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As many as 7 million Afghans turned out to vote for a new president on Saturday, defying Taliban threats and dreary weather on election day. While the high turnout reflected a determination to alter the course of the war-weary nation, some voters had little confidence that the old-school politicians would in fact usher in change. Kojo examines the historic election and the path forward for Afghanistan.
- Ali Latifi Producer, Al Jazeera English
- Sean Carberry Kabul Correspondent, NPR
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, a big deadline coming up tomorrow for Metro Silver Line. We'll talk with WAMU 88.5's transportation reporter, Martin Di Caro. But first, despite threats of violence from the Taliban and dreary weather on election day, as many as 7 million Afghans cast ballots Saturday to choose the country's next president.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs tally sheets from thousands of polling places make their way to Kabul for the official tabulation, both Afghans and the Western powers with troops stationed there are relieved that this historic election went smoothly, at least so far. After 12 years in power, term limits are forcing President Hamid Karzai to step down. When the ballots are counted, the field of eight candidates to succeed him will likely be narrowed to two, who will face each other in a runoff. While turnout was high, not everyone in Afghanistan was excited by the choices.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd it is possible that Karzai will try to keep his hand in politics even after his term is over. Joining us to talk about this is Sean Carberry. He is the Kabul correspondent for NPR. He joins us by phone from Kabul. Sean Carberry, thank you for joining us.
MR. SEAN CARBERRYMy pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by phone is Ali Latifi. He is a freelance journalist in Kabul. Ali Latifi, thank you for joining us.
MR. ALI LATIFIThank you, Kojo. How are you?
NNAMDII'm doing well. I'll start with you, Sean Carberry. Official results are not in yet, but it appears that two of the three frontrunners are headed for a runoff on the third, who is President Hamid Karzai's preferred successor, is out. After 12 years in power, what was Karzai's role in this election? And what is it likely to be going forward?
CARBERRYWell, it's not entirely clear yet what his role was. Certainly, anecdotally, people saw him backing the candidates Zalmai Rassoul, the former foreign minister who was viewed as kind of a Medvedev type of candidate for him in a Putin role. But indications are at this point that Rassoul is not likely to advance to the second round. And so now speculation is what is Karzai's plan B to try to work some sort of a deal with the two front runners, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, so that he still does have some type of important role afterwards.
CARBERRYThere's been speculation he wants to be sort of a president emeritus and senior advisor to possibly someone who's sort of the backroom broker who's keeping various political factions at bay. But most people will tell you that they see Karzai wanting to play a significant role in the future here.
NNAMDISean, what kind of campaigns did these candidates run? What did they say Afghanistan's future would look like under their leadership?
CARBERRYWell, all of them basically said Afghanistan's future would look better under their leadership. In terms of getting much more specific than that, there really wasn't a lot beyond general slogans -- people saying they will bring security and peace, they will bring economic development. A lot of Afghans complained that they weren't hearing enough in terms of specifics from the candidates. And there really wasn't much different in terms of what they were actually putting forward. So, at this point, you know, there really isn't a clear sense of what was the program of one candidate versus another.
CARBERRYAll were basically saying, we will do a better job. We will bring peace. We will bring development. How they will do that certainly is not clear to most people at this time.
NNAMDIThe number to call is 800-433-8850 if you'd like to join this conversation. We're talking with Sean Carberry, he is Kabul correspondent for NPR, and Ali Latifi, who is a freelance journalist in Kabul. We're talking about the recent presidential elections that were held in Afghanistan. 800-433-8850. Does last weekend's relatively peaceful election give you confidence that the security forces in Afghanistan can maintain order on their own without help from U.S. troops? Give us a call. 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Ali Latifi, I'll start with you this time.
NNAMDIThe Taliban threatened to disrupt and derail the election, but didn't. Some people are saying the lack of election day violence or lots of it could mean that the Taliban is not as strong as people have feared. What do you think this election day says about the Taliban?
LATIFIWell, the one thing to keep in mind about this election is that security was on extremely high alert. (word?) stationed outside of every major city on very serious levels. You know, if you went on any road, you were certain to pass by any number of security checks. As for what it says about the Taliban, I think the question now is, how much of an enemy or a threat does the Taliban actually see the election? Especially with so many reports already of fraud in this poll.
LATIFIAnd we have in this election 3,100 complaints versus 2,000 in 2009 -- or more than 2,000 in 2009. So I think the question now becomes, how serious of a threat or how dangerous do the Taliban see this election in terms of their own future or in terms of -- as sort of an enemy? You know, are they more anti-Karzai and what has been going on so for, or more the election -- anti the election itself?
NNAMDISean Carberry, same question to you. What do you think this election turnout and the way it took place says about the influence of the Taliban.
