London ~~ Friday, 21 August 2009
Kim Sengupta: A dubious litmus test for the poll
Our man in Helmand questions the election's integrity
Scroll down to also read Afghan women to miss out on vote in landmark election
Call it the mystery of the invisible voters. At one polling station in Nad-e-Ali, just over 400 people had voted by 1pm. Three hours later, the figure had apparently surged to some 1,200.
This despite the fact the streets were empty, all shops and businesses were shut and an Afghan army officer saying his men standing guard had hardly seen any civilians heading to these particular voting booths.
Casting further suspicion on the sudden leap, the number of voters at two more polling stations visited by The Independent remained stationary at one, and rose by 20 at the other.
Election officials were later seen counting piles of ballot papers, without even checking the choices, simply declaring the votes had been cast for incumbent president Hamid Karzai.
Nad-e-Ali, the most populous area of the volatile Helmand province, had become something of a litmus test for yesterday's poll.
A series of operations by British and Afghan government troops had retaken land from the Taliban with the aim of bringing the population into a security envelope so voters could actually get to the polls.
But despite this, the largest election monitoring group had refused to come to the district, deeming it still too dangerous. On the day there were rockets, machine-gun fire and mortar roads. Roadside bombs, deaths and injuries.
A six-year-old boy, called Muslim, and his 14-year-old cousin were brought into the medical centre at the Welsh Guards Battle Group headquarters after one round aimed at the British military base overshot and landed on a civilian house.
"The little boy had serious wounds and... there was nothing more we could do. It was very, very hard to take to see someone so young die," said Major Colin Wall, an Army doctor. "We sent the girl to the hospital in [the provincial capital] Lashkar Gar."
Officially, Nad-e-Ali district has around 50,000 registered voters, but only a fraction of them voted yesterday. Around 12,000 voters were automatically doomed to disenfranchisement because they lived in the pockets of the district that remain in Taliban hands.
And for the women among the remaining 38,000 voters, it was never going to be possible for them to exercise their voting rights in this deeply conservative society, because of a shortage of female election staff.
"We cannot even get the men to come here, so how could we get women? It was never going to happen," said one exasperated official.
A senior British official, Jim Haggerty, who made repeated checks of polling stations throughout the day, admitted there had been the occasional disappointment at isolated locations, but said that overall the day was a success. "This is a small but significant step in establishing governance in this part of Afghanistan," he said.
London ~~ Monday, 17 August 2009
Afghan women to miss out on vote in landmark election
Strict segregation rules will see many Afghan women miss the vote By Jerome Starkey in Kabul and Kim Sengupta
Millions of Afghan women will be denied their chance to vote in presidential elections this week because there aren't enough female officials to staff the women-only polling stations.
A desperate shortage of female staff is threatening to undermine the legitimacy of the elections, which are the pinnacle of western-led efforts to build a peaceful democracy. Strict cultural norms mean women can't vote in male-run stations.
Women's activists said the Independent Election Commission (IEC) needs to recruit 13,000 more women before Thursday's elections. The IEC refused to comment on recruitment figures, but papers leaked to The Independent suggest the shortfall is much worse, at more than 42,000.
Without female staff to operate the strictly segregated stations, and more importantly, without female searchers to frisk women voters as they arrive at those stations, conservative men across the country will ban their wives and daughters from taking part.
"If half of the population can't participate, the election is illegitimate," said Orzala Ashref, a director of the Afghan Women's Network. "Without women's votes, without women's participation, of course the election is not going to be valid."
"You need female staff," said leading women's rights activist Wazhma Frogh. "Otherwise women won't dare go out. Their families won't let them."
The problem is most acute in the south east, where there are just 2,564 women on the IEC books, less than 20 per cent of the 13,400 target. In the south, they have less than half the 10,428 women required.
The IEC launched an emergency appeal through women's rights organisations last week to try to fill the staffing gap. But in a sign of growing desperation, officials have suggested hiring old men and boys in their place.
"We are totally against this," Ms Ashref said. "The men will tell women, 'If you go and vote it will be men who search you'. Would women from the UK feel comfortable being searched by a man? It's even more sensitive here. They won't let them go."
At Nad-e-Ali in Helmand, an area recently under Taliban control, a lack of policewomen had meant that required searches of female voters cannot be carried out. Local elders have rejected suggestions that female British troops should carry out the task.
