Oct 11, 2004

NPR talk of the Nation, Afghan election

Copyright 2004 National Public Radio (R) All Rights Reserved National Public Radio (NPR) SHOW: Talk of the Nation 2:00 AM EST NPR October 11, 2004 Monday LENGTH: 5209 words HEADLINE: Afghanistan elections ANCHORS: NEAL CONAN BODY: NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On Saturday the people of Afghanistan voted in that country's first-ever presidential election. UN officials report a higher than expected turnout as Afghans waited on long lines. Some stood for hours in rain and snow. The country's previous rulers, the Taliban, proved unable to disrupt the vote. Official results aren't expected for weeks. The counting is not yet under way because many ballots from remote areas have yet to arrive at designated counting centers on donkey back. But while many observers hailed the turnout and the obvious enthusiasm of the Afghan electorate, there was controversy. Supposedly indelible ink used to stain voters' fingers so they could not vote again turned out to be pretty easy to rub off. On Saturday, 15 presidential candidates boycotted the poll and declared the election illegitimate. After a flurry of diplomatic activity, an independent commission to investigate allegations of fraud has been established and several candidates have now withdrawn their objections and agreed to abide by the commission's findings. Later in the program we'll look inside the American bubble in Baghdad, the Green Zone, but first, the Afghan election. If you have questions about its significance, whether an elected president will be considered legitimate, about the vote's effect on the Taliban or on Afghanistan's neighbors, give us a call. Our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. And joining us now from Kabul, Afghanistan, is Peter Bergen. He's the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World of Osama bin Laden." He was, of course, in Afghanistan while the elections took place this weekend. Peter, good to have you back on the program. Mr. PETER BERGEN (Author, "Holy War, Inc."): Good afternoon, Neal. CONAN: Update us on the latest issues involving the controversy. As I understand it, Hamid Karzai's most prominent rival today withdrew his rejection. Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. I mean, the inkling may have turned out to be a tempest in an ink pot, as it were. Obviously the fact that this indelible ink was very easy to remove seemed problematic at first, but a lot of the candidates have dropped their--or basically said, `We'll stand by the results of the independent inquiry which is now going forward.' On the positive side with this ink thing, I was out in Gardez, which is basically on the border with Pakistan, and also Lowgar, which is south of Kabul, and this ink problem was sort of pretty endemic everywhere. And other people that I've talked to, it seemed to be a problem everywhere, which is sort of good in a sense because the problem is equally helpful or unhelpful for all the candidates. It's sort of a wash, as it were. And I think that, when you saw the sort of immense enthusiasm of the people taking part in this vote, happiness certainly is one word but even joy in some of the people that I saw voting in Gardez, which is, you know, traditionally a very Pashtun area with pro-Taliban sympathies. You know, I think that a lot of the politicians saw this in the huge turnout and the atmosphere really of excitement around this and they realized that they we would be better, basically, to drop their objections and go with the independent inquiry, which is moving forward. CONAN: And who's on this commission? Mr. BERGEN: Well, actually, it's a relatively small group of people. I met one of the--just this evening I met one of the people involved. He says there's maybe two or three people that will be involved in doing this. They're going to look at certain returns from certain provinces and see if there's any, you know, particularly problematic areas, but I suspect the answer will be that this was a sort of universal problem that affected every candidate the same way. And, of course, Karzai was winning--the opinion polls that were taken in the summer showed Karzai ahead of every candidate in three different opinion polls taken this summer. And, in fact, just now there's also been exit polls by the International Republican Institute, which is a non-partisan group with affiliations with the Republican Party in the United States, but they are regarded as a reliable source on this and their exit polls indicate that Hamid Karzai is really winning in a landslide. And also about that parenthetically, Neal, I spoke with dozens of people on Saturday during the election and those people who volunteered what they were voting, almost without exception, said Karzai, because they really regard him as a candidate who can bring peace and stability to the country. CONAN: Over many months, the Taliban had voted to disrupt these elections and vowed to bring wide-scale violence on election day. In fact, what happened? Mr. BERGEN: It was a total dud. I mean, I was in the one place, as it happens, where there was violence. It was very ineffectual. A rocket was launched at the polling center in Gardez and it fell short by about a kilometer. It destroyed a demining organization's house, but it didn't actually kill anybody and it had zero effect on people voting. And that story was repeated around the country. You know, there were a lot of people who were arrested in the last few days, a group of people in Kandahar, Pakistanis who were driving a fuel truck and also with explosives, which obviously would have been potentially quite a difficult thing if it had blown up, but they were arrested, and also people in Kabul--people using diplomatic bags to bring explosives into the city, according to local police here. But the security was very tight in the places that I went to and it seems to have yielded benefits and the Taliban