CARBERRYWell, again, certainly everyone was expecting to see a lot of violence, a lot of high-profile attacks. And as Ali said, that security was intense, especially in the urban areas. So really nothing happened in urban centers. But certainly we have a lot of reports of scattered violence, of roadside bombs, of some firefights, of mortar fire in more remote areas that did prevent people from going to vote. We also heard a lot of stories about people in villages who were getting so-called night letters -- essentially messages that are distributed at night, warning people not to go vote and turnout was very low in a lot of those areas.
CARBERRYSo they certainly did play some role in this. And a lot of people now are sort of watching and waiting to see when the other shoe's going to drop -- whether they're going to launch attacks against the centers where ballots are being stored, where the tally sheets are being counted, things like that, and whether or not they're waiting to launch a more aggressive offensive against a second round, when that eventually comes to happen.
NNAMDIWell, Sean, can you take a...
LATIFIThere's one other part.
NNAMDIGo ahead, Ali.
LATIFIThere's one other point in that. There are certain areas where it was clear that people could not vote because of the security situation. And we have to keep that in mind, that in -- there were 700 polling centers that were closed for this election. And so, basically, there were certain areas that were basically no-go for the election from the beginning. And I think that sort of gets discounted. Yes, clearly the urban centers came out in large numbers. But you have to remember where there is a strong Taliban foothold, there was no possibility of an election to begin with.
NNAMDIWell, Sean, The New York Times editorialized today that the relative calm on election day suggests that the Taliban's appeal is waning and that the Afghan security forces are capable of standing alone to maintain security. Do you agree? How do Afghan's view their security forces after this election, Sean?
CARBERRYWell, for the last year, we've been seeing and hearing that Afghan security forces, when it comes to on-the-ground fighting, are much more capable than the Taliban. They have training, weaponry, capabilities that are beyond the Taliban. The larger problem and the longer term question has always been, can they sustain themselves? Can they handle the logistics? Can they maintain their equipment and vehicles without ongoing support from the international community? And so, yes, I think most people would say, yes, that the Afghan security forces can fight.
CARBERRYThey can conduct operations on the ground on their own. They're more than capable. But if they don't have ongoing logistics' sort of behind the line support, that they will suffer and deteriorate. I mean there are even questions about whether they will continue to pay soldiers. There have been issues with police and soldiers getting paid on time. And so that's been the strong argument behind the security agreement that the U.S. wants to sign with Afghanistan, arguing that this ongoing, as I say, sort of behind-the-lines support is still necessary for them to be able to conduct the operations that they're doing.
NNAMDIAli, what was security like in Kabul on election day? You were driving across town. Apparently, you got stopped several times. What happened?
LATIFIYeah. Basically, it was the week leading up to the election. As I said, there was basically security checks all over. The night before, I was coming from my aunt's house back to my own house. We took the back roads and, you know, there were basically police on every corner. And it was that way, definitely, on election day. There were many fewer cars left on the streets. Kabul is known for its traffic, but there was almost no one on the streets on that day.
LATIFIAnd the one thing about the security forces is that, when people were being stopped, when they were, for instance, having their cars searched or even being told to step outside of their cars, people were actually very happy. You know, they were saying, thank you. And they were grateful that this was going on, because they felt like this was what was allowing them to vote. As opposed to, you know, a lot of times people can get upset in this situation. But in those days, people seemed to appreciate it much more.
LATIFIBut, I mean, where I had -- the high school that I was outside of, you know, there were, I think, seven police outside -- outside that polling center, just watching us the whole time.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you'd like to call. Do you have family who voted in the election? What issues were most important for them in deciding who to vote for? 800-433-8850. We're talking with Sean Carberry, he is the Kabul correspondent for NPR, and Ali Latifi, who is a freelance journalist in Kabul. Sean Carberry, one of the biggest questions in Afghan elections is fraud. Ali mentioned it already. Sean, are there any signs, so far, of widespread fraud in this race?
CARBERRYWell, if you look at the number of complaints, that would seem to indicate widespread fraud. But when you break down this number of 3,100 complaints, only 228 of those were filed against presidential candidates. A number were filed against election workers themselves. And then there were also provincial council elections going on simultaneously, a lot of complaints filed against them. So it's still going to take awhile to really assess what the nature of the complaints are, whether this is systematic fraud.
CARBERRYCertainly, again, there are plenty of anecdotes already of cases of local power brokers who were stuffing ballots, who were directing people to vote for one candidate or another, of polling places where, again, people were prevented from voting and ballots were being stuffed. So the real question is going to be is how well the election complaints commission does in adjudicating this and if it does it in a transparent way and they basically excise the fraud that's reported, and people feel at the end of that, it's a credible process, then that's the outcome people want.
