August 20, 2009

Election Day of Reckoning

3:00 PM EST: Voter turnout in Afghanistan appears to be around 50%, according to various reports. Every news site is reporting lower turnout than in 2004, when an estimated 70% of Afghans cast their ballots. Irregularities involving finger ink and stuffed ballot boxes in low turnout areas are being investigated. Fear and disenchantment are the words of the day. Turnout is reportedly meager in Taliban country lending momentum to Abdullah Abdullah, who is expressing confidence after a high turnout in Tajik territory. Final results aren't expected until September 3rd.

Taliban attacks were nothing special after threats of "surprises," but it managed to undermine the election and America's hope of improving on George Bush's. President Karzai listed 73 attacks in 16 provinces that killed 26 Afghans - 8 Afghan soldiers, 9 police officers and 9 civilians - and wounded 28 Afghan soldiers. Abdul Rahim Wardak, the defense minister, recorded 135 incidents overall.

The Taliban may have never intended to truly disrupt the vote, only prove the impotence of Afghan and American security. America has become fond of linking rising casualties and insurgent attacks to its own surge, but clearly the Taliban is increasing its operations too. This thought seems to have avoided Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Pakistan, who gloated, "On the basis of what we’ve seen so far, it seems clear that the Taliban utterly failed to disrupt these elections."

The New York Times observed, "American officials were quick to declare the poll a success - worth the expanding commitment of troops and money to an increasingly unpopular and corruption-plagued government."

Taliban officials eagerly mock America for deploying additional troops to the region. One spokesman pointed out that 8,000 of the 17,000 troops have gone into one province - Helmand - when the Taliban operates in 20 provinces. By the Afghan government's own estimate, the Taliban holds 17 provinces, a figure that correlates to the number of provinces attacked today. Though 95% of polling stations were opened, the Taliban has successfully demonstrated its capabilities across the country with high-security NATO targets in Kabul and rural voter intimidation. Yesterday 6 American soldiers were killed in three provinces.

Many Afghans cast their vote freely today, a brave act in itself, but this isn't the election President Obama wanted. The message has been sent - America still can't guarantee security in Afghanistan with its newest deployments. One more piece of evidence that Obama will call for more troops, try as he will to run from reality.

6:00 PM EST: Abdullah Abdullah is looking confident, telling reporters that low turn out in southern Afghanistan, "will not be at a level that would question the legitimacy of the election."

"Whatever it [the result] is, we will accept it."

President Karzai failed to match Dr. Abdullah's forcefulness, telling a press conference, "Let’s see what the turnout was. They came out and voted. That’s good, that’s good."

As for President Obama, he too missed the Taliban's strategy. The election is old news: "We had what appears to be a successful election in Afghanistan, despite the Taliban's efforts to disrupt it. We have to focus on finishing the job in Afghanistan but it is going to take some time."

Bruce Riedel, Obama's lead adviser on Pakistan, apparently drew bad cop duties.

"We are going to need an understanding from whoever the new president is that Afghanistan is going to rise to the occasion," he said. "We have now put roughly 70,000 American soldiers into this war, we are committing billions of dollars in new assistance. We are living up to our end of the deal to resource the war properly."

The architect of Obama's strategy sounds a little defensive, and is making no attempt to hide American hegemony. Irritation in the White House, understandable considering the spending has only begun and Americans are losing faith. That's basically all they have left for the war in Afghanistan.

12:00 AM EST: Both candidates are claiming victory. "We believe that he will have over 50 percent," said Seddiq Seddiqi, a Karzai campaign spokesman. "That is what we believe based on our initial findings."

"Initial results show that the president has got a majority," Deen Mohammad told Reuters. "We will not get to a second round. We have got a majority."

"I'm ahead," Dr. Abdullah quickly countered. "Initial results from the provinces show that I have more than 50 percent of the vote."

No waiting for September 3rd. Al Jazeera's Nick Clark reported from Kabul, "The vote counting is finished. Hamid Karzai [the incumbent] is reported to have a majority - that was expected - but the crucial thing is they don't know if he has the 50 per cent he needs to avoid a second, run-off vote."

Al Jazeera correspondent James Bays said, "Karzai and his team have reported they are leading, but Dr Abdullah has said, 'that's rubbish' and said he was well in front. The election commission has said it may be unable to get full results until 3 September but unofficial results could start to come in within 24 hours."

Quick counters, little to count, or something else?

2:00 EST 8/22/2009: Dr. Abdullah has changed his optimistic tone and returned to denouncing Karzai.

"He uses the state apparatus in order to rig an election," Abdullah said in an interview. "That is something which is not expected. All this happens under his eyes and under his leadership. This is under his leadership that all these things are happening, and all those people which are responsible for this fraud in parts of the country are appointed by him. And I'm sure he has all those reports, so he knows all of this. This should have been stopped and could have been stopped by him."

Dr. Abdullah has proposed what could be salvation or ruination for Afghanistan - a coalition party in the event of a runoff. Theoretically Abdullah would combined the support of lesser candidates, promising positions for them in addition to accountability. Many Afghan leaders have grown tired of Karzai and could very likely band together. However, a runoff coupled with situational alliances could further divide the country. Abdullah is hoping for a runoff unlike Karzai, whose chances were imperiled after an estimated 5-20% turnout in southern Afghanistan.

Polling officials estimate a turnout between 40 and 50% overall, though interestingly the woman's vote was estimated around 60%.

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