KABUL-- The young woman from Kandahar sat with me in the office of an independent monitoring group two days before Afghanistan's August 20th presidential election. Halima had defied her family and threats from neighbors in the tumultuous southern region to work as an election observer and to vote. "It's in our destiny to take our rights," she said. "We should not be scared of anything."
Halima was keenly aware of the serious security risks many Afghans, particularly women, faced in voting in places such as Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. Still, she and her colleagues at Afghanistan's Free and Fair Election Foundation (FEFA) continued to express hope that these elections would be better than the last round of balloting in 2005-a contest marred by intimidation, attacks against women candidates and voters, deal-making and fraud. Halima was hopeful that this time around, the Afghan government and its international backers would honor their promises to make women's participation a priority-and take the steps necessary to help women vote.
No one thought it would be easy. Eight years after the fall of the Taliban, cultural obstacles are still preventing women from getting an education, working outside the home, or traveling in public without a male relative-let alone cast their votes at the ballot box.
Still, barely a month after the election, with provisional results that show President Hamid Karzai ahead with 54 percent of the vote and reports of widespread fraud, Halima and many other Afghans who risked their lives to vote have seen their hopes sorely tested. Though much damage has been done, there is still time for the United States and other international allies to step in and address the reports of fraud and increasing violence that have made determining the final outcome so difficult-for the sake of Halima and so many others like her.
I went to Afghanistan as a volunteer to join the thousands of Afghan election monitors this group sent across the country. Our goal was to track the election as impartial observers. As we gathered at 6 in the morning on Election Day at FEFA's office in Kabul, it quickly became clear that things were turning very violent. Observers were already reporting IEDs exploding in parts of Kabul, Kandahar and other cities. Polling centers in several parts of the country were being hit by rocket and mortar attacks. When FEFA observers from Kunduz called in, we heard rockets in the background. As a result, some polling centers did not open, opened late, or had their locations changed at the last minute.
At around 11 o'clock, I got in a car with a young female observer and a driver. We went to three nearby polling centers in a residential part of Kabul. Located in bare classrooms in rundown schools guarded by bored police officers, the women's polling stations were eerily quiet; there were more election staff on hand than voters. The men's stations were somewhat busier. The election staff at each location greeted us warmly (the female staff shyly), showing us the ballots, voters list and secured ballot boxes. In the time we were at the stations, though, I saw only six people vote-five men and only one woman.
Around 1 p.m., other FEFA observers called in to tell us how the balloting was going. We were sickened when two observers said they had witnessed the gruesome spectacle of Taliban militants cutting off the ink-stained fingers of two voters outside a polling center in Kandahar province. Throughout the day, reports surfaced of election-related killings, intimidation, Taliban blocking main roads to stop people from voting--and gunfights between competing candidates and their supporters.
We heard multiple reports of proxy and under-age voting and ballot stuffing, and bias by Independent Election Commission staff. By 5 p.m., when the polls closed, fears that turnout would be low were being confirmed in many places. FEFA observers reported that hundreds of women's polling stations never opened. We learned that not enough female election staff could be found; many couldn't get to polls due to insecurity, intimidation or risk of attack especially in rural areas. In some polling sites only elderly men and mullahs were available to do women's body checks--an unacceptable option that prevented many women from casting their vote.
FEFA observers somberly assessed their findings late into the evening-even as senior U.S. officials and the UN's Afghanistan chief began pronouncing the elections a success. Soon after, the full extent of the violence and the scope of the reports of serious flaws in the election process were becoming clear.
What went wrong? Among the biggest problems was the Afghan government's decision in the summer of 2008 not to proceed with a national census. This meant that getting an accurate voters' registry was impossible, paving the way for fraud. The dismantling of the election machinery after the 2005 elections also damaged the cause. (One can only hope lessons that lessons are learned, and preparations-including a census-for the next elections begin immediately). Another major factor undermining the credibility of the elections and contributing to low voter turnout was the pre-election deals President Karzai made with warlords to secure blocks of votes.
"Why should I vote when the result is known and the warlords will win?" one election observer told me.
Fingers were chopped off. Government officials were killed. Ballot boxes were stolen by the Taliban. And yes, millions of women couldn't vote. To prevent such tragic problems from recurring, Afghan and NATO security forces should plan much earlier for election security and make it a priority, especially for women. They should establish and secure polling sites and begin sustainable relations with local communities in volatile areas far in advance of Election Day.
Can this election be salvaged? The international community and the Afghan government should make sure that the election process is completed and that no deals are cut that would subvert the process. They need to insist that from here on in, at least, officials meet international election standards. Many are looking to the small and under-resourced Electoral Complaints Commission to investigate and adjudicate some 2,000 complaints, including 700 priority cases it says could impact the final results. The commission has already ordered recounts and audits in some places. It is no help that the head of the country's Independent Election Commission-who has been openly supportive of President Karzai-has dismissed the possibility that these priority complaints are sufficient to sway the election results.
The Afghan government, the U.S., the UN and the European Union should do everything possible to ensure that the electoral bodies have the resources and political space to complete their crucial work. The international community needs to be honest and open about what they know went wrong, give the Complaints Commission enough time to conduct full investigations and issue rulings, and ensure close scrutiny of the Election Commission's tallying and announcement of final results.
And the authorities should take special steps to ensure women feel better enfranchised. One small but important move in this direction: working to recruit greater numbers of female election staffers, who can do security checks of women voters at polling stations.
Only then might Halima-whose name I changed for her protection-and the many Afghans who risked their lives to vote, be able to consider these polls a meaningful step in their quest to build a society respectful of human rights.
Georgette Gagnon is the Africa director at Human Rights Watch and a former U.N. judicial adviser in Afghanistan.