CARBERRYI mean, everyone knows there's going to be fraud in an election here. The question is how well is it handled and at the end of the day, do people accept the final results after the fraud has been adjudicated?
NNAMDISean, let's look at the two candidates who appear to be headed for a runoff. You mentioned Abdullah Abdullah. He's an ophthalmologist who challenged Hamid Karzai in the last election, but dropped out after the first round to protest what he saw as massive fraud. Ashraf Ghani is a former World Bank official who taught at American universities and gave up his U.S. passport to fun for president in the last election. Are Afghans optimistic about their future under one of these two leaders, in your view?
CARBERRYWell, part of that can be answered by the fact that they seem to be the top two vote getters. So, you know, there seems to be strong support for the two of them. They have long been viewed as credible figures here. They both have support in different segments of society here for different reasons. Again, Ashraf Ghani is viewed as a technocrat, someone people think will have a better handle on policy, be able to do more with the economy and other issues.
CARBERRYAbdullah is a revered figure this time as part of the Northern Alliance, the (unintelligible) Taliban military group essentially. And again, also viewed as someone who is credible, educated. So, you know, they both seem to be viewed as strong choices. When you get down into some of the ethnic and tribal politics and you're from this place, you're from that place, you get into some divisions and animosities. But certainly most people would be able to live with either one of them.
NNAMDIAli Latifi, despite a lot of enthusiasm about the elections, some people were uninspired by the candidates who they thought apparently represented the past more than they do the future. What did you hear from people who did not have a clear favorite in this face or people who decided not to vote?
LATIFIThat was exactly what they said basically. You know, they were saying that, for instance, how am I going to choose between politicians who are a part of this past government that they see as being complacent in corruption and bribery and theft and things like that or whether they were presidential candidates or vice-presidential candidates who were involved in the civil war who were seen as (unintelligible) .
LATIFITo them -- to these people -- because basically when you talk to people, you get one of two extremes, rather people who came to a decision and when they came to a decision, like Sean said, they generally supported Abdullah Adullah or Dr. Ashraf Ghani. The ones that didn't support anyone, that hadn't come to a decision, most of them had this sort of feeling of, how can I support anyone who was either involved in the civil war and the destruction of Kabul or who was complacent -- in their eyes complacent in the fraud and the corruption of this previous government.
LATIFIAnd that was the feeling that was really hard for people to let go of. And, you know, I would've thought it would've just been a statement that was said in passing if I didn't hear it right up until the end. And even after that among people, some who voted and tried to choose the sort of (unintelligible) option and some who didn't vote at all. But this was a sentiment that I saw from even before official registration until today.
NNAMDIAli, in the last two presidential elections, everyone knew that the only possible outcome was that Hamid Karzai would win. This time that's not going to happen. How did that affect the way that Afghans approached this election and their sense of a bigger purpose for the future of the country, if you will?
LATIFII think that had -- I mean, we can't say exactly how much of a role it had but it definitely had a role in people's decision. Because in the last two elections you felt like no matter what there was a known entity, and whether it was the best possible outcome for you or the worst possible outcome, you knew that Hamid Karzai stood a chance at being the president of the country. But in this case, you have a few things happening at once. You have the end of Karzai's term and you also have the end of (unintelligible) presence in Afghanistan, which means taking more of a control of the country.
LATIFIAnd at the same time you have, you know, just a few weeks prior to this election (unintelligible) which saw (unintelligible) family who was out having basically New Year's Eve -- Persian New Year dinner at this arena getting shot by Taliban. And I think that also had a big -- that also had an impact on people because there were several people that I had spoken to that said they weren't intending to vote. And then when I saw their fingers the next day, they said that that was one of the reasons. And they saw that -- they were reminded of what a return of the Taliban regime might mean to them.
LATIFISo several factors in one that I think -- yeah.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Abdul in Washington, D.C. Abdul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ABDULHello, Kojo, and hello to you panel. My question was that despite all the issue we have with Pakistan, all the evidence that they have trained Taliban and al-Qaida in that work and they kept Osama for all these years. And despite all that, that America knows where it is the enemies be trained and who's running what, who's double standard. And America's given $7 billion society's aid to Pakistan. That was their business. Now, they're going to give all the equipment that the soldiers are going to leave Afghanistan, they give all the equipment to Pakistan.
NNAMDISo the point you're making, Abdul, is that it really doesn't matter who wins or who loses this election in Afghanistan, that Afghanistan's future, as far as you are concerned, is going to be decided by Pakistan?
