The building where I very nearly died was itself a metaphor for the effort in Afghanistan. It was funded by USAID and its design evoked a much smaller and shoddier built White House. The painted concrete had soot stains from the wood-burning stoves, and in many places the concrete had crumbled off in chunks. Exposed rebar jutted from the roof. Most of the green-tinted windows were broken, and inside the building the distinct smell of human waste pervaded the hallways. Modern flush toilets are extremely uncommon in Afghanistan, and the traditional method of cleaning one’s self after defecating is to wipe with little pebbles, which are subsequently flushed down the commode to obvious long-term effects. Most humanitarian assistance projects don’t come with an instruction manual (or much in the way of follow-up), and as such they don’t last very long in a country so bereft of modern appliances. Two Afghan soldiers in a wooden shack guarded the building. They moved a single strand of razor wire when people were entering or exiting.
The meeting was held in the provincial headquarters of the Independent Election Commission, a group created by President Hamid Karzai to establish an unaffiliated civilian agency to manage the voting process. In truth, it was wholly corrupt and staffed with people hand selected for their ability to deliver votes en masse to Karzai. However, the role of the United States was solely to assist in the planning and logistical execution of the election. We’d get the ballots to the polling sites and get them back, or at least we’d help. We’d force our Afghan partners to create a tenable plan. We didn’t argue with who was appointed; the layers of allegiances and histories of past betrayals were wildly complex, and we weren’t anthropologists.
As my battalion’s elections representative, I attended the meeting with members of our provincial reconstruction team, a massively dysfunctional creation in which State Department representatives, USAID officials and a combined task force of Navy, Army and Air Force personnel try to reconstruct that which never existed to begin with. Primarily, it was the PRT’s job to finance and check up on locally constructed projects. The money came from the US government; their budget was in the tens of millions. Afghan construction companies vied for contracts to build schools, wells, police stations and clinics. However, with State Department representatives in their office and a direct line to the embassy, they had a vested interest in making the election look plausible.
Waiting inside were delegates from almost all of the twenty-one districts of the province. Another reminder of the social complexity of Pashtun tribesmen: each of the representatives was a leader in some capacity, and he wore his tribe’s regalia-colored turbans as tribal identifiers, like Scottish tartans. There was no air conditioning in the building, and the outside temperature was about ninety degrees. We drank piping hot tea and sweated profusely; the room stewing in body odor and the intense musk perfume of the traditional Afghan man. We were there to discuss polling sites. The unit that we replaced had assisted the IEC with voter registration in January, but very few people in the PRT or on our base as a whole had been there for that process. Their tours had ended, and the organizational experience went home with them. We had to figure out the logistics of the actual voting process ourselves. So, there I was, at age 24, trying to figure out how to run an election in Afghanistan.
There is a cultural oddity in that part of the world that obligates someone to issue the most inoffensive and serene report they can possibly give to a superior, even if it’s blatantly or uproariously false. Nobody wanted to admit to trouble. If we had just said hello and closed the meeting after introductions, no one would have complained. Every district representative told us that there were no security problems in their district. The election officials told us that they had surveyed every polling site themselves and that they were all acceptable. It should have been a great election. It was only after a pointed discussion with the PRT commander, a career Navy officer, that the elders and representatives began to confess that yes, some of the villages were not safe for polling.
My battalion commander wanted to be sure, so he ordered that every company conduct reconnaissance of every site that was listed by the IEC. In our portion of the province, it amounted to well over three hundred sites. It took only a few days to realize how poorly prepared a list it actually was. Pashto is written in a version of the Arabic alphabet (which reads from right to left), and as such many of the numerical grid coordinates for the sites were reversed. Almost all were incorrect. Some of them led to empty fields. Some of them led to abandoned qalats or sleepy villages where the elders had no idea that an election was going to take place in their backyard. All of the sites were from a list created and supposedly used for the first Afghan election in 2005. The list was recycled with no changes made to reflect the enormous loss of security that had taken place in four years, and no follow-up visits to the site had taken place. Many villages in Afghanistan do not have formal names, just as many Afghans do not have any semblance of a last name. Many villages had the same name. No Afghan working for the IEC had been to these sites; they were just feeding the UN and UN Assistance Mission Afghanistan information because, to the functionary or bureaucrat holed up in a fortress in Kabul, they looked organized. The joke was on us.
Had we been present at the polling sites during the election, it might have remedied some of these issues. However, the entire concept of the election hinged on US forces remaining on the back burner except in the case of a mortal emergency. If the US and NATO forces were posted at every polling station in the country, it would smack of a US-controlled election. So, the Afghan National Security Forces would watch over each polling site. The Independent Election Commission would ensure that the ballots were fairly distributed, collected and counted. US forces would be held back. International observers would visit nearby sites if security allowed. Election materials would be flown from Kabul to the nearest large airfield, and from there would be driven across the province.
The ballots couldn’t leave until two days prior to election day, so they would be driven across hundreds of kilometers of unmapped, unpaved roads, across mined culverts, insurgent ambushes, across the moonlike landscape of barren hills stripped of trees long ago, arriving perfectly on time for voting before being driven right back. It was an absurd plan; it would take weeks to drive back and forth, and scores of people would die in the process if it were allowed to go forward. The only reason it had gotten approved was the fact that the only western agencies that had seen it were affiliated with the UN, and as such were confined to Kabul or Gardez, cities that are light-years ahead of the rest of the country in terms of development. The plan was made and approved by people who had never laid eyes on rural southeastern Afghanistan.
Mercifully, we convinced the Afghans to let us fly election materials to the various district centers in the province and only truck them locally. We couldn’t get military aviation to support us, but we were able to secure a significant amount of help from Presidential Air, a contracted civilian company working for the military. It is a subsidiary of Blackwater Worldwide.
I couldn’t help but laugh one day on a dusty landing zone as I helped to load tables, chairs and sealed blue boxes of ballots onto a helicopter for delivery to some forlorn corner: here was a company owned by an anti-Muslim fanatic, famous for horrific crimes against civilians in Iraq, a company whose porcine employees I had seen in photos with cool-guy beards and tattoos on their necks reading INFIDEL in Arabic, and yet a company that managed to salvage our piece of the election and undoubtedly save the lives of many Muslim Afghans who would have died trying to drive the ballots across the wasteland. It seemed unreal.
At my battalion commander’s request, we held a two-day conference the week before election day to determine once and for all which sites were too dangerous to use. It took furious pressure on the part of our provincial governor, but we were able to get representatives to discuss their districts at length. Presidential Air would fly almost anywhere, and they brought us delegates from every district. For the first time, a plan emerged.
Two soldiers from my battalion died in the days before the election when their vehicle struck an IED. They were driving in a convoy to help escort election materials to a polling site in an area so hostile to the central government that the district center had been burned to the ground and all government forces chased out. They weren’t even supposed to be in that area—the conference had determined that it was too dangerous, and the sites were cancelled—but the local representative for the IEC was adamant that the site stay open (despite what had been said earlier). So, gritting their teeth, they drove out there. The IEC representative later claimed that nobody had told him that the site was cancelled.
On election day, a huge firefight between Pashtun tribesmen who had volunteered to support the election and an insurgent group left at least eight people dead in the north of our province. Some sites were hopeful: some had such overwhelming turnout that they had to deploy the Afghan National Army to help with crowd control. Others were virtually abandoned. In some locations, a few women came to vote. In most others, the male voters attempted to vote for their wives, who were not even present to argue the point. No polling sites were overrun. It was an enormously stressful day, but after the previous night’s events, I was just thankful to be alive.
Election representatives were called “district field coordinators,” and the Afghans’ plan stated that each polling site needed at least one coordinator. A group of seven men from the southernmost area of our province (along the Pakistani border) had attended, and now they needed only to return. Their Presidential Airways flight was scheduled to leave at 1 a.m., so I told them I would come back to the IEC compound at 11 p.m. to pick them up. It was only a five-minute walk from our staging area inside the governor’s compound, and only maybe ten meters of it was “outside the wire.” You walked out the police gate, took a right hand turn and arrived at the IEC gate. My interpreter and I left the police gate. I was carrying my assault rifle, and as we told the police guard we were departing for the adjacent compound, he recommended that we bring one of his soldiers along. We accepted.
My interpreter and I were speaking in audible voices as we walked. We didn’t want to startle the guards at the IEC compound. We walked to their little shack, and as soon as we turned towards the building, they screamed “DREESH!” and pulled back the bolts of their AK-47’s to chamber rounds. It meant “halt” in Persian. My interpreter told them we were friendly, and they were shouting back in Persian, “What’s the fucking password?” Over and over again, “What’s the fucking password?” The guard started counting down in Persian. He was going to shoot us. I had my rifle low but my finger was on the safety. He reached the number two, and something about his accent indicated to the policeman that we had brought along that he was Uzbek. Coincidentally, so was this policeman. He very quickly told him in the Uzbek language that we were coalition soldiers, that I was an American, that we had come from the police headquarters. They lowered their rifles and let us indoors.
The IEC official was surprised to see us. Their guests, he told us, were staying in a guest lodge inside the governor’s compound awaiting their flight. “I’m surprised nobody told you,” he said. We laughed politely.