has sort of cried wolf on this one and I think it'll be harder to take their threats very seriously in the future. CONAN: In many ways this election is about legitimacy. There are people who would have been... Mr. BERGEN: Yeah. CONAN: ...contesting this election no matter what happened. First of all, is the issue of the ink likely to give them greater weight to their objections to this election? And the other question involves the Taliban: They were pretending still to be the legitimate government of Afghanistan. What does this do to their pretensions? Mr. BERGEN: Well, I think on the latter thing, I mean, an even partially successful election will destroy any claims that they have to legitimacy in terms of the Taliban. I think on the ink problem, I think that there are--a number of opposition candidates were looking for kind of an excuse. They'd thrown up a number of other issues: Pakistani kind of interference with the election which is sort of a non-issue, and a couple of other sort of technical problems. The ink is a legitimate question but it seems now, as you pointed out in the lead-in, that since all the principal opposition candidates have dropped their objections and have all agreed to go with whatever the conclusion of the independent inquiry, I think that we'll find that the independent inquiry will do its business in the next week or 10 days, say that this ink problem didn't substantially affect the results of the election in any meaningful way, and we will have some sort of--maybe five days from now we'll have a sense of who is the--you know, who's winning this. The final results won't be tabulated for perhaps two and a half to three weeks because some of these areas are so remote that donkeys are brining the ballot boxes in. CONAN: And just to clarify, if this commission, as I understand it, made up from outsiders--I think a Canadian, a Swede, one other person--but if this commission finds that this ink problem was throughout the country, that's one thing--bad ink. If it's found that it's only in certain areas, they might then be suspected of allowing supporters of one party or another to vote multiple times. Mr. BERGEN: Right. I mean--and I think, just based on anecdotally, you know, hearing people, you know, in the last two days that I've bumped into, this ink thing was so universal that it's not--if, indeed, as you say, that it was only in certain areas, then that would raise some issues. But, you know, whoever did this ink th--I mean, the UN spent $200 million on this election and to screw up such a basic thing as this ink thing, someone should definitely lose their job. Everything else ran so swimmingly, you know, it's rather tragic that this one thing, which--you know, if you go to a bar or a nightclub in the United States and they stamp your hand, it takes days for it to come off sometimes, so it's not like it's such a technically difficult thing. You know, for some reason, they just didn't get this one thing right. CONAN: Now let's get some questions from callers. If you'd like to join us, Our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. We'll begin with Aaron, who's on the line with us in Dover, New Hampshire. AARON (Caller): Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call. CONAN: Sure. AARON: It appears that people are saying the elections may--the success in Afghanistan may help the president's campaign and I was wondering your opinions about how appropriate it will be for the president to attribute the apparent success in Afghanistan to his political decisions and what America's role was. CONAN: Now obviously speaking of President Bush's election campaign there. AARON: Right. Yes. CONAN: Peter, go ahead. Mr. BERGEN: Well, you know, the fact is, it is a success. I mean, I'm not taking a partisan position here. I'm just saying this is a partial success. I think the situation here could be much, much better if more attention and recourses had been put in to Afghanistan earlier. With a relatively small amount of money--we're talking about, you know, $2 billion or $3 billion of US aid--you know, we've had this partially successful election it seems. You know, we're spending a billion dollars every three days in Iraq. A billion dollars in Afghanistan will go a very long way. The entire economy of the country is something like $5 billion in any given year, so, you know, I think things could have gone better here but I think President Bush will be able to say that this was a success. And, I mean, that's just a fact. CONAN: Aaron, thank you. AARON: Thank you. CONAN: Let's go now to Victor. Victor's calling from Boston. Victor? VICTOR (Caller): Yes. CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead. VICTOR: Oh, yes. My question is how come our guy, in that we always pick up, in this case Mr. Karzai--he comes in. It's supposed to be temporarily to govern and then he ends up being president. That seems to be always--repeats itself in the past. It's going to repeat itself in Iraq with Mr. Allawi. You know, he was with the CIA for 25 years. How can we--I myself, I have a hard time thinking these are legitimate elections. Our man--I can bet my money that our man is going to win all the time. Anyone answer that for me? Thank you. CONAN: Thank you very much, Victor. So, Peter, the United States was--well, Hamid Karzai is the US guy in Kabul. Did Afghans raise questions about this during the election? Mr. BERGEN: Well, let me make a counterpoint, which is Ahmed Chalabi was our guy, supposedly, in Iraq and he was polling at numbers below Saddam Hussein, which is quite a trick after the fall of Saddam Hussein, 3 percent or so. And the fact is that Chalabi doesn't have any political future in Iraq, whereas Karzai is a genuinely popular figure here. You know, the fact that Karzai is a United States man doesn't necessarily mean that he isn't popular here and in poll after poll, we've seen he's surprisingly--not surprisingly, he just is popular because