Many men in this deeply conservative area are adamant that they will not let women from their families vote in mixed stations. Niamtullah Khan, a 57 year old farmer, said: "We are very concerned about this. Most of my neighbours are against letting women go to these places where anything can happen. I, and a few others, think we should look ahead and have change, but I would not approve of my wife, sister, or daughter going into buildings with a lot of unknown men."
The lack of female staff has fuelled fears of proxy voting, where men vote for their entire families. Concerns were first raised in December when The Independent revealed "phantom" women voters were outnumbering men in the registration process.
New figures seen by The Independent show women registrants outnumbered men in five provinces, including Logar, Paktia and Khowst. "What's most alarming is that those places where the female recruitment has been most difficult are the same places where there was over-registration of women," said a senior Western diplomat.
Women's registration cards are especially prone to fraud because unlike the men's, they don't include a passport picture of the owner. Photographs of bare faced women are deemed culturally unacceptable.
Britain's Ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said election officials were making "strenuous" efforts but he admitted: "There will be difficulties in some areas of the country in women casting their vote".
The total cost of the elections is more than $220m (£130m). The IEC was only told it had to hire 28,000 searchers, including 14,000 women last month.
THE AGE Melbourne ~~ Tuesday August 18 2009
Afghans sold out by their 'saviour'
A burqa-clad female supporter of Hamid Karzai shows his picture in a calendar. Photo: AFP
Paul McGeough, Kabul
WHEN he arrived on the world stage in his coat of many colours in 2001, Hamid Karzai was hailed as the saviour of his traumatised nation.
But he is now betraying the ideals for which so much Western blood has been spilled in Afghanistan.
Mr Karzai's pre-election vote-buying spree is seen as a sell-out on women's rights and on the aspirations of those who fear the power of near-feudal warlords.
It has been confirmed that he has defied world outrage by quietly codifying in law the right of some Shiite men to withhold food from their wives if they did not respond to their husbands' demands for sex.
The wording of the bill was tinkered with after US President Barack Obama declared it ''abhorrent'', but it still gifts exclusive guardianship of children to their fathers and grandfathers where their parents have opted for - or are pressured into - Shiite marriage contracts.
Human rights groups claim the law contravenes the Afghan constitution and international treaties. But more important to Mr Karzai was his bid to stitch up the Shiite vote - about 20 per cent of the population - which he believes can be delivered by the law's principle backer, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Asef Mohseni.
Afghans are acutely aware of the perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses in their country. The Taliban era was bad, but worse was the mindless death and destruction of the early to mid-1990s, when the Mujahideen factions, who defeated the Soviets, fought senselessly for control.
Many of the most notorious are part of today's circle of power - and some rode back into that circle on the back of US tanks in 2001, when they were recruited to pursue al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
"Some of the people from the 1990s … are coming back to power through deals with Hamid Karzai and other candidates," said Afghan human rights commissioner Nader Nadery.
It is widely believed that Mr Karzai has done deals with six warlords. Foreign diplomats believe the deals grant warlords protection from prosecution and freedom for jailed associates, cabinet posts, provincial governorships and key posts in the police and military.
The Hazara warlord, Mohammad Mohaqiq, went public early this month, claiming he had been promised five cabinet posts and two vice-presidencies, two new Hazara provinces and a string of development projects.
But Mr Karzai may have made himself a political eunuch by subletting the power and treasure of the presidency.
One diplomat said: "A run-off [in the election] is too dangerous for him now - already, he has promised too much and what he would have to offer in another round would bankrupt the nation.
"He is bartering the power of the state for the moment of the election, surrendering a great deal to those who will mobilise support for him. They will be comparing notes too - it could be very volatile."
Many in the drug trade prospered after the invasion because of the US reliance on them to pursue the Taliban.
In 2005, interior minister Ali Jalali quit, reportedly because of Mr Karzai's refusal to act on a list of 100 drug kingpins Mr Jalali had compiled, which included 13 former or serving governors and four former or serving cabinet ministers.
When I asked a top foreign diplomat this week if any of his colleagues were exploring the links between drug money and political patronage, he replied: "No, that's taboo. But you assume drug money goes everywhere. The Taliban gets only a small portion and that means that a big portion goes to people inside the system."
The wealth amassed in the name of the President's brothers is the source of constant speculation.
The Karzai family's legitimate businesses include mines, the country's only cement factory, the national Toyota franchise and property.
