Afghanistan Elections August 2009
Media coverage of the preparations for the balloting was heavy. As predicted, the winner of the contest, with 55.4% of the vote – a comfortable margin – was Hamid Karzai, who was the head of the interim government as well as Washington’s choice. Right up to the day of the vote on October 9, 2004 no one was sure who would win or even whether the turnout would be strong enough to matter. The anti-government Taliban movement, seeking to regain its previous position of power and provide sanctuary al-Qaeda leaders, threatened to kill anyone who cast a ballot. As events unfolded, October 9, 2004 proved to be an unusually peaceful day in the country.
There were some election-related controversies that remained unresolved right up to election day. Many centered on the freedom of women to exercise their rights. For example, Afghan women could not stand in mixed gender lines waiting to cast their vote. The remedy was straight forward: tribal leaders were to provide alternative sites for women to cast their ballots. While this was a common remedy, not all women were told where to go to cast their ballot. Nor did all sites have adequate security. Another question that became part of the political debate was the extent to which women were free to vote in accordance with their choice rather than follow the direction of their husbands or tribal elders. Closely related to this controversy was whether women could run for the presidency – or for the parliament in the September 2005 election. (More than 300 women ran for parliament’s 289 seats in 2005.)
It is now August 2009. The atmosphere in Afghanistan is heavy with promises from presidential candidates to improve the economy, allow the people to live in accord with their culture, social structures, and law. But the atmosphere is also heavy with the smell and taste of cordite from the marked increase in the fighting. After the 2004and 2005 elections, the U.S. troop numbers in Afghanistan stood at around 19,000. By 2008, the American participation totaled some 32,000.
But this was not enough to stem the increased activity by the Taliban who flooded into border areas, particularly in Helmand province. By the end of 2008 it was clear that President Karzai controlled only the capital of Kabul. In Washington, the Obama administration changed the commander, reorganized the command structure to provide unity of command (collapsing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which had come under NATO command), and set out a new strategy that emphasized providing security to the population instead if hunting down insurgents.
The cost was not hard to anticipate. The 19,000 U.S. personnel in Afghanistan in 2004 rose to 32,000 by 2008. Other additions by the Bush administration, together with an immediate 17,000 increase approved by President Obama, will raise the U.S. strength in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the end of 2009.
In an entirely separate action, Congress is moving to give the Pentagon funding for another 30,000 soldiers, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates opposes any permanent increase in end strength. What Gates is considering is a temporary increase of 22,000, which would give the army a top line of 569,000 active duty troops. (Earlier Congress had authorized a permanent increase for the army from 472,000 to 547,000 and from 175,000 to 192,000 for the Marine Corps.) Gates is concerned by the cost of adding permanent soldiers when recruiting, in-processing, training, deploying, and discharging cost just under $400,000 per individual. He also wants to judge whether or not 68,000 troops can get the job done in Afghanistan – and do so without killing women, boys, and other noncombatants or run the costs out of sight.
This September Americans will be able to watch the 2009 Afghanistan version of “This is Iraq Today” – at least insofar as Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus “won” continued Congress backing for a different “strategy” to win in Iraq. The new American commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, and his coordinator “host” in Kabul, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, are expected to tap-dance as nimbly on Afghanistan as the Crocker-Petraeus duet did on Iraq. Undoubtedly, McChrystal will ask for additional fighting forces. He will also emphasize his strategy: first, provide security of the population from the depredations of the Taliban; and second, then go out and hunt down the insurgents that refuse to end the war.
In June 2004, the Washington Post editions for the fourth and the twenty-second carried articles about the aspirations held by Afghans as the day of the election approached. What three voters hoped the 2004 election would bring never came. Perhaps this time, if repeated, just possibly they might have a better chance.
“We have two problems: culture and terrorism. Culture may
take time to change, but it can’t kill you. Terrorists can kill you.” … “ Tradition is a very hard thing to fight.”
“We want our children to use pens instead of weapons, and only
elections can bring that.”
“We must do what is necessary for democracy, not what is ideal.”
Iraq Sami Ahmed Sharif, Rashid district council chairman