How election day in Afghanistan unfolded depended very much on where you were. In one province along the border with Pakistan, Paktika, so many voters turned out at several polling stations that workers ran out of ballots. But next door in Paktia, 31 polling stations never opened at all, as workers said they were too worried about security to unlock the gates.
In Kabul, the capital and largest city, voters who turned out Aug. 20 for the first nationwide election in five years entered some polling stations with little fanfare. They showed officials their registration cards, had them punched, took long paper ballots (about the size of a small poster to accommodate the names and thumbnail photos of all 40 or so candidates), then bent over individual voting stations to pencil their choice, folded the ballots into thirds, and stuffed them into plastic ballot boxes. Women voted at separate stations attended only by female election workers, but everyone had his or her index finger dipped in purple ink by a worker before exiting.
Elsewhere violence and irregularities ruled the day. In southern Kandahar, the country's second-largest city and long the seat of the Taliban, at least six IEDs were removed from the main road into the city and about a dozen rockets were fired at various locations in the hours before polls opened. By the end of the day government officials reported 26 deaths related to the election-a number many considered low given continued fighting among Afghan national forces, U.S.-led NATO troops, Taliban, and al-Qaeda insurgents.
But as officials tabulated results during the week that followed, another casualty became apparent: participation. Despite broad areas of security, lower violence than expected, and overall secure voting practices, voter turnout hovered at an estimated 5 million to 6 million-far less than half the number of registered voters (approximately 16 million) and well below the 70 percent of registered voters who participated in 2004 elections.
In what appears to be a close race, those numbers could doom the election to illegitimacy and spark greater violence throughout the country.
A partial vote count released Aug. 26, with half a million votes tallied, showed incumbent President Hamid Karzai narrowly leading his nearest rival and former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah-40.6 percent to 38.7 percent, according to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC). Should those percentages hold, they will force the two contenders into a runoff. A formal announcement of the final vote count is not expected until mid-September, though Karzai supporters predict he ultimately will win 55 percent to 60 percent of the vote. But given the diminished size of estimated participation, the 51-year-old Karzai may find he has won the vote only to discover he has lost the post-election.
"I have no hope in the results of this election," former lawmaker Malalai Joya told me. Joya was the youngest member of parliament when its leadership ousted her in 2007 for insulting fellow parliamentarians she had accused of war crimes. She spoke by mobile phone from a safe house in Kabul near midnight on election day, moving from room to room as we talked to avoid the light from her phone and the sound of her voice being detected in the street outside.
Joya, now 28, has survived five attempts on her life and is the focus of renewed political attention with a new book, A Woman Among Warlords, due out in the United States in October. She said she did not vote because she could not risk going outside ("even in a burqa") but believes that she speaks for thousands of "democracy-loving" Afghans who decided not to vote: "In a country ruled by warlords, occupation forces, Taliban terrorists, drug money, and guns, no one can expect a legitimate or fair vote."
Joya has become a darling of the political left in the West because she believes the U.S.-led NATO occupation has outlasted its usefulness, yet her statements resonate with the right because of her unabashed support for democracy. In Kabul, where she long has been regarded as an iconoclast, her renegade views are increasingly prevalent among average Afghans.
Joya highlights the growing presence-and power-of militant leaders in the top echelons of Karzai's government. They include Abdul Karim Khalili, the second vice president and a Hazara leader from central Afghanistan, and close adviser and former defense minister Mohammad Fahim, who has headed the Northern Alliance. Both men represent militant factions that fought the Taliban (and thereby have received U.S. support) but, with a history of militancy stretching back to the Soviet occupation, have their own string of atrocities on their record. They also represent minority Shiites, and Joya called Khalili's Islamic Unity Party "a puppet party of Iran."
Karzai himself has made no secret of making deals with warlords, especially in the election runup. When Gen. Rashid Dostum, the Uzbek military commander with a reputation for extreme brutality, returned from Turkey in August to campaign on Karzai's behalf, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke called his presence "appalling." Dostum is accused of ordering and destroying evidence of a massacre of 2,000 Taliban fighters who surrendered to U.S. and Afghan forces in 2001. Another reputed Uzbek warlord, Nagiballah Amani, is Karzai's minister of water and energy affairs.
Joya does not believe bestowing titles on the militants confers reliability: "After 9/11 they united but now they are against each other for power." Nevertheless, such alliances, she said, are a key reason Karzai signed in February a controversial law governing Shiites, who make up less than 20 percent of Afghanistan's population. Besides barring Shia women from having custody of their children, it permits child marriage and prohibits a woman from refusing to have sex with her husband unless she is ill. President Barack Obama called the law "abhorrent," as did many international groups, but Joya and others say Karzai pushed the bill through parliament to win votes from minority-and extremist-factions who endorsed it.
Despite distasteful alliances, Karzai continues to win approval from allies abroad and voters at home who fear the country's further unraveling under someone else. But Joya said she believes "the silence of good people is worse than the action of bad people," and that stay-at-home voters were signaling their distrust of the current regime and the two lead challengers, both of whom held posts under Karzai.
One reason Joya's campaign resonates with growing numbers of Afghans is that they are her generation. Median age in the country is 17.6 years old. "This is a young population, and many young Afghans would like to see a break from the former warlords that still loom so large over the political scene here," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
To retain his grip on power, Karzai "has relied more and more on doing deals with the old power brokers, former warlords, fundamentalists," she said. "To move the country forward there needs to be a real break with the past, a more democratic and transparent way of governing. Only then might he earn the support of the people and rely less on the support of criminal networks and warlords."
To average Afghans the incumbent is steadfastly arm-locked to the United States. Six weeks into the U.S. invasion in 2001, he became chairman of the transitional administration. He served as interim president from 2002 until he won election in 2004. He now symbolizes to many not only a stagnant political operation but an unending war led by U.S. forces.
That war is likely to get hotter before the year is out. U.S. commander in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, scheduled to deliver a war assessment in Washington by Sept. 1, is likely to formally ask for more troops. With post-election deaths of U.S. soldiers, the U.S.-led NATO coalition has lost more soldiers and Marines this year than in all of 2008. And August is likely to be the deadliest month for American troops since the war in Afghanistan began nearly eight years ago.