‘Down with corruption!’ ‘Freedom for Afghanistan!’ ‘Work for everyone!’
The slogans being trumpeted ahead of this weekend’s parliamentary polls are plastered across peeling facades, lamp posts and telephone poles around Kabul's noisy streets. The colourful ‘electoral bombing’ of campaign posters is so overwhelming in the Afghan capital that it’s almost impossible to focus on just one face and slogan.
Many Afghans, though, don’t have to—they’ve already picked their choice for Saturday's election.
‘I’ll vote for Nazar Mohammad Popal’, says Ismatullah, the owner of a computer store in Kabul City Centre—the largest shopping mall in Kabul (though it’s still under construction). The 31-year-old Pashtun has chosen a candidate from his own ethnic group and one almost the same age—two criteria Ismatullah says helped him find someone he could identify with. But what does Nazar Mohammad Popal stand for?
‘As to any true Afghan, religion is my first priority but economy comes immediately afterwards,’ says Popal from his cosy house in central Kabul. The 30-year-old candidate says he’d like to see the Coalition forces take responsibility for their mistakes, but he also notes several other reasons why the conflict is still raging in his country.
‘The Taliban have become stronger in the poorest areas because they offer salaries to their fighters of between $200 and $300 a month. The local police get just $150,’ explains the candidate, wearing the same black turban as featured in his campaign poster. Like Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, Popal is also a native of Kandahar.
Independent candidate Mohamed Wali Ahmadi, however, doesn’t agree. ‘Both Karzai’s and the Coalition forces management have been impeccable,’ he says. ‘If we have so many problems today it’s simply due to the constant interference from Iran and Pakistan.’
Ahmadi, a 47-year-old Tajik, says he’s determined to ‘build bridges between the government and people’ if he becomes elected.
Across town, in the Jaada Maiwand district, a young shepherd waits patiently while his small scraggy flock of sheep nibble at rubbish. Unlike much of the city, the potholes, lonely bare walls and debris still hark back to the war against the Soviets. From his roofless and doorless second-hand tyre shop, Karim looks weary, and is deeply disillusioned with politics.
‘In last year’s (presidential) elections I voted for Karzai but I won’t to go to the polls next Saturday’, he says, sipping green tea. ‘Did you know that several MPs didn’t even bother to take their seats for three of the legislature’s five years?’
Back in the bustling Shar-e Nau bazaar in downtown Kabul, though, things are much livelier. Here, dozens of moneychangers line the road, waving wads of dollars among stalls selling pirate DVDs. Today, young Rahim hesitates between Hindi pop and Arabic hip hop. But he’s much more certain who he’ll support Saturday. ‘I’ll vote for Mrs. Zada Wali. She’s a brave and very capable woman.’
Shukria Serat Wali Zada is one of the 410 female candidates seeking a seat in parliament. ‘So far I’ve received several death threats and our colleagues in Herat and Ghazni have been badly battered,’ explains Zada, director of the Institute for Afghan Women's Affairs, in her first election campaign. ‘I know I’m facing a significant risk by running, but I can’t sit idly by and watch how warlords, gangsters and unscrupulous businessmen sit in parliament yet again.’
In the lead up to the elections, security measures against some of the more predictable attacks in the Afghan capital have been ramped up. The slow and tortuous Kabul traffic is made worse due to the increasingly stringent controls, especially in and around the city’s commercial and administrative centre. At intersections, hundreds of Afghan soldiers dressed in grey uniforms leap theatrically from pickup vans to boost security and assist white-shirted police—symbolic muscle flexing aimed at the Taliban.
For the moment though, the soldiers in Kabul only get ‘attacked’ by random gangs of children who point at them with their plastic rifles—apparently the only toy in Kabul.
In the dusty Kolola Pushta neighbourhood, local kids ‘challenge’ newcomers by lurking behind the piles of trash and jumping over canals whose pungent vapour lingers on your clothes for hours. But there’s also a lone child looking for the peace and open space of the local cemetery to fly his paper kite.
There are dozens of kites flying high over the noisy streets of Kabul, challenging in vain the mysterious grey balloon stubbornly suspended above the city. The flying object in question is one of the most unique security facilities financed by the international community. No one can move in Kabul without being watched from the cameras that hang from its belly.
The elections have also brought a surge of Western advisers and diplomats. Just landed in the Afghan capital, Hartwig S, a German government envoy, is about to be transferred to a base in Kunduz. The Taliban insurgency has been on the rise in this northern province where the German Army is located.
Hartwig says he’ll probably never leave the compound during his five-week tour, and although he hopes for a good transparent poll, he finds it hard to hide his dismay at what he has found here.
‘Our initial reconstruction plans in the area have gone astray’ he says. ‘The Talibs thoroughly destroy everything immediately.’ When asked about the German government’s recent acknowledgement that its army is, in fact, engaged in a war in Afghanistan, he snaps back: ‘It has taken them nine years to acknowledge publicly that this isn’t a humanitarian mission as they said at the beginning: this is a war, people die here!’
Some international envoys are lucky and can just stick to the relative safety of Kabul. That’s the case for one USAID (United States Agency for International Development) supervisor who asks just to be known as ‘Roy.’
He says he’s here to monitor the whole election process and his stated reason for being here is crystal clear: ‘If these elections turn into an embarrassing fraud like the previous ones, pressure from public opinion to end the mission in Afghanistan will be insurmountable. Americans won’t want to squander their tax money on a corrupt government.’
One local I spoke to said the stubborn blanket of dust over Kabul has come directly from the heart of Manhattan—an interesting metaphor for what has happened here since the September 11 attacks in New York. Nine years later though, it’s far from clear if this Saturday’s polls will do anything to clear the dust away.