Foreign diplomats and intelligence officials who plead with Mr Karzai for some action get the brush-off, in the form of requests for the kind of evidence that does not exist.
When evidence was available - implicating the President's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai - it was ignored by the Bush administration and a key witness was jailed by Kabul on what was seen as a trumped-up charge.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, the presidential candidate running third in the polls, former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, accused Mr Karzai of turning Afghanistan into one of the world's most corrupt states.
"He has formed alliances with criminals. He has appointed governors and police chiefs who flout the rule of law. And he has turned a blind eye to a multibillion-dollar drug trade that has crippled growth and enabled the insurgency to flourish," Mr Ghani said.
Five years on from the euphoria of the 2004 poll, Thursday's contest will be a test of the control that warlords and ethnic and religious leaders wield over their followers.
The world will be watching. And in the homes of the hundreds of dead servicemen in the West, grieving families might well wonder: what was the cause for which their sons and daughters died?
THE AGE Melbourne Thursday 20 August 2009
Women lose in Karzai's power play
Far from being liberated, Afghan women are in a dire situation.
WHEN the US and its allies went to war against the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks, ''liberating the women of Afghanistan'' was often cited as one of the reasons to seek ''regime change''. More than seven years later, however, the situation for Afghan women remains dire.
There have been some bright spots: women now hold seats in the Afghan Parliament, and millions of girls have been able to attend primary school. But educational gains plummet when girls hit secondary school, with just 4 per cent of female students reaching 10th grade. Violence against women is endemic; women in public life are regularly threatened, and several have been assassinated.
Things got much worse recently when President Hamid Karzai promulgated legislation that would make the Taliban proud. Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern: as Karzai's Government has grown weaker, he has increasingly turned to some of the most conservative elements for support.
The Shiite Personal Status Law, the most egregious of a series of deals to appease fundamentalist religious leaders and former warlords, contains many provisions offensive to women.
Custody rights are granted exclusively to fathers and grandfathers. A woman can leave the house without her husband's permission only if she has unspecified ''reasonable legal reasons''. Yet the law does stipulate financial compensation to be paid by a man who rapes a child or a mentally ill woman, for her loss of virginity, while omitting any reference to a criminal punishment.
Karzai issued the law on July 27 with no public announcement. It came as little surprise that he tried to keep things quiet after the hammering his popularity took in April, when it first emerged that he had signed on to an earlier version of the legislation. President Barack Obama and other world leaders denounced the law then. Even NATO's Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, warned that public reaction in NATO member countries would be to withdraw support for sending their troops to fight in a country that treated women in such ways.
Karzai responded by claiming that he had never seen the offending document - the same excuse he gave last summer after he pardoned two well-connected gang rapists who had served just a fraction of their 11-year prison terms. Under pressure, Karzai promised to review the legislation. This review led to some improvements, including the removal of an article that gave a man the right to have sex with his wife once every four nights.
But many of the most repressive provisions remain. By enacting the law, the President has dashed hopes that official discrimination and the oppression of women by their own Government were things of the past in Afghanistan.
To guarantee his re-election this week, Karzai has not only made deals with hard-line Shiite leaders but also has held out the prospect of cabinet seats to former warlords and abusive military commanders from all the main ethnic groups. Many of these ageing warlords' attitudes towards women are little different from those of the Taliban.
Perhaps of more concern for women and girls is that Karzai is positioning himself as someone who can bring the Taliban and other fundamentalist factions back into the fold. Scant regard is being paid to what this would mean for Afghan women, who have worked courageously for the precious few freedoms they have won in recent years.
When I ask diplomats in Kabul what deals with the Taliban will mean for women, I get platitudes and assurances that officials are ''only talking to those who sign up to the Afghan constitution''. But if the President does not feel bound by the constitution's promise to make men and women equal before the law, should anyone believe it would constrain a former insurgent? As one female activist told me: ''Deals with the Taliban will mean everything we have achieved in the last eight years could be lost. It will have been only a dream.''
The Kabul Government and its backers are supposed to be different from the people they are fighting. Yet with regard to women's rights, Afghans might conclude that there isn't as much difference between the two as they had hoped.
Western governments that expressed horror at Taliban misogyny only a few years ago should not fall silent. Many, including the US Administration, are uneasy about speaking out about this law so close to the presidential election. But that is just the response that Karzai hoped for.
Afghan women want to participate in elections and have peace and security. The price for this should not be their rights.
Rachel Reid is the Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch.