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Last Updated: 09/16/2005
Ready to Vote
Mathieu Lefevre

On the ground in Afghanistan, pre-election tension and hope.

We start an exciting week for Afghanistan. On Sunday, 12 million Afghans will be asked to select among 5,800 candidates for the Wolesi Jirga (parliament) and 34 provincial councils.  The candidates are a very mixed batch: hundreds of women are running for seats reserved for women by law, which will mean the Afghan elected assemblies will have more women than nearly any Western parliament; tribal elders, reformists, and intellectuals are running alongside former Taliban leaders and commanders of armed groups.


The Afghan and international actors involved in the elections have tried to make the playing field free and fair. A number of candidates have been disqualified for commanding large militias but, as always in the real world, this has not worked out perfectly and men (only men) with blood on their hands and no education will undoubtedly be elected. Ultimately, however, Afghans can decide behind that curtain who will represent them in Kabul.


As of  now, six candidates and a handful of election workers have been killed in the run up to the elections. Given the scope of this exercise, and recent violence , this is not as bad as many had expected. Kabul is slowly clearing out, as most international staff are leaving the country for this period. Operation Enduring Freedom has been beefed up to about 20,000 troops and NATO has deployed 2,0000 more combat troops to the area from all over the world. Norwegian forces patrol with the Dutch and  the Canadians, and everyone seems to (mostly) get along with the powerful US-led Coalition. French Mirages and American F16 share the skies with British and Italian Chinooks. All kinds of other hardware flies low and loud in what they call 'show of force operations'. The Taliban have even said they ("unlike the Americans") would not kill civilians during the elections.


Logistically, this is an immense and awesome operation. Donkeys, camels, trucks, choppers are setting off under heavy armed guard to distribute 40 million ballots (some are the size of the international herald tribune on a slow day) to polling places all over the country. Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Sayeds and Sikhs will probably look for their ethnic leaders on the ballots - not an easy task when most voters cannot read.

Photos and symbols will try to guide them to tick the right box.  Some candidates - like "Ahmed," whom I met in his house in Eastern Afghanistan - are not too happy about their candidate symbol. He has a private militia of hundreds of thugs and fought off invaders for 3 decades, including the Soviet army. On Sunday, look for him next to the duck in the square.


I hope the story of the elections does not get drowned in other big stories this week. Yes there are hurricanes and chief justices, but Afghanistan is still at war with itself and with others, half the country is under a heavy insurgency, and - as one of the poorest countries in the world - it needs a decade's worth of our attention.  If something good can come of the events of four years ago yesterday, our best chance of that is here. Come Sunday night, we hope a big step will have been taken, inchallah,  on the road towards stability and peace in this beautiful country.

Mathieu Lefevre works for the United Nations in Afghanistan.