The following article ran as part of an eight-part series by Jon Sawyer, originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 6-24, 2004.
In a parched mud-hut village, in a place where the wells have run dry and children gather for lessons under a tree for want of a school, what could a flimsy piece of laminated paper be worth?
Aside from a new clinic with no equipment and too few drugs, there's scant evidence locally of the benefits that many expected when the U.S.-led coalition drove the Taliban from power, in the fall of 2001, and mounting skepticism as to whether America truly intends to stay the course. Yet when a voter registration team showed up in Qatraghai on Tuesday, residents like Roman Walahjan, 70, lined up quickly to claim their share in the elections Afghanistan is gearing to hold this September.
Walahjan first showed his identification papers to the team that had set up an ad hoc processing center in one corner of the village's open-air mosque. Then he had his photograph taken, standing before a white sheet hung between two trees.
A thumbprint was taken for the back of the card and then both sides were laminated in plastic.
"We are very happy, supporting this process of elections," said Walahjan, the father of nine. "We want to bring peace to Afghanistan."
Those opposed to a peaceful Afghanistan, however, are looking at the process of elections, too. They are doing everything they can to disrupt the vote that has become a symbol of American efforts to launch one of the poorest and most bloodied countries of the world on a path to democratic prosperity.
The enemies of a peaceful transition have had some unexpected help - dawdling on promised election aid by the United States and other donor nations and a failure to do enough, in the view of critics, to create an environment secure enough so that elections can be completed.
Security concerns mount
On Sunday, a registration team was attacked on the road from Gardez to Khost. Two British security specialists assisting in the registration process were killed last month.
Nangrahar, the eastern province in which Qatraghai lies, is no exception to a violent trend.
Last month, an arsonist destroyed 10 jeeps that belonged to the U.N. effort. Another five had narrow near misses with roadside bombs. The police chief of Jalalabad, the provincial capital, was killed two weeks ago, when a bomb exploded under his office desk.
U.N. security officials say they permit international staff members to travel freely in only a quarter of the entire four-province eastern district. In Nangrahar, any international staff member who wants to venture more than five kilometers outside the city limits has to give 48 hours' advance notice, travel in multiple vehicles and arrange to be accompanied by an armed guard.
Election workers are jumpy, especially the foreign staff. They seize on every rumored attack and draw comparisons to places like East Timor, where the U.N.-sponsored elections process ended in violent shambles.
"It was always touch and go whether we'd be evacuated in East Timor, and it's the same here," said James Baird-Haddow, a British volunteer serving as the United Nations' provincial coordinator for Kunar, the border province just north of Nangrahar. He said 12 of the 14 Kunar districts have been closed to international staff members. Some 60 homemade bombs have been identified on the main road from Jalalabad to Assadabad, capital of Kunar, he said.
All this comes against the backdrop of a U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaign that appears to be heating up against al-Qaida and Taliban forces. Five Marines were wounded and 21 Taliban fighters were killed in a clash Tuesday in the southern province of Zabul, U.S. military spokesmen said. Some 450 people have died in fighting and election-related violence across Afghanistan this year.
The elections promised for September are twofold: a national ballot for the presidency and a separate vote on members of the 249-seat lower house of Parliament.
The parliamentary members are to be chosen by a vote of each of Afghanistan's provinces. District lines within the provinces have not yet been drawn; when that process is completed, hopefully next year, an upper house of Parliament will be chosen, with one-third appointed by elected district councils, one-third by provincial councils and one-third by the president.
There's plenty of skepticism about whether the interim government of President Hamid Karzai will be able to complete the many preconditions it has set for the elections - from selection of candidates to working out rules for access to the media and the financing of campaigns.
"None of that has been drafted, or signed off on," said Grant Kippen, country director for the National Democratic Institute, a publicly funded group affiliated with the Democratic Party that is working here with newly formed political parties.
"President Karzai keeps saying elections in September, but someone should give him a mathematics course," Kippen said. "It can't be done."
The United Nations, with prime responsibility for setting up the elections, is also concerned. Manuel de Silva, chief U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan, said this week that of $101 million in election aid promised by the United States and other donor nations, "there's not one penny in the bank."
At least $87 million of the total has to arrive by July 1, de Silva said, if the United Nations is to meet deadline for ordering everything from ballots to voting instructions that are essential if voting is to be held by the end of September.
Faroud Wardak, chair of the independent board established to oversee the elections, acknowledged that voter registration nationwide is so far averaging fewer than 60,000 per day, barely half the original U.N. projections. As of the beginning of this week, just over 3 million voters have registered out of a pool of about 10 million people believed eligible to vote.
Sign-ups in the south, southeast and east, the most vulnerable regions, are particularly problematic; the numbers there so far are just a quarter of the national total, he said, far below the region's population share.
Registration by women has improved in recent weeks but still lags far behind that of men, at 33.4 percent of total registration and as low as 23 percent in the south.
Wardak announced just this week, moreover, an agreement to take on another huge commitment - the registration of some 2 million to 3 million Afghan refugees still living in Pakistan and Iran.
Jeff Labovitz, project coordinator for the International Organization for Migration, the lead agency on the external registration, said that Pakistan alone will require the opening of some 300 registration stations and the hiring of several thousand staff members - all within the next 10 weeks.
"I've got to get to Pakistan," Labovitz said, "and figure out where we can get hand- held radios, satellite telephones and real estate."
An American official in Kabul, the Afghan capital, insisted that registration and the elections, while undeniably messy, will happen on time - and at the insistence of Afghans, not of political consultants in Washington looking to President George W. Bush's re-election bid in November.
"What we seek is less important than what the Afghans seek," said this official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. "Afghans want control of their own country."
On the ground, hope
Haji Din Mohammed, the genial governor of Nangrahar, plays down security concerns voiced by the United Nations and nongovernment agencies in the run-up to Afghanistan elections. He dismisses the recent wave of violence as the dark before an Afghan dawn.
"Going after a few vehicles, an individual here and there, that cannot stop the progress," he says, adding that if international staff members are nervous about venturing into his province's hinterlands, then the local staff is more than willing.
"We must participate, we must finish this process," Mohammed said. "The national staff knows the issues; they are familiar with the country. They must go and help their country."
Ahmed Omar, a provincial elections coordinator for the United Nations' Afghan office, said the number of women registering to vote is picking up in Nangrahar, to almost half the total in recent days, thanks to the recruiting of more female staff members and reaching out to local religious leaders to encourage participation.
"The mullahs don't hesitate to talk to women," Omar said, "and the women respond."
The mullahs and other local leaders also have made arrangements to set up registration centers for women in the privacy of their homes, Omar said, adding that in his view this made the process less intimidating to the great majority of Afghan women who rarely venture outside the home and only then in the full-body covering of a pale blue burqa.
If the elections do come off, no one pretends that Afghanistan's trials will be over - least of all the people in places like Qatraghai who live those trials every day.
"Why do we want to participate in this election process?" asked Malik Sartwor, the village elder. "Because for 30 years a lot of people have promised to build up Afghanistan, to serve us, and nobody has.
"We hope to give our vote to someone who will build us up, and meet our needs."