According to the government, British troops have been dying in substantial quantities in Helmand over the past two months to enable the Afghan people to cast an honest vote, free from intimidation. According to this IWPR report from Helmand, that didn’t work out so well:
The rockets continued throughout the morning – eight in all. Preliminary reports suggest that fourteen people died in the attacks. “Why are the foreign forces not preventing these rockets?” asked Hezbollah, a resident of the Kart-e-Lagan district of Lashkar Gah. “People here are afraid. Nobody is going to vote.”
Helmand, the centre of poppy and the insurgency, is also now the centre for international forces. More than 10,000 United States troops arrived over the summer, joining the nearly 8,000 British soldiers already stationed there. The two groups have been conducting major offensives over the past two months, designed to clear the area of the Taleban. Judging by residents’ complaints, it is not working.
“I am just sitting here with my melons,” said Sher Ahmad Afghan, a resident of Babaji, an area just across the Helmand river from Lashkar Gah. “I cannot vote because they have not made any polling stations here. The Taleban won’t let them.”
Meanwhile, over in Kandahar, Alex Strick van Linschoten reports less violence and more fraud:
I overheard several conversations between provincial candidates or their representatives and people working/observing at voting centres -- they didn't realise I speak Pashtu -- during which sums of money were promised in exchange for votes to be cast in their favour. In this manner, at one station 1000 votes were thus sold for $400. I heard stories of this kind of trade in votes throughout the day, and in fact the 'warm bazaar' had been open for several months. Earlier in the year it was possible to buy voting cards for $1 a card (they were sold in booklets of 100 usually). By the time the day before the election arrived, they were being sold (in some instances) for $5-10 per card.
The Afghan friends I was travelling around with that day called one of the voting stations for which I gave numbers above (Shkarpur Darwaza) ahead of our arrival. "Don't come! Don't come!" our friends were requested. "We're about to start stuffing the ballot boxes and we don't need foreigners here messing up our work."
People focused on some of the details, especially the non-indelible ink that had been promoted with such fanfare by the United Nations earlier that year. People frequently blamed "the foreigners" for mismanaging things and allowing so much fraud and deception to take place. Admittedly these days conspiracy theories about the invisible hand of 'the foreigners' are omnipresent in southern Afghanistan, but "the farce of this year's election" (as one friend put it) struck a nerve among those people who did want to vote, who did want a change, who didn't have a direct stake in anyone's campaign.
I remember I sat at my desk in the evening waiting for some of the foreign instutitions, embassies etc to make a comment worthy of the day. Instead, we got Kai Eide, the UN special representative, offering his 'congratulations'. Slowly more internationals started voicing their happiness at how the election had gone. Most seemed to take a deep breath that there wasn't more violent incidents around the country and that, at least in the public eye, the elections had passed more or less as planned. A pity that the wishes of ordinary Afghans for a free and fair election were not heard...
Denis MacShane thinks the election shows that the doomsayers have been proven wrong once again. I don’t know if Ahmedinejad thinks the same about the recent Iranian elections, but I think it’s a pretty good bet that he does.
Anyway, the general Western response seems to be couched in terms – “ an important step forward”, “a clear demonstration that the Afghan people want democracy” - suggestive of “good enough for wogs” . After all, whatever the Afghan people want they’re apparently not going to get an honestly conducted election. And since the position of the Afghan government ultimately rests on military and political support from the West, it’s not such a huge leap in logic to conclude that this is what the West wants. At any rate, it rapidly becomes a distinction without a difference. There’s not much to separate organizing a corrupt election with promoting the outcome of one.