Archive for August, 2009
The Independent Election Commission held an arduous total of two (2) voting results announcements before they decided to take a well deserved break? The first event on Tuesday was pretty much a disaster and then yesterday independent candidate Ramazan Bashardost made dramatic outburst about what I can only assume was the IEC’s complicity in some level of fraud. Interestingly, for Tuesday briefing, it seemed like every expat in Kabul was there for the “Big News” and on Wednesday, I was the only Western journalist except for a few of the wire people who would have had to have been there even if this was a Kabul city council election. Bashardost apparently remembered me from a street interview I did with him a few weeks ago while he was campaigning in the bazaar and said he was happy to see me there. Maybe it’s just me but wouldn’t the second day of results be actually more newsworthy than the first (in that it gives us a bigger picture and more of a possible voting pattern)? So why the hell didn’t the other journos deem the event worthy of their presence? Ahh who cares…
My email from the IEC today said that they cancelled today and tomorrow’s polls results which is a little curious seeing as it puts Afghanistan a little deeper into this very dangerous limbo. Holbrooke is yelling at Karzai while Abdullah is yelling at the international media and all of this only leads to further intrigue here. Abdullah has described his opponent as “Conspiratorial” while a Karzai insider told me that Abdullah was making a “Media war.” Anyone smell another palace deal in the works???
Urgent Update: I finally made it into the NY Times….in someone else’s photo…in the far lower left.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission had a pathetic press conference today. The figures for the votes for the candidates counted thus far didn’t match up to the graphic they had projected next to the stage. And the Dari-English translator, where the hell did they find this guy? He’s like a very nervous, Persian Chris Farley. It would have been easier just to have either the whole thing in Dari and try to decipher it later or just have the head of the commission speak English himself (he interjected into English when I pointed out the mismatch in both the translation and the info-graphic on the screen). Twice I pointed this flub out and a group of VIP elders all sitting behind me chimed in that I was right that all the numbers didn’t line up while the bureaucrat at the podium insisted he didn’t know what I was talking about.
Abdullah had everyone over at his house today to show us evidence of fraud and he seems to be playing this situation really well. From the numbers called at the Intercon, he and Karzai are neck and neck from the apparent votes counted so far. The drama continues…
Went out to the Independent Election Commission warehouse out on Jalalabad road today to watch the ballots for Kabul Province come in via faded, clattering Pakistani lorries. Being ramadan, work went by at a snail’s pace. A few men and the odd woman stacked the clear plastic bins organized by district in two massive hangars. As I walked in the tally centre, it looked more like what I imagine an Indian outsourcing office in Bangalore to be than what one would expect in Afghanistan. Young, hip Afghans sat behind buzzing PC terminals doing rote data entry as votes were unfurled. A veteran photojournalist who also happened to be out there said it was nothing like what she witnessed in the 2004 election when everything was done by hand. The partial results are going to be announced tomorrow night here and no one seems to really have a handle on what’s going on. I asked my contact at the IEC if he could give me any “additional” information but he dutifully stuck to protocol and put me on the IEC’s email list. If Karzai is announced the “partial” victor tomorrow when the partial results are called, it will appear to be a defeat for democracy across the board for many. Even if Karzai were to win in a second round, the process would look to both Afghans and the international community as much more vigorous and genuine. Abdullah’s camp is claiming they’re winning outright as well. This could get a little awkward.
I’m suddenly feeling down. The adrenalin rush has worn off and the couple other journos I was socializing with have all left. I imagine today’s Safi flight to Dubai was packed with Westerners fleeing temporarily directionless politics and the discipline of ramadan here. Not to mention the end of MSM interest in the story. But I can’t leave Afghanistan just yet. Have to push through the doldrums. There are more people to talk to and further intrigue to delve into.
