Kabul-Watching the presidential elections here last Saturday was an exciting, exhilarating and frustrating assignment. Exciting and exhilarating because on election day, Afghan men and women turned out by the millions to vote, while Afghan election officials in 25,000 polling stations showed themselves capable of conducting a peaceful, nationwide, universal suffrage election -- something unprecedented in this country.
But it was also frustrating because, while the Afghan people did everything right, the international community again failed to keep up its side of the bargain. Failure to provide adequate security before the elections, and poor preparation for the elections themselves, managed to mar the otherwise flawless performance of the Afghan people.
The immediate problem was that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark the left thumbs of voters in order to prevent multiple voting proved to be not so indelible. There had been widespread reports of multiple registrations for voting cards before the elections, and the United Nations and the U.N./Afghan Joint Election Monitoring Body had described the indelible ink as the last line of defense against massive fraud.
Well, pretty soon after our small Human Rights Watch team began visiting polling stations in the mountainous provinces north of Kabul, it became clear that voters could easily rub off the ink and thus theoretically go back to vote again (assuming they had more than one registration card).
As we checked in with other observers around the country and tuned in to news reports, it became apparent that this was a real fiasco. Fifteen of the candidates (the entire field, except for the front-runner, President Hamid Karzai) called the elections fraudulent and asked their followers to boycott them.
Most local and international observers replied that these candidates were just waiting for an opportunity to cry foul. Many of the candidates had already called for the elections to be postponed, and had raised cries of fraud weeks ago. The matter of the all-too-delible ink landed in their laps like a gift.
There is a lot of agreement here that the candidates had every reason, in principle, to complain about the ink problem. But the call for the election to be stopped, in the middle of the day, only led to more confusion.
Without question, this was a wonderful day for Afghans and Afghanistan. But for the international community, this has to be viewed as a major flop.
The ink snafu reflected the last- minute nature of the preparations for these elections. Although the voting timetable had been established at the Bonn Conference that created Afghanistan's post-Taliban government in December 2001, the international community was unable to provide resources in time to set up a sound electoral system.
The presidential elections were actually postponed for a couple of months, but that extra time was barely enough to get the elections off. Due to insufficient funding, most local election officials were only hired a few weeks before the election and only received rushed training.
While the elections officials seemed to have taken their training to heart, the 11th-hour nature of the preparations also meant that simple material problems, like the ink, were not addressed.
The problem with the ink, which grabbed most of the headlines, obscured the real shortcomings of the international effort. The confusion and cries of fraud could have been avoided if there had been enough independent international monitors to observe the elections. Such monitors are absolutely essential to establishing legitimacy in any post-conflict voting situation, but there were only 250 or so internationals monitoring Afghanistan.
The European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation for Europe, both of which have large teams of experienced election monitors, chose to send only skeletal crews. In part, this was because both groups knew beforehand that the elections would fall short of international standards.
But in large part the absence of international monitors betrayed the serious concerns about security. In this area, especially, the international community has performed poorly in Afghanistan. NATO, which has assumed the responsibility for peacekeeping in Afghanistan, has only about 8,000 troops here -- compared with about 40,000 troops in the Balkans, an area one-tenth the size of Afghanistan. U.S. forces dedicated to fighting the Taliban number about 18,000, but their mandate is not election security or defending human rights.
As a result, as documented by Human Rights Watch in two recent reports, most of Afghanistan is still under the rule of warlords and regional militias. Afghan women, especially, suffered from this intimidating atmosphere.
Long before the elections, Human Rights Watch had predicted that, aside from the Taliban's not very credible threat of disrupting the elections, things would proceed smoothly. We pointed out that most of the intimidation and political pressure took place before election day, and that the real test of the legitimacy of the vote was to see whether the next government would include as many warlords and human rights abusers as Karzai's current administration.
Unfortunately, the Afghan people's remarkable performance on election day poses a threat that the international community -- in particular the United States -- will take all the credit, declare the dawn of democracy in Afghanistan and scale back an already inadequate commitment here. These elections were undoubtedly a successful first step, but there is a long way to go before Afghans can live in peace and security.
The vote last Saturday should demonstrate again that the greatest resource in Afghanistan is the will of a population sick of warlords, opposed to fighting and generally grateful for international assistance. Their participation in the election did not happen because they felt more secure. It happened because they braved tremendous insecurity.
The success of the elections should motivate the international community, led by the United States, to redouble efforts in Afghanistan. As a new government takes shape, and as the country begins preparing for parliamentary elections that were delayed until next year, the world should reward the Afghan people with more international monitors, more peacekeepers, and vats and vats of indelible ink.
Saman Zarifi is deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Divi sion. He was part of Human Rights Watch's team in Afghanistan.