American Export: Elections

In Afghanistan, I saw the meaning of democracy promotion, and its discontents.

An election worker reaches for a ballot box during the audit and recount process, at a warehouse in Kabul, October 5, 2009.
An election worker reaches for a ballot box during the audit and recount process, at a warehouse in Kabul, October 5, 2009.  (Ahmad Masood / Reuters)

On August 20, 2009, the day of Afghanistan’s second democratic presidential election, I spent all day looking up, nervously scanning the sky for a rocket, a mortar, or a spurt of small arms fire. As a public-affairs officer based at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Gardez in southeast Afghanistan’s insurgent-wracked Paktia province, I didn’t expect an easy day.

My unit, the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), was charged with mentoring government officials and building infrastructure throughout Paktia, relatively new players in a decades-old U.S. “democracy promotion” strategy stretching across the globe. For units like mine, a legitimate election promised a major victory in a place where success was hard to define.

I was tasked with informing and shaping public perceptions for an Afghan audience that was 80 percent illiterate and untouched by mass media. I wanted to trust in America’s good intentions, to believe the promises my country had made on behalf of the Afghan government: to provide security, education, healthcare, and rule of law, all in exchange for blue-inked fingers. The weeks preceding the election were filled with attending endless planning meetings, drafting pages of talking points and radio messages, and responding to security threats and suicide bombings aimed at disrupting the democratic process.

On election day, we stood by, ready to provide mobile security and first aid if violence broke out. As I walked to my office, I looked up every few steps, certain that a rocket would come slicing through the blue sky. I wished my colleagues “Happy Election Day” with false cheer. They responded with anxious smiles.

An unsettling silence took over.  There was nothing to do but hope there would continue to be nothing to do.

* * *

Throughout July and August, we transported provincial leaders to outlying districts by convoy or helicopter to meet with local citizens. A mountainous region along the Pakistan border, Paktia has few, poorly maintained roads, and they were dangerous. Government officials rarely left the bubble of Gardez. Afghans never greeted us with balloons or campaign posters. The officials we were escorting weren’t even running for office. But they represented democracy. And democracy challenged the status quo, dictated by longstanding beliefs—and the Taliban.

Some citizens—religious and tribal leaders and district officials—were obligated to attend the meetings with the provincial leaders. Others attended out of curiosity. They sat cross-legged on the dirt floor of a district center to shake hands with the man dressed in the crisp white salwar kameez and appeal for the most basic of basic services, or to gawk at us, the keepers of the purse, the latest in a long line of outsiders who thought they knew best.

In the capital of Gardez, we met every few days with government officials. Here, election discussions were short, full of handshakes and smiles. The nonchalance aggravated me. At FOB Gardez, we lived and breathed elections. I armed my teammates with talking points and survey questions whenever we left the base, complementing the messages blasted daily by military-owned radio stations. You have the power to influence your future!

Outwardly, the election appeared important in Gardez. Campaign posters prominently featuring the bearded visage of incumbent President Hamid Karzai were everywhere: hanging from traffic lights, slapped on street signs, taped in crooked rows on the brick walls surrounding government buildings. In Afghanistan, ethnic ties bind more tightly than political parties, and Karzai, a Pashtun, was the heavy favorite in Pashtun areas like Paktia.

But I couldn’t help but wonder how much average Afghans cared about the election. Most were consumed with worry over tomorrow’s meal and the next season’s crop, not a five-year presidential term. Did the posters register to locals as anything more than one of their country’s most recognizable faces? Did Afghans study the lopsided billboards posted by the Americans alongside the single road cutting through Gardez Valley, touting “democratic” customs like practicing personal hygiene and supporting the government? American billboards were likely more valuable as kindling than as pro-democracy propaganda.

Every day, the FOB conference room was packed with leaders from base units, plus representatives from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as Afghan government and security officials. Sometimes, we were joined by the young provincial chairman of the Independent Election Commission. He seemed relaxed, despite the daunting burdens of ensuring polling site preparation and leading voter education efforts across Paktia.

I couldn’t imagine doing what he did: Explaining a ballot listing 38 candidates for president and more than 100 vying for seats on Paktia’s provincial council, each denoted by his photograph and a unique symbol so he could be identified by a largely illiterate electorate. I couldn’t fathom traveling on rough unpaved roads through hostile territory, under direct insurgent threat, not just to inform the populace of the voting process, but also to sometimes tell them of an election’s very existence and what it could mean to them. It certainly meant everything to the U.S. military.

And I knew that the chairman could probably use some support. “Thank you for meeting with me,” I said to him through an interpreter when we met prior to a FOB election meeting. “The PRT is here to help in any way we can with the election. We can put messages on our radios, and we have people at outposts who can talk to citizens in those areas.” The chairman briefly spoke before my interpreter shrugged. “He said all the work is done. He has been everywhere and everyone knows what to do,” the interpreter replied.

I searched the chairman’s earnest face. “Everywhere” included the dangerous, inaccessible areas of Paktia that U.S. troops had avoided for years. Could he possibly be telling me the truth? I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, reached to shake his hand, and told him to let us know if we could offer any additional help.