he's seen as the right man, you know, to bring stability to the country. CONAN: Let's go now to Scott. Scott's calling from San Francisco. SCOTT (Caller): Yes, hello? CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Scott. SCOTT: Yeah. I was just wondering if the speaker could briefly talk about is there real ideological differences between the two--or between the various different warlords that are fighting for power or is it more of a--simply a grab for the available control of these different ethnic groups? CONAN: So is it regional, ethnic, linguistic, whatever? Go ahead, Peter. Mr. BERGEN: I think it's basically all about, you know, local power. And, you know, Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. That may be about to change. I mean, I think Karzai is going to do the following thing. A number of people I spoke to during the election process said, `We don't want Karzai to have a coalition government. We're sick of coalitions. But there are always competing ethnic groups and different interests. We want a sort of strong leader, and that's why we're voting for Karzai.' And, in fact, if you look at what Karzai has done in the run-up to the election period, he basically fired Ismail Khan, who is the warlord--well, warlord, of course, is a very loaded term, but let us say the regional power in western Iraq--western Afghanistan in Herat. He basically fired him. He also dropped Marshall Fahim from his ticket, who was the, quote, "warlord" from the Panjir valley. So already Karzai, even before the election, was moving to basically really emasculate these kinds of guys who can put out their own private militias. And I think we're going to see more of that after the election. Basically when the new government comes along, everybody who has a cabinet position in the Afghan government may well lose their job. So I think we're going to see Karzai, if he does indeed win this election, which I think it seems very probable, making some strong moves to really have a kind of national unification government that isn't so responsive to the so-called warlords. CONAN: Scott, thank you. Scott calling from San Francisco. Stay with us, Peter. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll take more of your calls about the election in Afghanistan. Our number, if you'd like to join us, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. (Soundbite of music) CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're discussing the first-ever presidential election in Afghanistan held this past weekend. You can call in with your questions about the significance of the vote, its impact on Afghanistan and on neighboring countries. Our number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address: totn@npr.org. We're speaking with Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War, Inc.," and a fellow at the New America Foundation here in Washington. He's on the line with us from Kabul. And, Peter, when you were last on this program talking about the Afghan elections, you said that, in a way, the yet-to-happen local elections come, I think, April, are, in a way, even more important than what we saw this past weekend. Mr. BERGEN: I think that's right. Because--I mean, they're actually very smart. At one point, the elections--the local elections, the presidential elections were going to be held at the same time. They separated them. I think that was very smart; have a semi-successful presidential election, then move to the local elections, which are potentially much more problematic because, as you indicated earlier in the program, you know, Afghanistan's never been a centralized state. Local power is very important and the really contentious issues are perhaps at the local level. So I think by moving this thing and the other parliamentary elections to April, that was quite a smart move. Of course, we'll see if those go relatively well when they come. CONAN: Let's get another caller now. Bonnie is on the line with us from Anchorage, Alaska. BONNIE (Caller): Yes. Thank you. During the run-up to the election, we read a lot in the newspapers about the rural areas being essentially uncontrollable and Hamid Karzai was just the mayor of Kabul, that there was a good turnout of women registering to vote but when it actually came to election day, that men would forbid their wives to vote. I would like to know what the actual voter turnout for women in Afghanistan as a whole was and also, in the more religiously fundamentalist rural areas, what was the turnout there for women? Mr. BERGEN: Well, we can't answer that--I can't answer that, you know, definitively right now because the polls--you know, the count is still happening. But I can tell you from just my own experience, I went to Gardez, which is one of the most conservative cities in Afghanistan, where, you know, you don't see any women in the main bazaar at all, not even veiled women. And I can tell you that there were a stream of women coming into the central polling station in Gardez. I saw also in Lowgar province--I went to, you know, a local polling station, 700 women had voted. So I think you'll find that the notion that women didn't vote or wouldn't be allowed to vote, I think, has basically run off course. Some women never registered to vote because either--the authority there is that these women live in strict ...