ABDULMy question is -- Pakistan cannot fight the Afghans. Afghans -- if Pakistan miscalculates Afghan history, it's making a big mistake. My question is about the Americans. The Americans know who is the enemy. Why to stop it or decide which side you on.
NNAMDII don't know that that became an issue at all in the Afghanistan elections. Sean Carberry, was it raised at all in terms of the U.S. pullout?
CARBERRYWell, this -- I mean, certainly this line of thinking that Pakistan is the problem and the U.S. is focused on the wrong country, that's been part of President Karzai's criticism of the U.S. for years at this point, saying that instead of killing innocent afghans they should be going after terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. So, I mean, there's always sort of a Pakistan element that's hovering. There were beliefs that Pakistan had been closing its religious schools in the run up to the election to basically allow militants to flood into Afghanistan to disrupt the election.
CARBERRYBut it was not necessarily a huge present factor in the campaign rallies or debates. One point though that the caller commented about, the U.S. leaving equipment to Pakistan after it pulls out. That is actually not happening. That had been circulating around but the U.S. military has made several statements recently saying they are not handing over surplus equipment to Pakistan when they leave here.
NNAMDISean, remind us of the process for counting the ballots in this election. When can we expect the official results?
CARBERRYThe official official results will actually be May 14. Three's several steps in between now and then. They're still collecting the tally sheets. They counted the votes after the polls closed on Saturday night. those tally sheets are basically making their way to a center in Kabul where they'll be entered and collated. And on April 24 they should be releasing the preliminary count. And then after that there'll be a period of challenge and adjudicating fraud. And then again May 14 is when the final results are known.
CARBERRYSo it's sort of a, you know, very anticlimactic delayed gratification situation that you have this election that people were feeling very positive about, and it's really not going to be known definitively for more than a month from now.
NNAMDIThis question for both of you but Ali Latifi, I'll start with you. If there is a runoff, when would it be held and what's the likelihood at this point that both Afghans and the rest of the world will consider this election to have been free and fair?
LATIFICan you repeat the question, Kojo?
NNAMDIIf there's a runoff, when is it likely to be held? And what's the possibility, probability, what's the likelihood that both Afghans and the rest of the world will consider this election to have been free and fair?
LATIFIIf there is a runoff, if I have my dates correct it should be towards the end of May. As for whether people will see it free or fair, I think that will come into fruition where that will be more clear as the process of adjudication goes on. But the impact of if there is widespread fraud, especially amongst the presidential candidates, and it is worrying that out of 3,100 claims, over 700 remain against the independent election commission itself.
LATIFIBut the one thing is, when I spoke to people waiting outside registration centers to get their voter cards, the one thing they said was basically, you know, to spend hours, some days or months waiting for voter cards, the one thing that would make their role basically worthless is fraud. And many were saying basically if there is fraud, no (word?) should ever come out to vote again.
LATIFISo whether they'll end up seeing it free and fair, that's a part of this long process. But the price of fraud this time could be very high because no -- a huge number of people came out. And for them, you know, as Sean said, it is sort of anticlimactic but at the end of the day just that very active voting carried a lot of weight with it. And now if there does turn out to be enough fraud that -- or a lot of fraud, it will definitely disenchant people for future elections.
NNAMDISean Carberry, same question to you.
CARBERRYYeah, in terms of the runoff it is technically scheduled for the end of May but most western officials I've spoken to have said they think it's highly unlikely it could be pulled off that quickly. So more likely in June which would push the final results to July, August timeframe of knowing who the ultimate winner is.
CARBERRYIn terms of the free and fair question, you know, there was sort of this paradox going into the vote that a lot of Afghans were saying, this is (unintelligible) election. They want to vote (unintelligible) to count, but also (unintelligible) survey released. And surveys here, you have to kind of take a little bit with a grain of salt. But people were overwhelmingly saying they have less confidence this election would be free and fair than past elections.
CARBERRYSo people were coming in with this sort of mix of optimism about voting for a new president, its skepticism about the process and how well it would go. So again, as Ali said, a lot of it now is in the hands of the electoral complaints commission and how well they handle the fraud that, you know, everyone knows took place on some level. And if it's dealt with reasonably people will probably find it acceptable.
CARBERRYAnd that's been the line of the international community as well. You know, this time the international community doesn't want to be accused of meddling, of backing any single candidate. So they've said they just want the election to be acceptable to the Afghan people.
NNAMDISean Carberry is Kabul correspondent for NPR. Ali Latifi is a freelance journalist in Kabul. Thank you both for joining us. We're going to be taking a short break. When we come back, Metro's Silver Line. Tomorrow is a big deadline for it. We'll talk about what that deadline is and why it's important with WAMU 88.5 transportation reporter Martin Di Caro. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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