Afghanistan hits fever pitch as warlords turn 'democrat'

From the thriving centre of Kabul to remote mountain villages, Afghans go to the polls on Saturday still under the shadow of the old regimes. Report by Justin Huggler
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Samir Khan is a disappointed man. Three years ago he was one of the Northern Alliance soldiers who marched down the dusty road to Kabul as the Taliban fled, and was welcomed with wild scenes of jubilation that were watched the world over. Al-Qa'ida and its Taliban allies were in retreat, and Afghanistan was the centre of global attention.

Samir Khan is a disappointed man. Three years ago he was one of the Northern Alliance soldiers who marched down the dusty road to Kabul as the Taliban fled, and was welcomed with wild scenes of jubilation that were watched the world over. Al-Qa'ida and its Taliban allies were in retreat, and Afghanistan was the centre of global attention.

This weekend, the world will look at Afghanistan again, as the country votes in its first democratic election. Facing his own election, President George Bush is holding Afghanistan up as a success story for his administration. But Mr Khan is deeply disillusioned with what has followed that heady day in 2001. "We expected so much more," he says sadly. "The new government brought us peace and security. But they have not done anything to help the people."

On Saturday, they will go to the polls across Afghanistan. From the impenetrable fastness of the Panjshir Valley with its wolf-like Tajik fighters, to the desert of Kandahar with its opium-crazed gunmen; from the leafy avenues of Kabul with its urban sophisticates, to mountain villages so remote that, so they say, the people have not even heard the Russians were defeated and forced out of Afghanistan.

It will be one of the most extraordinary elections the world has seen. A huge proportion of the electorate is illiterate, Many have never even seen a television, let alone watched any election coverage. There are 18 candidates; most voters will never have heard of half of them.

Some polling stations are so remote even helicopters cannot reach them through the towering mountains and it will take two weeks to get the ballot boxes out by donkey. In Panjshir, people will have to walk six hours to reach their nearest polling station.

The received wisdom is that President Hamid Karzai is almost certain to win re-election. He may, but in a country where there are no opinion polls, and as many voters live in remote places where nobody has been to ask them their voting intentions, the truth is that nobody really knows.

This is supposed to be a crowning moment on Afghanistan's path from failed state to burgeoning democracy. And if many Afghans are disappointed with the progress their country has made so far, they remain immensely enthusiastic about the election.

At a rally in Kabul yesterday for the Panjshiri candidate, Younis Qanooni, his supporters waving giant banners over their heads and almost managing to make it look like a US party convention, filled the stadium where the Taliban once held their public executions. They scaled the floodlight stands to get a better view, climbing 20ft in the air to hang perilously from the iron supports. Mr Karzai staged his own rally in his first venture out of the capital since a recent assassination attempt. Under heavy security he told a crowd in the town of Ghazni, south-west of Kabul: "Afghans should be proud of their new freedom."

But the question is where this election leaves Afghanistan, and whether the country has really moved on. If there is excitement over the poll, there is also a growing sense of disillusionment among Afghans. Most say the American-led invasion has at least brought them peace and security. But there is a growing insurgency, particularly in the Pashtun-dominated south, where humanitarian workers were murdered, which has left large areas out of bounds to the aid community. It is not as bad as Iraq, but the aid workers are jittery, and many have left town for the elections, amid widespread rumours that the Taliban plan attacks.

Alongside the candidates' banners have been rival posters from the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, warning Afghan voters to keep away from polling stations, and everything connected with the election.

There are fears that the security situation is not good enough to hold elections. The Taliban and their sympathisers control some districts, and although voting is planned in them, the reality is that it can happen only with their consent. "The problem is, it's elections at any cost," says Nick Downie, who advises NGOs on security.

Much about the new Afghanistan can be deceptive. The war-weary wreckage of central Kabul has been transformed. New buildings are going up everywhere, the centre of town is filled with smart new restaurants frequented by flush-looking Afghans in Western clothes. The road north is lined with shops and busy fuel stations. But turn off for Panjshir and you are plunged back into the old Afghanistan. The smooth road disappears and you are on a pitted dirt-track where ancient trucks drive clouds of choking dust into your face.

In Mr Khan's town, Gulbahar, there is no electricity, no water and 80 per cent unemployment. The nearest medical help is an emergency clinic set up by foreign aid workers, half an hour away. This is a country whose economy is still in dire shape. Outside the main cities, people are still desperately poor. Even in Kabul, there are large districts without electricity or water.

The only growth industry is the opium poppy. A week ago, the US State Department said opium production in Afghanistan is expected to grow by 40 per cent this year. For many Afghans it is the only financially viable business, the only cash crop for farmers. It dominates the Afghan economy, but that puts a large section of the population into an illegal economy where the gun, as ever in Afghanistan, prevails, and which Mr Karzai's government cannot tax but must instead try to eradicate.

"The Taliban and the USA are the same for us," says Aziz Khan, in Miriamshah, deeper in the valley. "Because the Taliban didn't help the Afghan people; they only thought about their own interests, their own military targets. The Americans are the same."