It’s been a weird, intense couple of weeks. Richard Engel asking me why I was wearing Blu Blockers™ and if I was a “hipster.” Getting knocked by one of McChrystal’s machismo Italiano guards. Getting left behind at Kabul airport by Dostum’s entourage at night and taking a local taxi back to his house. One of Karzai’s presidential guards asking me, with a straight face, if I had an appointment at the palace to see the Taliban rocket that crashed through the kitchen. Seeing Gary Hart in the lobby of the Serena and then google imaging him on my laptop and holding my laptop next to his head for confirmation. Dr. A’s guy Ali asking us journos if we were ready to go to Gardez by road instead of helicopter and everyone jumping out of the HiLux and bailing. Realizing that Afghan paranoia and conspiracy theories are still child’s play compared to their ilk across the Durand Line. Being told by the kid at the front desk of the hotel that he saw me on state TV next the intel chief at the Intercon. No wonder this weekend was a weird let down…
Afghanistan now sits in this awkward interim phase on this first day of Ramadan (Ramazan in Farsi) between the election and the official announcement of the preliminary results in about ten days. Allegations of fraud are being hurled back and forth between Karzai operatives and Abdullah’s campaigners and Carlotta Gall is claiming a few purple fingers actually were lopped off over in Nangarhar Province. Talk in Kabul is bubbling up that the was much more violence in the provinces than was originally thought while the capital was spared save for the Karte Nau incident. No one knows whether Karzai’s dreadful alliance of a who’s who of skeletons in Afghanistan’s closet will hold together beyond the next few weeks. Dr. Abdullah will not take a defeat lying down either but the rumors of “Iranian-style” streets protests to come are being denied by those at his headquarters. For now, Afghanistan begins it’s lunar month of fasting and it’s politicians are just beginning to bicker. Where it will lead, no one here really has any idea.
Yesterday’s elections in Kabul went off with a few hitches but at least they went. People, mostly men, turned out in numbers that were substantial considering the threat this society is under. Within Kabul’s city limits, there was only one militant assault that I am aware of and it didn’t add up to much. There were plenty of attacks leading up to election day including a bizarre siege in a bank building the day before which left three men, likely Taleban members, dead and two Afghan National Police injured. Like Pakistan’s elections last year after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, there was an immense amount of anxiety leading up to the 20, August date. And like Pakistan, not nearly as much happened as insurgent leaders would have liked. There were disparate attacks carried out across the country but the Taleban could not build enough momentum to halt the election besides the districts the central government and the Independent Election Commission had already deemed unsafe and under control of “Anti-government elements.” I crossed the capital from north and south and east to west in what was an extraordinarily long, tense day. But Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun and Sunni and Shia and men and women came out to vote. The only group I couldn’t find were the illusive Uzbeks who had, according to my driver, all set off for points north in the Turkic heartland to vote and to begin the month of Ramadan which starts tomorrow morning.
According to an email I just received from a UNDP contact at the election commission, the preliminary results will definitely be announced on 3, September though the BBC site claims they will be called in the next few days. Sorry Beeb, I have to stick with official sources on this one. The donkeys have to come over the hill from Nuristan, I don’t know who’s telling the Beeb that the results will be called in the next two days.
The security around Kabul looks to have eased up today, either that or the police are as exhausted as everyone else. The security services touted how few people they lost on election day but the security shortfall was massive everyday leading up to the election. Kabul hasn’t seen this kind of violence in a very long time. The Halcyon days here are long over.
I was relaxing at breakfast this morning until the Sky News anchor quoted a Reuters report off the wire that two rockets had just struck the presidential palace deep inside Kabul’s green zone. Looked like I wasn’t going to relax at the hotel and write as planned. I called the taxi service and told them to swing by in exactly twenty minutes. I got dropped off near General McChrystal’s office, the site of Saturday’s early morning suicide bombing, and asked “Kujost arg-e-Karzai? (“Which way to the palace?”) Karzai’s American-trained guards first lied saying the rockets did not strike the palace at all and then sent me on my way. About 100 feet away, I talked to one of the private security guards I’d met on Saturday and he duly told me the rockets did indeed strike the palace, one in the kitchen and the other in some part of Karzai’s living quarters. For two hours, I tried to talk my way through the palace’s four different entry points eventually circumambulating the entire green zone. It was a total no go. Ironically, the only other people that showed up were the Kabul bureau of Sky News to confirm their own Reuters-quoted reporting and they had equally as difficult a time. In this instance, big budget, bureau journalism did not have an edge over my own shoe leather travails.
