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September 15, 2005

Kabul Election Diary - S J Masty returns to Afghanistan

Posted by S. J. Masty

Afghanistan holds its first ever parliamentary elections on 18th September 2005. S J Masty, who spent many years in Afghanistan, returns to witness Afghan democracy - and warns that Western governments might not like the outcome.

Kabul, Afghanistan - September is always splendid in Kabul. The heat is off the summer, fat green grapes begin to arrive from Kandahar, and the kharbouza season reaches its climax.

These large, pale green, pointy melons, with opalescent flesh as white as moonstone, are the choice of melon connoisseurs and I prefer them even to the legendary Hama melons of Chinese Turkestan that one must cross a vast desert in order to taste. Those are good, but they are not kharbouza, and the best ones are picked sweet and fragile then lovingly borne over the Bridge of Doves (Pul-i-Khumri) from Baghlan and Samangan to the north. Pleasure is a prospect of the Kabul hills late of a summer's eve, a pot of green tea, a ripe kharbouza, and a volume of good Afghan poetry – ideally Jalalludin Balkhi or Jami. Add a buttery soft Andkhoi carpet to sit upon, plus one or two old Afghan friends and that is "paradise enow", as Omar Khayyam used to say.

The American version, called Casaba Melons, were renamed after a suburb of Kabul when their immigrant farmer guessed that no feringhee, no gringo, could wrap his clumsy tongue around the mellifluous word kharbouza. But the transplants taste like water for they travel poorly, and nowhere but in Afghanistan are they permitted to ripen so long on the vine. The gentle, North Afghan farmers must use stopwatches to pick them as late as possible.

Babur adored kharbouza, and the first great Moghul writes in his diary from Agra that, homesick, he called for a melon to be brought from Kabul and when he began to eat it "a strange thing happened to me and I began to weep". Judging by his masterful diary, The Baburnama, he was more interested in botany than booty, in art than artillery, but here was a great conqueror who wept over a melon, an emperor after my own heart. Today he rests in Kabul beneath a good, simple Muslim tomb, a mere headstone and footstone. No Edifice Complex for him, unlike his far less impressive descendants. Happily, the tomb and its garden are being faithfully restored.

Stand still in Kabul these days and people may plaster you with campaign posters. Afghanistan's first ever parliamentary elections come on 18th September, there are around 400 candidates standing in Kabul province alone. This presents interesting problems. Nationally, perhaps three quarters are illiterate, so how can voters identify so many candidates on the ballot?

As elsewhere in Asia, candidates are assigned symbols for easy identification - a silhouette of a bicycle or a paraffin lantern or a teapot. A journalist tells me that he saw one symbol that was clearly a beaver (the Canadian mammal) - a mystery for they are not native to Afghanistan so how would anyone recognise it? Perhaps the reporter saw a rehearsal ballot put together by puckish foreigners in the election commission, and he admits that may be true. But in order to assign 400 symbols to 400 candidates, the commissioners have doubled and trebled the selection.

Former warlord and monster, Abdul rab Rasool Sayyaf, standing for the flattened former royal resort of Paghman, was assigned not one or two, but three ewers as his symbol. His oddly boyish complexion, over a grey counterpane-sized beard that would make Osama quake with envy, is stuck on posters all over town. Presumably he financed his campaign with loot from his days as wartime hero of the CIA and the Saudi Wahabis. His ewers look to me like three lavatory jugs, and perhaps that is best left unsaid, but I say it anyway and the lads in the office erupt into giggles. Sayyaf is not the youth candidate.

There are political parties but they mean nothing. Neither do the candidates apart from one or two identifiable former warlords. But you can tell much from the portrait photographs on the posters. Some are women, from their 20s to late middle age, and that says a lot. I doubt that more than five percent of the candidates are women, but who expected the first parliamentary elections to be perfect? Besides, this gives the chaps a few years before the women figure out how it works and take over everything. Kabul women are like that. Viz Brother Kipling:

when you're wounded and lay on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains…
I managed emergency projects for Kabuli women for years, and they are a force to be reckoned with. And very charming and stylish too, just to put you off your guard.

The men have dressed to convey policy. Some are in full beard, Afghan pajamas and karakuli (astrakhan) hat – religious conservatives, probably Christian Right (well, maybe the Muslim equivalent). Then there are what disgusted Nigerians call beento's ("been to Oxfahrd!" "been to Amureeka!"), the Suits, often arrogant refugees-come-carpetbaggers, heavily subsidized to work in government after twenty years making pizzas in Las Vegas. Then there are the old-fashioned Kabuli middle-classes, earnest and clean-shaven in Soviet-cut jackets with or without the kipper tie – I'd probably vote for them. For the real Kabul-watchers, those in tell-tale Khalqi mustaches signify former commies. I once walked into a Washington DC bar, which I immediately recognised from the mustaches as being a hangout for the Afghan communist Khalq Party. Then I saw their black leather trousers and matching fishermen's caps, but the mustaches were right.

