by Beth Tichborne
The Afghan elections did not go well, and it’s hard to imagine how they could have gone well, although you wouldn’t know it from the media coverage. You might know that there were Taliban threats and violence. There were thousands of news stories written about the threat of violence even before the assassination attempt on Abdullah. You’re less likely to have heard that half of the election commission staff were sacked between the first and second rounds because of suspected participation in fraud. Only a handful of media outlets covered that story. There are stories that fit the narrative and those that don’t. This emphasis serves a political purpose. A functioning democracy in Afghanistan is offered to us as proof that the long occupation, and its huge cost in lives, has been worthwhile.
The elections represent something different for everybody involved, and needless to say the coverage in Afghanistan has a very different emphasis to the coverage in Britain or the US (did any Western media mention the Durand line, a major topic in the presidential debates, but a forgotten relic of empire to most British people?). Even the medium is different: low literacy rates, poverty and unreliable electricity supplies make radio and mobile phones a much bigger part of communications than television or newspapers.
I spoke to some young peace activists living in Kabul before the first round of the elections. They are well placed to understand different perspectives on its significance. They live in the city, but mostly come from a rural background. They work alongside people from across the deep ethnic and class divides, from refugee camps and street kids through to teachers and NGO directors.
Nasrullah is 17 years old, and already a veteran campaigner. He’s also a budding photographer, although his sensitive portraits and evocative scenes of Afghan street life are only shared on his Facebook page with his friends. Alongside his peace activism he goes to school, although he doesn’t feel that he learns much there. I asked him what he thought about the presidential candidates. “If someone does politics I don’t trust them, I don’t trust politics at all. There was one person that I trusted, Malalai Joya. She defended the voice of the people. But in the end she was pushed out of parliament.”
Have previous elections been democratic? “I don’t think the last election was right, and it can’t be right this time. Whoever wants to be president has to get a pen and sign a paper [the Bilateral Security Agreement]. And the people of Afghanistan have no choice. If you [in the West] want Abdullah to be president then he will be president.” He said that young people want to change things, but have no one to inspire them, and that on the whole “people are busy with their own daily lives, everyone works to find bread, no one has anything to do with politics at all.”
Bayat is a 16 year old who would have voted in the parliamentary elections if he was old enough, but not in the presidential elections, “because there isn’t anyone to vote for!” He, like Nasrullah, grew up in rural Bamyan, and spoke about what democracy looks on the ground in much of the country. “It’s less easy for someone to read the news and see what’s going on. There are some places in Bamyan you can go and watch the news on TV, some people do work during the day and go watch the news at night if they can.” He also talked about fear and bribery around the process “the ordinary workers aren’t going to dare go out and say you need to do this or that, even though they’re unhappy. I remember [at a previous election] some candidates attracted people by giving out free food on campaigning day, I saw this happen. I think that they just did that to make people support them. When it came to it they didn’t help anyone. Changes don’t happen.”
What about the international presence in Afghanistan? “They say that their goals for being here are for democracy and freedom, but when you look at the last 10 years all you see is more violence, more war, more rape. Well I say that their goals are purely political. They just want some power and control. When you think about it you realise that Afghanistan has nothing: it has no money, it has no power. I see for myself that these days everything comes from America. Even if everyone in the whole country, from a soldier to the president, put their efforts towards one thing… Americans are the ones putting the money through, you realise it’s not us that has the choice, we’ve handed it over to someone else. The politicians don’t have any freedom, they are pressured to sign things, they tell them that if you don’t sign this we will cut funding.”
Salim is 16, and met the others when he was working in a chip shop where they used to meet and talk about their plans. He started working as a street vendor when he was about 11 years old. He shared this cynicism about the intentions of outside powers “There are all these politicians… they think it’s all about them, and they all think about their own pockets. They think about everything from the perspective of what benefits them. They come here and say things like ‘we defend women’s rights!’; or ‘Democracy in Afghanistan!’;” And is there democracy in Afghanistan now? “Democracy? I haven’t seen any…” He pretended to think, while everyone laughed “No…really, I haven’t!”
Asif is Nasrullah’s older brother. His earliest memories are of going to school and enjoying learning. A little later, as a 10 year old, he carried his younger brother across the snow-covered mountains in winter, to escape from the Taliban. He doesn’t tell the story himself, but his friends and family talk about how after the long trek Abdulhai’s infant body was frozen, and he had to be thawed out by a fire for two days. As Asif grew up he felt that the worries of war and premature responsibility clouded his mind and he now finds learning is much more of a struggle. In the daily life of the community he’s quiet, cheerful, and hard-working. He likes walking in parks to relax, although green space is hard to come by in Kabul, and he dreams of going back to Bamyan, but stays in Kabul with his brother to study and to work for peace. He finds hope in the group, with its mix of ethnicities working together. He says that he doesn’t know if change will come in his lifetime, but that being human means keeping on trying. I asked if he would be voting in this year’s election.
“In the past I used to take part in voting, but my heart has become cold, and I don’t like voting. I’ve become numb to this whole subject. Whether I vote or not the same thing will happen. There is no meaning to it.”
Is that how many young people feel? “My friends don’t really understand anything about the current situation. If they have a good day, they have a good day.”
And why are other countries involved in Afghanistan? “To be honest, I don’t understand. What I do understand is that every single country that has come to Afghanistan has done corrupted work, and it’s very evident that they have corrupted goals. War has been going on for so long. If things could change then war wouldn’t have gone on for so long already. The people of Afghanistan could have changed things themselves. The work that is done here is not transparent, people lie. War has been going on for so long… with all of these interventions the people of Afghanistan have only seen more war.”