After such an enormous waste of time, I went to interview a higher up at one of candidate’s offices and realized I really needed a day off from the breaking news beat to focus on what’s truly important:Afghan domestic politics. Arriving back at the hotel, I flip on my laptop to see on the BBC site that there’s just been a suicide bombing on a convoy, on what I figured was Jalalabad Road. I’ll pass. The American’s bringing their Baghdad blast wall culture to Kabul is an unequivocal disaster and Kabul’s green zone is the most dangerous part of the city. As the Canadian Brigadier General said to me a Saturday, “It’s very difficult to stop a determined suicide bomber”. Peter Bergen said at a conference I attended “There will never be a Tet offensive on Kabul” regarding the Taleban’s lack of strategic ambition. I hope Mr. Bergen is right. Kabul is certainly not under siege from the NVA and Viet Cong but it is well within the Taleban’s sights. Blast walls work against President Obama’s hoped change of course in Afghanistan, for they entrench a war mindset on an already gravely embattled society. Blast walls can be made thicker and green zones can be enlarged and further militarized but unless they can reach the sky, they cannot solve Afghanistan’s Taleban problem.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah had a rally of several thousand supporters in Kabul today, primarily Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley and Shomali Plain. The scene was one of rapt intensity as throngs of people, mostly teenage boys, pressed up against the stage sweeping up journalists and Abdullah’s Jamiat-e-Islami bodyguards in their wake. Amazingly, no one was crushed to death as happened at Abdullah’s massive rally in Mazar-e-Sharif last week when crowds were riled up by Balkh Provincial governor Atta Mohammed, one of Abdullah’s strongest backers, and a potential voter was trampled to death. “We are all Afghans, we are all Muslims” Abdullah told the crowd pinning long sought hopes for inter-ethnic solidarity on the country’s next generation. I rode out of the madness with a group of wire service guys in the back of a Hi-Lux when we ended up inside Kabul’s Green Zone. I was the only one in the group that had seen the site of Saturday’s blast and pointed it out to everyone like a macabre tour guide. And if you didn’t think Kabul’s diplomatic and security enclave was yet a Green Zone, than you needed to see the beige boxed Rhino Runner vehicle lumbering by us. Basically, it’s a Rumsfeldian bus from hell that transports occupation VIP’s around, usually from the Baghdad airport to the Green Zone in Iraq. Seeing it in Kabul looks like the Iraqification of Afghanistan. Ali Farhad, Dr. Abdullah’s Western reporter wrangler, seems to have one of the harder jobs on the planet right now. Ali was organizing a second trip for reporters to Gardez today, the capital of Paktia Province south of Kabul. I wasn’t planning to go anyway and when Ali told us after we exited the diplomatic area that they had changed their plan and were going by road, every journalist jumped out of the back of the truck and we hailed taxis to Shahr-e-Nau to our respective hotels to edit our work. Why Abdullah is going to such risk is hard to say. The only thing that comes to mind could be that Mohammed Najibullah, the last Marxist leader of Afghanistan who was executed by the Taleban, is buried in Gardez. Many Afghans now look back on him with what seems to be a new found respect since, for reasons that seem lost in the toxic dust of Afghanistan’s brutal 1990’s history, he was a symbolic victim of the Taleban’s ultimate brutality. Maybe in Abdullah visiting Gardez, he is hoping to heal some of this country’s very, very deep wounds.