An Afghan American votes amid missile and other insurgent attacks

April 5, 2014

Afghan voters line up to cast their ballot at a polling station during the presidential elections in Herat, Afghanistan, April 5, 2014. (Jalil Rezayee/EPA)

Afghan-American author Hyder Akbar returned to his family's native Kunar province to vote in Afghanistan's historic elections. While Afghans in Kabul voted in droves — and in relative security — Akbar saw a much different side of the electoral process in Kunar, one of the country's most volatile patches. Born in Peshawar, Pakistan, and raised in California, he is the author of the book “Come Back To Afghanistan.”

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Our host instinctively ducks his head as the missile whistles over the house, landing harmlessly into a river a couple hundred yards away. He goes back to pouring us tea. It's close to 8 a.m., and Election Day has started in Kunar province.

Despite the display of bravado Saturday morning, the mood in the town center, Asadabad, is tense. Kunar province -- mountainous, bordering Pakistan, with a history of resistance -- has been a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency, and they will be doing their best to make their presence felt today. Security measures have been taken by the Afghan government to try and ensure a safe vote: the night before elections the mountains adjacent to the town center were lit up with flares and tracer bullets as Afghan security forces try to keep insurgents at bay; phone calls come in from friends in other areas of the province about aerial bombardments; the sounds of helicopter and jets pierce the cool spring air way past midnight.

On a stretch of road between the eastern city of Jalalabad and Asadabad, I am stopped no less than 10 times by Afghan government security forces. Of my companions in the car, I am being singled out the most. In my efforts to assimilate back into Kunar -- an area where my great-grandfather was an important spiritual leader, my uncles and family were part of the resistance against the Soviets, and my father has served as governor -- I might have taken it too far. My friends point out that my shaggy beard, plain clothes and shawl, make me look more like an insurgent trying to infiltrate the town than an Afghan American who has come back from California.

During the past decade, my own involvement in Kunar has grown as well: sometimes participating, sometimes observing. Watching Election Day unfold Saturday, I can't help but think of how different the elections in 2009 felt: the town center was bustling with activity, tribal elders were politicking and sipping tea throughout the houses, the streets were packed with people; today, almost all the stores in the market are closed, there is some activity around poll centers but the streets are largely empty.

We receive phone calls throughout the day about how elections are going on in other areas of the province. There is a push and pull between a civilian population determined to vote and an insurgency stubbornly trying to stop them. News starts pouring in -- from areas such as Asmar, Chapa Dara, Ghaziabad -- where insurgent forces taking shots at polling centers stop the vote. A phone call comes in to give us good news that people have lined up to vote in a certain area -- only to be updated
half an hour later that everyone has scattered after the Taliban attacked the polling station.

Another friend calls to say the Taliban have already warned him that he will be dealt with -- they had heard he had been campaigning for one of the candidates. My own vote becomes an eventful event: just as I receive my ballots, another wayward missile comes flying toward the town, and everyone hunches down -- another close call, but it lands in some field, and I go on to vote.

As I walk out, I notice a man vigorously trying to clean the ink off his fingertip -- a sign that you have voted. Overhearing his conversation, he is telling his friend that he has to travel on the road up north and doesn't want it chopped off -- a grim reminder of how easily the tentative progress of the past decade can be erased.

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