(unintelligible) which means they really don't leave their houses. And unless an election worker came to their house to register them, then they didn't register. But I think that we'll find that the number of women who did vote is pretty high. After all, in some areas, we've seen more than 50 percent of women how have registered, so (technical difficulties) violence in the rural areas that was supposed to disrupt the election, that never happened. BONNIE: Yes. Well, it's a good beginning anyway. CONAN: Thanks, Bonnie. Mr. BERGEN: Exactly. BONNIE: Thank you. CONAN: To get a sense about what Afghans are saying about this election, we turn now to Shahir Zahine. He's the founder and director of the Khilid Media Group, which launched Radio Khilid Kabul, Afghanistan's first talk radio program, about a year ago. Mr. Zahine joins us now from the studios of Radio Khilid Kabul in Afghanistan. Good to have you on the program. Hello? Mr. SHAHIR ZAHINE (Founder, Khilid Media Group): Good evening. CONAN: Can you tell us what your callers have been saying about the election? Mr. ZAHINE: I think it was a great experience for all Afghans. It was an exceptional experience for all those like myself who have seen Western countries and regional countries where people were voting and we were all time looking to that day that we could experience an honor on the same kind of experience that we go and vote and decide for our future by voting. Now high participation, very high number of participation of men and women. You must understand that 42 percent of the registered people were women. And there has been very high level of participation of women everywhere in the country. We have been following this on Radio Khilid live from Herat to Kandahar to Faisalabad to Ghazni to different places of Afghanistan. And many young women in queue--200 women in queue for three hour waiting for voting and in the snow. This was an amazing experience and it was also a signal to all those people who wanted to force us to accept the rule of the warlords, the extremists. The Afghan vote to say no to them also. CONAN: On election day, as you mentioned, you were able to broadcast reports from around the country. I understand that it was one of your reporters who as first to break the news of the issue of the indelible ink that didn't turn out to be indelible. Mr. ZAHINE: Yes. It was at 7:40 or 7:45, one of our female reporters from the 15th District of Kabul announced that people were very surprised to see their fingers that were supposed to have an ink that was indelible be washed and they were able, more or less, to vote again if there was a chance for them. So she called first and then we verified in different places. In some of the polling stations, there was this problem. So we did a survey and it was near a third of the polling station in the places where we had the reporters we had this problem, so we called the JEMB, the Joint Election Monitoring Board, and they tried to replace the ink and that--if you follow from that news, international news, there have been such a long queue to their polling stations that anyone who wanted to vote a second time, he was obliged to wait hours and hours. So it was about after two hours this problem of ink was removed. So I think the issue that it was done of the ink that was indelible and then later on it was not indelible is not that important issue. The biggest issue was the participation of all men and women Afghans to say no to those who wanted to force them to live under the rule of the guns. CONAN: Shahir Zahine, thank you very much. Shahir Zahine is founder and director of the Khilid Media Group which launched Radio Khilid Kabul, Afghanistan's first talk radio program, about a year ago. And he was kind enough to join us from the stations of the radio station--the studios of the radio station in Kabul. Still with us is Peter Bergen. Joining us now is Ahmed Rashid, who just returned from Kabul, a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, the author of "Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia." That's his most recent book. He's with us by phone now from his home in Pakistan. And it's good to have you back on the program. Mr. AHMED RASHID (Author, "Jihad"): Thank you. CONAN: I understand you had a chance to meet with interim President Karzai over the weekend. Is he at all worried about the controversy about this election? Mr. RASHID: No. He was very, very proud that there were--all the misgivings about the election were proven false, that there was such a large turnout, that there was no violence, that women voted in such large numbers. I was with him on the campaign trail the week before, where we went by helicopter out of Kabul and, you know, he went to a gathering a day and his main message there was that, `You should vote. You don't have to vote for me but you should vote. And don't be scared of voting.' And I think he--you know, it was a very big relief to him on voting day that actually he has said--I mean, it was such an enormous experience for Afghans. I think on this ink issue, we should remember that this was really not the fault of the Afghans. This is very much the fault of the United Nations team, which was preparing this election. I noticed this very early on also, at about 7:30 in the morning, and what was so obvious was that these polling kits that the UN had prepared for each voting station, which included everything like ballot boxes and ballot slips and pens and markers, nothing was labeled. You know, these objects had all come from all over the world and they should have had labels on each object in the local language, Dari or Pashto, explaining that--what this item was for. And they were not labeled so there were a number of marker pens and inks, so although they had been trained, these people, the polling agents, there was not labels on them. And if they had been insufficiently trained, they probably couldn't remember exactly, you know, which pen was for what. CONAN: Hmm. So as this goes ahead, I assume that people who want to question the legitimacy of this election will have an issue over which to use, but in general, do you think the Afghan people, presuming that this commission does its work, will accept the legitimacy of this election? Mr. RASHID: Yes. I think, you know, even at the end--even by midday when the opposition candidates had announced a boycott and I was still going around the polling stations, there was a lot of anger amongst Afghans who had heard this on the radio, and were saying, `I mean, what are they boycotting for? I