Afghanistan Election: Peaceful Start

Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, August 20, 2009; 12:00 PM

Afghanistan's historic election proceeded with unexpected smoothness and order Thursday despite threats by the radical Islamist Taliban movement to disrupt it. There were reports of scattered violence, and turnout appeared to be relatively low in the capital and in southern provinces with a strong Taliban presence, but Afghan and foreign officials said a feared disaster had been averted.

Washington Post foreign correspondents Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow were online from Kabul on Thursday, Aug. 20, at Noon ET to discuss the election, which observers say is critical to assuage growing doubts among American and European voters about whether Afghanistan is worth a continuing heavy investment in money spent and troops' lives lost.


Washington, D.C.: There is a lot of talk about Karzai courting warlords in his reelection bid. Out of curiosity, is it accurate to call these tribal leaders warlords? This seems to be quite a condescending and primitive term, and I assume that the "warlords" do not refer to themselves in this way. I don't hear this term used to describe tribal leaders in other countries, except perhaps Sudan? What is the explanation for the use of this term?

Joshua Partlow: I think less important than the term warlords is the past behavior of many of the men that President Karzai has gathered around him during the campaign, and many of them have histories of serious human rights violations. One of the most notorious, Abdul Rashid Dostum, the commander of an Uzbek militia, is accused, of killing hundreds of Taliban prisoners in 2001 by allowing them to suffocate in shipping containers. He recently came back to Afghanistan from exile in Turkey and that caused a lot of concern that he would be given a senior government post in return for helping Karzai. You do hear the term warlords here in Afghanistan to describe people like Dostum who commanded large armed groups and used violence to solidify their power.


Pamela Constable: Hi. This is Pam Constable in Kabul. I wanted to answer the other question about warlords and tribal leaders. There is a big difference between those two terms and the people they describe. Tribal leaders are generally respected elders who are consensually chosen to represent their tribes in a traditional form of leadership. Warlords are men who run private armies that are often used for personal and political ends. Some of the individuals now allied withPesident Karzai are indeed former warlords, and there is an Afghan word for it, jangsalar.


Olympia, Wash.: I believe success can only be built on the Afghan peoples' desire/vision for major cultural and political change from a lawless tribal society to a lawful, peaceful one based on mutual respect and cooperation. This would be an incredible shift involving the will and determination of Afghans for real change (something we're struggling with at home!). We can't be their local police force forever!

My question is, "Do you think this determination exists or is the existing tribal mentality too entrenched to allow for real change and advancement into the 21st century (Even the 20th will do!)?

Thank you for your solid reporting. Respectfully.

Pamela Constable: You are raising and important question but I don't think tribal society is necessarily lawless. It is rather the effects of a long period of war and conflict and oppressive rule in one form or another that has caused Afghanistan to lose the social fabric that once held it together. The country enjoyed long periods of peace and stability before the 1970s. it was not a democracy as we know it, and the country does indeed need to modernize its political structures and its economy in order to develop successfully. but I think tribal structures and influence will remain an important and potentially stabilizing component of that society for a long time to come.


Niles, Mich.: President George W. Bush wants history to acclaim him for the much-noticed purple-inkstained fingers of those participating in the election voters who lined up during the initial presidential voting -- will a one-time voting result in 2009 be anything to notice this time as far as history-making changes in Afghanistan's voting public being in charge?

Pamela Constable: i don't totally understand the question, but I would say that every peaceful transfer of elected power adds to a country's democratic track record, experience and stature. a single election is an artificial benchmark, but cumulative elections build real democracies.


Winnipeg, Canada: "Turnout appeared to be relatively low." What does 'relatively low' mean? How would turnout compare to the last U.S. presidential election?

Joshua Partlow: The estimates on turnout are anecdotal at this point, it is too soon to know for sure how many people voted. I was in Jalalabad today, a heavily Pashtun city in the eastern part of the country, and several voters and people working at the polling sites said there were fewer people turning out than during the last presidential election five years ago. Election observers we talked with said that in southern Afghanistan, some of the areas where the Taliban is strongest, many people were worried about threats of violence and didn't show up. One of the common threats here was that the Taliban would cut off the fingers of people who voted, i.e., those with ink on their fingers, and many voters talked about being worried by this. Election officials here say there won't be preliminary results until Saturday, but turnout is likely going to be a big issue.


Boston, Mass.: I may be skipping much further down the road strategically but there are centuries of history there backing up this question: If we chose or were forced to pull U.S. troops out from active combat inside Afghanistan could we keep al-Qaeda offguard there with the use of attack drones and special forces/CIA as we are currently employing in Pakistan? If true, have we made a strategic mistake in doubling down on troops in the country when this is likely doomed in the long term?

Pamela Constable: It is a bit difficult to compare Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan the international troops are an invited and essential component of combatting hostile groups, training local security forces and stabilizing an impoverished and war-ruined country. Pakistan is a far more developed nation with a large army and strong antipathy to foreign troops, which is why drones and covert operations are used there instead. I is too soon so know whether the large troop committment to Afghanistan will prove to have been a wasted effort, but both al-Qaeda and Taliban forces need to be dealt with there before the country can move into a period of solid political and economic progress.


Washington, D.C.: Do you believe that this election will truly show both Afghanistan and the rest of the world that this country really wants to be a democracy despite Taliban threats? What programs are leaders proposing to get this country's economic engine humming?

Pamela Constable: I impressed by how many people at the polls in the Kabul region today said they were not frightened by the Taliban and were determined to vote in spite of their threats. On the other hand, people in isolated rural areas under Taliban control did not dare come out to vote at all. As far as economic plans, the only candidate with a detailed economic plan and vision is former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, who is very unikely to win but who could potentially join a new government in a technocratic role.


San Diego, Calif.: I read a book not to long ago -- "The Places In Between," by Rory Stewart. The story seemed a bit fantastic, but if you are familiar with it, does it accurately reflect the cultures in that country?

Between that book and "The Kite Runner," a picture of Afghanistan is painted that seems missing from most western news coverage.

Many Americans did not know about the sharp differences between Shia and Sunni before the Iraq wars. Similarly, do we fully appreciate Pashtun/Hazara differences?

Pamela Constable: Those are both very good books that reveal a lot about Afghan society and history. The post has published several stories from our correspondents here that explore the differences between ethnic groups in Afghanistan. The Hazaras are a fascinating group that has been historically downtrodden but is fast emerging in national life. Hazaras are all Shiite Mulims and Afghanistan is about 90 per cent Sunni. Pashtoons, the dominant group, are Sunni. The current political race has a very interesting Hazara presidential candidate named Ramazan Bashardost. a bit eccentric but smart, honest and very popular with the public. We have written about him and about Hazaras in several recent articles.


Fairfax, Va.: Does it look like Karzai will win? Has the U.S. run cool on him lately and if so, why?

Pamela Constable: Karzai is likely to win in a run-off in another month or so. He has a strong challenger who has done much better than expected. The U.S. has been cooler on him lately in part because of disappointment with entrenched problems of corruption and incompetence in the government, and in part because he has been extremely critical of civilian casualties caused by western troops while playing down Taliban abuses and reaching out to them as Afghan brothers.

_______________________ This concludes our chat today with Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow from Afghanistan. Thanks for joining in.


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