He said something else to the interpreter, who told me he wanted a favor. I cautiously replied that I could try. “He wants to know if you can get him a special powder for working out,” the interpreter said after a brief discussion. “To make him stronger at the gym. He says American soldiers use powders to put in their drinks that help them get strong.”

With everything at stake, the local man in charge was more concerned with protein powder. The last threads of my idealism unraveled. Blankly, I told him I’d see what I could do.

* * *

As we drew closer to the election, my worries continued to grow. Four weeks before the election, I documented a joint U.S.-Afghan meeting as a “good news story” for military headquarters. As I noted then, officials had successfully consolidated the number of polling sites in the province from 212 to 195, and security personnel verified they were capable of securing those sites.

Internally, we were less optimistic. Most districts had seen no change to polling site numbers, and 195 still seemed unmanageable—with just a month to go, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had visited only a small percentage of them, and insurgent activity continued to escalate. Election field officers complained about poor security, pointing fingers at government officials and the ANSF. Officials and the ANSF pointed back. Within ANSF, the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army blamed each other. We doubted the disparate elements would figure out how to get along before election day, let alone resolve security-related issues. In short, we expected a shit show.

Exactly one month later, on election day, the Afghan government ordered a media blackout. Publicized violence could discourage potential voters, and low turnout could undermine the election’s credibility for Afghans and the international community—censorship in the name of democracy. We could communicate through official military channels. All morning, official channels to my office remained silent.

I wandered next door to the operations center, glancing up along the way. The sky was still blue. Inside the operations center, the air pulsed with nervous energy. I followed the room’s collective gaze to two screens at the front of the room showing video surveillance of Gardez and a town to the north.

Roughly 170 polling sites had opened across Paktia. Theoretically, ANSF personnel were providing security and would send updates, but we didn’t expect news unless something went wrong. Every time a phone rang or a radio crackled, the room froze with tension.

Usually it was nothing. Then:

Notification of a polling site attack in the north. Minimal damage. Voters scattered, then started coming back.



Two suicide bombers on a motorcycle. They detonated before reaching their target. Possibly taken out by ANSF.


Reports of lines at polling stations! And women voters!




The more time that passed without reports of a significant attack, the more nervous we got. I scurried back and forth to my office. The sky stayed blue.



Around 6pm, the polling sites closed. Notifications of minor incidents trickled in. Across the country, there were reports of extreme violence: Voters hanged in Kandahar; rockets rained down on Helmand. Paktia, it appeared, had made it through election day relatively unscathed.

But it wasn’t over yet. For several days, ballots would remain at polling sites to be counted. Then they would need to be transported across treacherous terrain to a long-term storage facility in Gardez. Afghan security forces weren’t accustomed to working overtime, nor were they paid for it. With Ramadan fast approaching, many planned to travel as soon as the election ended. Daily reports showed dwindling personnel numbers.

As Ramadan began a week later, votes were still being tallied. Some polling sites had been almost completely abandoned by security personnel. Allegations of registration fraud, low turnout, ballot-box tampering, and voter intimidation were widespread and severe enough to threaten the election’s legitimacy. In the following weeks, the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) flagged tens of thousands of questionable ballots. Recounts and audits were ordered for suspect polling stations, including many in Paktia.

On September 16, the Independent Election Commission announced that Karzai had received 54.4 percent of the vote, but the results would not be official until the ECC had approved them. Meanwhile, ECC investigations began disqualifying scores of votes. Not the victory we’d hoped for.

Soon, October arrived, and the U.S. and international community urged Karzai to develop a power-sharing partnership with his closest rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, in order to unite supporters and end the election. If fraud brought Karzai below the 50 percent threshold, the two candidates would be forced into a runoff. Within weeks, winter would arrive, blocking mountain passes necessary to transport ballots. On October 12, an ECC member resigned, blaming foreigners for “improper interference” in the fraud investigations.

Finally, on October 21, two months after election day, the final certified results were released. Roughly 30 percent of Karzai’s votes had been discarded as fraudulent, and no candidate had secured the required 50 percent. There would be a runoff. We would repeat the process all over again.

For my team, the saga ended there. The runoff never happened; in the face of what he saw as hopeless corruption, Karzai’s rival conceded.

In the years to come, Afghanistan’s nascent democracy would continue to fumble along tumultuously. Headlines from the 2010 parliamentary elections—similarly delayed for security and logistical concerns—reported violence, intimidation, corruption, and fraud. More than a million votes were voided and 24 elected candidates stripped of their seats. In 2014, marred again by controversy, the country’s first democratic transfer of power would require a runoff, a UN-monitored recount, and a power-sharing national unity government brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Still, the Afghan people await the fulfillment of our democratic promise.

The heavy-handed and costly push for quick progress and reliance on a Western model of democracy as a panacea for instability neglected the basic foundation required for sustainable change: a secure environment, the investment of the populace, and a positive return on that investment. Still, there’s a way in which a version of the American model—with its political infighting, polarization, and turbulent elections—has successfully landed in Afghanistan after all.