mean, you know, we're all standing here and voting and we are still going to, you know, vote for them and not necessarily for Karzai.' So, in fact, you know, I think Afghans generally were quite annoyed at the position taken by some of the opposition candidates, and I think, you know, in retrospect, it has become very clear that many of these opposition candidates were looking for an excuse to be able to create problems in this election. And, you know, the ink issue really provided them, you know, with a master hand, as it were. CONAN: Here's an e-mail question, and I think this is more to you, Ahmed Rashid, than to you, Peter Bergen, because you're still in Afghanistan. Rick in Kalona, Iowa, writes, `I'm curious as to whether Arab satellite channels are covering this Afghan election and if the joy and excitement of the people is being communicated to the Arab and Muslim world.' You've gone back to Pakistan so at least you've gotten some idea of the coverage. Ahmed Rashid. Mr. RASHID: Yes. I mean, certainly Arab journalists were there. I haven't seen any of the coverage myself, but certainly, you know, this event was being carried. CONAN: What do you think the effect of this is going to be on countries around Afghanistan, and principally the country you're in right now, Pakistan? Mr. RASHID: Well, I think it's going to have a huge impact. I think the fact is that, you know, we're living in a region where most of the regimes are dictatorial or authoritarian. We have a military president who, in fact, today has been able to extend both is presidency and the wearing of the uniform of the army chief of staff. And when President Musharraf went for a referendum two years ago, he only allowed on candidate to stand. In Afghanistan, there were 17 candidates standing for president. In Central Asia, I think the same thing. I mean, you've got five regimes which are holdovers from the Soviet system in the five Central Asian republics, and I think that they'd be looking very nervously at this Afghan election. If you remember just a few months ago, there was what was called a rose revolution in Georgia where there was a free election held, a president was elected. Now you have the same thing happening in a country like Afghanistan, which most Central Asians have always viewed as very backward, ridden by Islamic fundamentalism, Taliban, and now Afghanistan is proving to be more democratic than the Central Asian states. So I think, you know, there is a--and I think there will be a ripple effect in the Arab world also where, of course, you also have a lot of authoritarian regime. And I think--I mean, the fact is that, yes, the war on terror, the American presence, the international presence, all that, you know, can be excused, as it were, as to why these elections are taking place. But when you look at the turnout and when you look at the lack of violence and the public participation, I think that is the strongest message going out to regimes in this region. CONAN: We're talking about the Afghan elections this past weekend with Ahmed Rashid, a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review, and Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War, Inc." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's bring a caller in. Brian is with us from Denver, Colorado. BRIAN (Caller): Yeah. Hi. It seems like even if the elections have been successful, I would guess that the long-term success of democracy depends, especially in a historically non-democratic country, on a viable economy, and my understanding is that Afghanistan historically has relied very much on heroin production. Is there any thought of the panel that the new government is likely to find a new source of economic viability, and if not, how are they planning, do you think, to reconcile that with Western desires? CONAN: Peter Bergen, why don't we start with you? Mr. BERGEN: Well, you know, I mean, if you talk to either, you know, General Barno, who's a US military commander here, or talk to Abdullah, the foreign minister, they both say the same thing, which is a strong economy is potentially (technical difficulties) stability. Who is profiting from this is not clear. The GDP of Afghanistan is maybe $5 billion. You're looking at 40 percent of it coming from the opium and the heroin trade. And in the long term, that is, you know, a potentially very devastating threat to Afghanistan's stability. Quite what you do about it is a question above my pay grade. CONAN: Ahmed Rashid. Mr. RASHID: Yes. Peter's absolutely right. I mean, it's an issue that is obsessing the government and the international community. President Karzai told me that it's the number issue; if he gets elected and if he forms a new government, he's going to create a drug czar, which is going to try and coordinate all the activities of both the government and the international community. It's a huge problem. And this year's production, the figures of which still have to be announced, are actually more even than last year's production. The British government has the lead in this, and I spoke to the British. They're trying to get much--you know, obviously one country is not capable of taking control or dealing with everything from interdiction to alternative crops for farmers to training up gun commando forces and anti-drug judges and prosecutors who can take the big guys to court. The issue really has been that the international community has not been united on this. The Americans have--the American troops, for example, have not got a permission to interdict drug shipments or convoys, even though they may be passing right below their bases. NATO troops suffer under other kinds of restrictions. You don't have a coordinated international response to help the Afghan government do this. Every country is doing its own thing at the moment, and I think that's what is needed more than anything at the moment. CONAN: Brian, thanks for the call. This is NPR News. (Announcements)