My favourite posters promote the eccentrics, mostly egomaniacs. One in a posh suit is bent in half, looking pained and probably constipated, with his index finger resting on his temple – The Thinker. Every time we pass one, my driver bursts into laughter. A bug-eyed fellow, looking as though he just swallowed a goldfish, wears a dark suit jacket over a tightly buttoned-up tunic collar. He's going for the tiny pro-Iran vote or I'm a camel's cousin.

Most Kabulis are uncertain whom they will vote for, mostly because the invaders wanted a lot of candidates as a show of support for democracy and now there are too many to make sense of. A bright and articulate former colleague, now a senior executive with a big UN agency, furrows her brow: her family voted for Hamid Karzai in the presidential elections but they may sit this one out. "What?" I ask, "and let Sayyaf get elected?" She doesn't know the candidates and is clearly reluctant to vote blind. Like much else done by the invaders, external appearances were the first concern.

What successful candidates will do once elected nobody knows, and the late, great anthropologist Louis Dupree, who knew more about Afghanistan than any foreigner then or since, warned that second-guessing Afghans was folly. But I'll try anyway.

Item: There is so much booze brought in by the gringos and their embassies that Kabuli bazaars are awash in the black market overflow. Drunkeness is now a problem, even with common people who never touched the stuff while the Soviets were here.

Item: Kabul airport staff are sick with upset. Again and again, American or ISAF soldiers, bringing in supplies, are asked to fill out a simple form (not even to pay duty). They rack their pistols, put them to the heads of the terrified officials, laugh and grind the paperwork under their heels. This happens a lot. An elderly official notes icily that: "these are the people here to help us develop administrative systems and rule of law".

Item: during Taleban days even foreigners could drive safely from Kabul to Kandahar even at night. Now travel is dangerous, kidnappings increase, and Kabul embassies frequently keep personnel locked in their homes for 24 hours or more at a time.

Item: I ask a security contractor why the Afghan Army has astronomical rates of defection - are they paid too little or too late? He explains that when a young soldier dies in an accident or in combat, and the body is shipped home to any one of nine Pushtoon provinces stretched from West to East, oftentimes the boy's family will leave his corpse unburied on the roadside, his eyes pecked by crows and his body torn by feral dogs. His parents will for the rest of their lives walk out the door past their son's bleaching, scattered bones because they are too angry and ashamed to bury him in ancestral ground. That is how much we invaders have become the core problem.

This is Greek drama, classical tragedy. It is the stuff of Homeric legend or the Old Testament, not the 21st Century. I remember the end of The Man Who Would Be King, when Danny Dravitt has been scratched by his bride, his blood revealing that he is not a god. By night in the village below we hear unearthly babbling and wailing and muffled groans. Danny tells Peachy Carnahan to load some mules with treasure and head for the border before daylight, but Peachy refuses to desert his old messmate. Next morning, the crowd comes for them. Crucified and finally cut down, Peachy staggers home through the mountains, blind and mad, clutching the severed head of Daniel Dravitt. What I heard from outside the fortified capitol was the faint babbling and wailing and muffled groans of humiliation, anger and resentment.

Inquisitive, desperate to be anyone's notion of modern, my delightful, beloved Kabulis embrace any change until the rest of the country jerks them back. King Amanullah's sweeping, fast-paced reforms cost him his job to religious reactionaries in 1928. Fifty years later, Kabul's urban ideologues brought communism and, less than two years later, the Soviet Red Army that spawned the mujahideen. Today Kabul is a carnival of campaign bumf.

Afghanistan's newly elected politicians will seek to position themselves ahead of the electorate, staking out positions that the rural majority can respect. If they follow the votes, they will drag their country to the right, banning booze, trumpeting nationalism. They will raise a stink about misspent foreign aid money squandered by the Pentagon's cronies through non-competitive bidding. They will become more strident and xenophobic, as Afghans always do in such circumstances, asserting their faith and their culture and their authority wherever they can, wherever the invaders permit. Women's issues will take a back seat. Western governments will not like it. Western journalists will raise a hue and cry. But the politicians might stop or delay something worse.
© s j masty 2005

S J Masty advises foreign governments on strategic communication.

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