These are not people unwilling to shift for themselves. They have made their own hydroelectric generator, driven by the fast-flowing river. But they are people who feel let down, that the US and its allies have not fulfilled the extravagant promises made at the time of the 2001 war.

Stories of disillusionment are echoed all over the country. But Panjshir is, perhaps, the last place you would expect to hear them. After all, it was the Panjshiri-dominated Northern Alliance, backed by US air power, who triumphed in 2001, seized control of Kabul, and grabbed all the best ministries. "It's true many Panjshiris got power," Zahur Amoni, a butcher, says. "Go to Kabul and you'll see these people have 10 buildings each. But they did nothing for the people here."

This goes to the heart of Afghanistan's election. Huge areas are still ruled by the warlords who tore the country apart with their factional fighting before the Taliban took power. President Karzai's recent dismissal of the governor of Herat, Ismail Khan, was hailed as a major triumph against the warlords. But scan the colourful ballot paper and the same old names are there.

The candidates expected to come in second, third and fourth are familiar faces from the days of warlordism. Mr Qanooni, expected to come second, is the candidate of the old Northern Alliance, and closely allied to the Panjshiri warlord, Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim. Mohammed Mohaqiq, the candidate of the Hazara, Afghanistan's Shia Muslims, has blood on his hands. Then there is General Abdel Rashid Dostum, the notorious Uzbek warlord who butchered and raped his way to Kabul in the old days, and is accused of massacring Taliban prisoners.

"Why should these people be president?" Mr Amoni asks. "They have done nothing for the people of Afghan-istan for 20 years. Why should they do anything now?" A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report says it has widespread evidence of intimidation by the warlords to get Afghans in the areas they control to vote for their preferred candidate. "It's not necessarily those who are perceived as 'bad guys' who benefit," John Sifton of HRW, says.

"Some of them are telling voters to vote for Karzai." Some Pashtun commanders in the east had even warned voters they would burn their houses unless they voted for Mr Karzai, who tried tried to laugh it off, saying it was just a tradition.

Mr Sifton says: "We are finding the majority of the voters either do not understand the secrecy of the ballot, or do not believe in it. That makes them vulnerable to intimidation." HRW has also warned that in many areas, Afghan women are being threatened and intimidated into not voting.

It is an open secret in Afghanistan that the warlords are planning to bully and cajole voters in the regions they control. What election really amounts to, if voters stick to the script and Mr Karzai wins, is jockeying for position among the same old warlords.

The problem is that Mr Karzai's direct rule does not extend beyond Kabul and the few other provinces where it is guaranteed for him by the international forces of Isaf. He has complained the charge that he only controls Kabul is out of date, but the main way in which he has extended it is by making deals with the warlords with the backing of the US, which was cutting its own deals with them from the start. Like so many before him, Mr Karzai rules Afghanistan by consent of the warlords.

The Americans appear to be depending on the Pashtuns of the south to vote for Mr Karzai as the only viable Pashtun candidate, and him to get votes as the only nationally recognisable name. The warlords are assuming Mr Karzai will win and they want to get vote blocs with which they can demand more from him. They are playing the ethnicity card. Andrew Wilder of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, says: "Dostum's strategy is to do as well as he can in Uzbek areas and then say to Karzai, 'I represent the Uzbeks and you can't ignore me'." It is the same with Mr Mohaqiq and the Hazara, and Mr Qanooni and the Tajiks. "We created this problem," Mr Wilder says. "We brought these people back into power."

To deliver those voting blocs, a little voter intimidation will come in decidedly handy. The problem has been compounded by international organisations' refusal to monitor the election fully. Both the OSCE and the European Union at first refused to send monitors. They said it was too dangerous - hardly an endorsement of security in the new Afghanistan - and, remarkably, said they did not want to monitor the election for fear they would have to publicise its failure to be free and fair.

In a compromise, the OSCE and EU sent about 60 monitors, who will be confined to Kabul and ordered to stay away from polling stations for their own safety, in case of Taliban attacks.

President George Bush held up voter registration figures of 10.5 million as a major success. The only problem was that they were fuelled by huge numbers of Afghans registering more than once. Mr Karzai had an embarrassing moment when he was asked about it at a press conference and blithely replied: "It doesn't bother me. If Afghans have two registration cards and if they would like to vote twice, well, welcome." A clarification was hastily issued.

Another possible source of abuse is that twice as many ballot papers have been printed as the number of people registered to vote, apparently because nobody knows which polling station voters will go to, so extra papers are needed to meet rushes. The problem is these papers will be readily available for ballot-box stuffing.

In a final twist that adds insult to injury for the voters, in rural areas security for polling stations is being handed to local militias controlled by the same warlords, which should do little to prevent voter intimidation.

Afghanistan is not a second Iraq. But it is a country that has been dangerously drifting with all attention fixed on Iraq, and the promised donor money not materialising. And if that does not change, there is fear for the future. As Mr Khan, the Northern Alliance soldier who helped retake Kabul in 2001, says: "If the young men do not get work, they will go back to the gun. That was always the reason people were so interested in guns and fighting here. It was the only work available. And if it is the only work again, they will go back to it."