

Still, the election season has been incredibly interesting. For months, the signs along roadsides have taken over, as more than 600 candidates are running for seats in Kabul alone. Ranging from placards to billboards, and in some cases giant banners overhanging main thoroughfares, there are hundreds of plastered faces staring out at you in a stern manner at any given time. Facial recognition is important, as are the symbols associated with various candidates (Vote for the three lions! -- seriously), since the population is somewhere around 20% literate. Television commercials, and there have been tons, generally feature a version of the hand-out card on the screen with a voice-over urging you to vote for the good candidate in question.

Check out the photo on this link -- it's like some of mine, which I am unable to post.
Afghan election: Taliban not the only culprits of campaign violence

So who are these candidates? They range from former(?) warlords to sons/daughters of past heroes, some clearly going for the traditional vote -- and looking like village elders in Kunar -- while some seek the more Western-minded youth on their side. There are ethnic party hardliners, there are grandmothers, there are probably hundreds of candidates secretly backed by their local insurgents (who officially oppose elections) -- and there are patriots who truly want to take out the trash and start with a fresh legislature. Allegations abound already of fixing by incumbents, particularly those close to President Karzai, but there's still a giant sense of the unknown. It should be an interesting day. Here's one of the more interesting candidates...

Trust me, this is an exception to the usual appearance!  She's garnered quite a bit of attention, as you might guess...
Sisters, sprinters run for the elections

My feeling is that like the Kabul Conference in July, and the Peace Jirga before it, the election will be pulled off with only relatively minor disruptions -- at least in the large cities. Both of those were anticipated events with high international profiles, inviting a statement of some sort by insurgents looking to de-legitimize the government. But the outlying districts will likely be another story. The army and police have given the assurances they can, confident that a strong security presence will encourage voting.

Caption I'd like to attach the link's top photo: One American wonders what's going on, as one Afghan gives the press hell ("And another thing...!"), my man Azimi gives the evil eye (or the stinkeye?), and the dude on the end thinks, "Do I smell lamb? Yep, I smell lamb. Time for lunch, boys."

(This is a blatant plug of my own story.)
Election security will be adequate, say Afghan generals

* Just before I began writing this, a slight earthquake shook Kabul, about two hours ago.  I was running at the time in the darkened city camp and barely felt it -- I thought more likely that a detonation had happened somewhere -- but hordes of people staggered sleepy-eyed out of their rooms. The real notification for me came in the form of little birds, who pack the trees by the thousands and chatter away all evening and half the night. They came pouring out of their trees, making such a crazy racket that I thought to myself, (no foolin'), clearly something just happened. It wasn't until I ran by someone who asked, "Did you feel the earthquake?", that I knew what happened. As my director just posted on Facebook a few moments ago, let's hope it's not some kind of election day omen...

No damage reported after moderate earthquake jolts Afghanistan

* Follow-on note: I did actually hear the rocket, an hour or so after posting this. Now that is a greater concern than a deep tremor of the earth. But the fact that it gets reported as news, and that I am posting about it, just goes to demonstrate how safe Kabul is. The last time I was deployed I didn't even bother writing about rockets landing in bases in the East. Here it's big news if one strikes anywhere in the vast capital. But that's the juxtaposition of safety in this city vs that which passes for it in the rest of the country, the byproduct of super-tight security on all approaches and beefed-up policing inside. The upside is a relative oasis of calm apart from the dangers of other provinces.  The downside is a return to the "Kingdom of Kabul," where government and commerce hold sway here, but everything beyond gets further unstable all the time.

Afghan voting off to rocky start

(Note to Ms. Vogt: I'd hardly characterize one rocket, in a city that has been besieged by storms of rockets, as a "rocky start." Silly media, always super-concerned if it's their safe zone of Kabul...)

UPDATE: ELECTION DURING WARTIME

With the election over and the midnight oil still burning hours past, I thought it only fair to follow up my pessimistic diatribe with a bit of euphoria. My team returned a few hours ago from an election night joint press conference, where some of Afghanistan's most powerful leaders discussed the eventful day and the period of time which led up to it. Since the 'principles' of ours were the ones coordinating and preparing their bosses (the Ministers of Defense and Interior, respectively) for the big conference, we got to take pride in a job well done by the entire departments we advise.

Afghanistan's Tolo News on the day...
IEC calls the elections a success

The greatest feeling comes from the news that millions of Afghans voted today for their chosen representatives, with turnout higher than anticipated in most of the country. The other good vibes flow from a few key things my boss pointed out; the knowledge that Afghans provided effective security against long odds, that their ministries conducted a highly effective information engagement on their own, that the police and army acknowledged the growth of their force and its increased professionalism as major factors in their success, and that we got to report the good news back to those who've worked hard for results on this end.

(Yep, I'm plugging myself again...had a hand in this one.)
Afghan forces secure election

Besides the conference itself which capped the night, a number of things stood out on this cool-weather, earthquake-aftershock-afflicted, blue-sky day. The drive to the somewhat-secret press hall was a good reminder that there's no better way to travel than in the convoy of the Interior Minister, who by the way is in charge of all the police in the land. Anyone who thinks that Afghans can't manage outstanding command and control needs to ride in one of these convoys. With no notice, the minister says "go" and the convoy takes off, with the entire route blocked off from traffic and guarded with extra arms because the word went out. So you may find yourself (hey, Talking Heads again!) in a large automobile, zipping through main avenues and circles and through zig-zag barriers that would normally suffer you long delays.

Before that, though, was the thoughtful time spent gazing out from the rooftop of the ministry prior to sunset over Kabul, as we waited for the show to get on its way. Here it is, election day, with so much fear about what would transpire -- and what do we get but a kite show. Everywhere we looked, four or eight or a dozen kites were up. It was a magnificent scene, really. And a reassuring sight.

Here is the link to some photos from today, some by me and the good ones by Ms. Pam Smith.
Flickr: Election Day Afghanistan

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