“I’m drowning here, and you’re describing the water!” One of my favourite lines from a spectacular film, As Good As It Gets... and as I sit here, trying to make sense of the impossible, it finally came to me. This line, sums it all up.
Afghanistan has voted for its next president. Amid death threats and bombs. Rockets and the Taliban. If you want to really see things falling apart, this is it. An election in an atmosphere of fear. Hand held by Nato’s security forces. Nobody believes the outcome will be free or fair or completely representative of the will of the people.
And so, from a great distance, it all seemed futile. How could people brave the Taliban’s threats to go out and vote? Why hold an election at all when Afghanistan is at war? When half the country is overrun with terror and the government’s writ is questionable, what’s the point of it all?
As I went around provinces in Afghanistan and saw election offices gearing up, I went through all these questions in my head. And finally it dawned on me. What do you say to someone who’s mid-sea and drowning… “Hey, you’ve got no hope so just get on with it and die?” Or do you throw out a float, haul them ashore and pump life back in?
If you’ve ever been at a point in your life when it’s all dark and despairing, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. The time that you clutch at anything for dear life. Even an election.
But now, let’s get the facts first. The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, a body hand held by the UN, Nato and foreign funding agencies, was responsible for putting together D-day in Afghanistan. On 20 August.
Since the Taliban called for a boycott and systematically riddled Afghanistan with rockets and explosives to prevent this election, there had to be an elaborate security system in place. The first tier of security, people manning polling booths, were the Afghan police. The next ring around the fire, sorry polling booth—the Afghan National Army. And the third ring—and at a relatively safe distance from the action, as critics observed—were Nato forces, known here as International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF).
To be fair, they were the primary targets of Taliban. Their base in Kabul was attacked just a week before D-day; seven Afghans near the base were killed and almost 100 injured, including ISAF soldiers. Faced with such a grave threat, soldiers sent in by 42 countries all over the world to protect Afghanistan were at some distance from the eye of the storm, the polling booths.
It was little comfort for the provincial election commissioner, Ahmed Farid, on the ground in his province, Kapisa. Just 75 km from the capital. A place labelled by The Long War Journal as ‘the Taliban’s gateway to Kabul’. And a province known for allying with the Northern Alliance, a force that fought the Taliban. Which is why, the Taliban’s strategy in recent years has been to do what the Chinese have been accused of in Tibet. Change the ethnic profile of the area to a group that’s from the same ethnic stock as the Taliban—Pashtuns. In the hope that this will pave the way for their entry into this province.
And it did. Not in all of Kapisa. But now, four of its seven districts, the provincial election commissioner informs me, are declared ‘disturbed areas’. Code for Taliban country. But I was in a part of Kapisa that was deemed relatively safe. It was easy to tell at once the influence of the Northern Alliance here. For one, there were few posters of current President Hamid Karzai. Many more of his political rival from the Northern Alliance, Dr Abdullah Abdullah.
At the local dhaba, a waiter bringing us succulent beef kebabs on skewers was wearing an Abdullah Abdullah T-shirt. And so, believing this area to be safe from the Taliban, I was bold enough to ask Ahmed Farid, “Will you take me around the province then? Just to see how scary the process is, of putting together this election?” “I’m an Afghan,” said Farid with some flourish, “and I would rather commit suicide, than take you around here.” “See this?” he said, pulling out a gun from a holster, hidden from view until now by his jacket and kurta. For his protection.
He then informed me, there’d been a suicide attack just 2 km from where we were standing that morning. And a few days before that, some Afghan policemen were killed by the Taliban.
I smiled, thanked him and moved on to exploring another province. This time, I was headed south of Kabul. The city of Jalalabad. On the Pakistan border. Part of the province of Nangrahar. Populated largely by Pashtuns, and many parts of it in the grip of the Taliban.
It had taken me a week to find someone brave and willing to take me there. Many had said the highway from Kabul to Jalalabad is often laden with explosives by the Taliban who wanted to prevent Nato forces and trucks carrying election material from getting to their destination. A Pashtun friend, concerned for my safety, readily offered to drive me there. So off we went. To the land of the Taliban.
As the election commissioner there, Dr Akhtar Mohammad informed me, Jalalabad city itself is safe. Which meant, voter friendly. Bomb free. But in this land of Taliban influence, the visual references were decidedly different. Posters of election candidates were all men with turbans and long beards.
Over more kebabs and lunch with the election commissioner and his colleagues, we had a discussion on who’d be safe travelling into some of this province’s ‘disturbed’ areas.
“He can’t go,” they said, taking digs at a clean-shaven colleague.
“Will your families be voting? And who for?” I asked each of them.
Many said their families don’t live in this province.
One replied, “Yes, of course. My wife always votes for the most religious-looking candidate. The man with the longest beard.”
“What will you do once these elections are over?” I asked finally, since there wasn’t much more to say.
“We’re meant to go on holiday. A trip to India has been organised for us,” said the commissioner, smiling.
“To see the Taj in Agra,” said another.“If we’re alive... ha ha!”
THE LONG STRUGGLE
The fate of Afghanistan is now being counted, with the results to be declared in early September. International press and election observers are probably preparing to write their doomsday prophecies. ‘Afghanistan is the most dangerous place on earth... the government has no say...’, etcetera etcetera.
To them, I’d say, look carefully at the faces of Afghans who did get out to vote. And in that very act, laughed their heads off defiantly. At the world, the war, the Taliban. And efforts to make them buckle under.
And instead of just describing the water, the peril and chaos that engulfs Afghanistan, notice the irrepressible struggle for survival led by Afghans. And describe that instead.