On election day, a pack of bone-thin, restless dogs wandered into the main polling center in Sheikhabad, a town in Afghanistan’s Wardak Province. A pair of Afghan policemen tried to chase them away, but the determined bunch kept returning, looking for a shady redoubt from the morning sun. Eventually the police relented, and the dogs settled down for a nap.
The canines were the only visitors there for hours—not a single person had come to vote. On the day of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections, meant to determine the makeup of one of the country’s few remaining independent government institutions, most of Wardak’s polling centers were empty, filled only with policemen and corrupt government officials.
Wardak, a region of craggy hills and broad valleys, is typical of many rural Pashtun parts of the country, where large swathes of territory have fallen under Taliban control. The Taliban forbid the population to vote, and the Afghan government and the foreign forces lack the ability to displace the insurgents’ writ, effectively disenfranchising the majority of the Pashtun population.
From the moment I arrived in Wardak, it seemed clear that the authorities were desperate to avoid the very embarrassment of a low turnout that was unfolding before me. Early in the morning I visited the capital, Maydan Shahr, a sleepy town of a few thousand, made up of a couple of stall-lined streets and a sprawling governor’s compound. Inside the polling center, nearly a hundred young men stood in a densely-packed row, waiting for their chance to vote. Almost all were Hazaras, a minority ethnic group in Wardak, whose members, at least on this day, appeared to favor tight jeans and oiled hair.
I approached one who was wearing a Playboy t-shirt and asked him why he was voting. “I want to choose someone to represent me and my community,” he said. “It’s how we can help our country.”
He told me he lived in town, as did many of his friends. As I spoke to a number of people, they gave similar tales. But their answers bothered me, because Maydan Shahr has a minuscule Hazara population and no one there wears jeans. I left the polling center and went to the parking lot, where scores of colorful buses, with psychedelic swirls and German lettering emblazoned across the sides, were idling. From the drivers and later from U.N. officials I learned the true story: Hazara candidates had printed thousands of forged identification documents, distributed them to Hazaras from Kabul so they could claim residence in Wardak and register to vote there, and then on election day paid for hundreds of them to pose as locals and cast ballots.
Unable to locate any actual voters from Wardak, I decided to move further south. Traveling in a Toyota Town Ace minivan, which Afghans typically use as a shared taxi, with a full beard and in local clothes, I was taken for an Afghan by the other passengers. Our vehicle sped past rolling moorlands and scrub, punctuated by mud-walled houses and goat herders. Along the roadside were the relics of war: police vehicles split in two from rocket attacks, the charred remains of fuel tankers meant to supply foreign forces, shards of glass from smashed windshields, and craters from roadside bombs.
Upon reaching Saydabad, an area almost entirely outside the control of the Afghan government, we saw deserted streets. I visited more polling centers, only to find them abandoned. When I arrived at a polling station in the Desht-e-Top area, a lone campaign aide for one of the candidates was sitting outside. The windows were boarded up, no one was allowed inside. The police officers blithely told me that the voting was over and the workers inside were “busy”—this, two hours into the polling day.
Suddenly a group of white Toyota pickups, with armed men stuffed in the back, sped towards the center and screeched to a stop near the door. The gunmen, part of a pro-government militia, forced their way into the center and removed the poll workers. They tied their hands behind their backs with scarves and forced them to kneel on the ground. “Who are you working for?” one shouted. The terrified men hung their heads and claimed innocence. After further threats, one man admitted that he was paid by Wahed Kalimzai, a local strongman and leading candidate.
As he spoke, a rocket slammed into the ground a little more than 100 feet from us, causing a number of people to run for cover. Minutes later another rocket exploded. Later I found out that it had hit the house of a civilian named Mudir Janaan, killing his son and injuring his daughter-in-law. However, both the government and the foreign forces denied that insurgents had fired rockets in the area, leaving Janaan’s family to the growing list of unrecognized victims of this war.
The militiamen took the captured men to a nearby field, leaving one behind at the polling center in case anyone decided to come to vote. Unsurprisingly, no one did. So I interviewed the poll worker. He and other workers had been paid 200 dollars each to stuff the ballots in Kalimzai’s favor, he said.
I recognized the head militiaman who had detained the poll workers. He was an ex-Taliban fighter now working on the government’s side, in particular for a rival candidate named Hajji Akhtaro. Akhtaro himself had orchestrated a massive effort to stuff ballots and was employing the militia to squeeze out rivals. Both Akharo and Kalimzai had gotten rich off contracts from the NATO coalition, and U.S. forces see them as key allies in the province.
The militiamen offered to take me to another polling site, and I boarded the minivan with the detainees, who by this point seemed, if anything, bemused at their own predicament. We disembarked in Sheikhabad, a dusty town with shuttered shops and empty oil cans scattered about. A clutch of U.S. military vehicles idled nearby; the gunner from one gave us a friendly wave, seemingly oblivious to the spectacle of plainclothes men marching detainees across the street at gunpoint. This polling center, too, was closed—the result of a brawl over who had the right to stuff ballots at the station. All that remained was blood-stained soil, scraps of clothing, and a few dazed men shuffling away from the center.
I called Roshanak Wardak, a friend and lawmaker who was running for reelection and lived around the corner. “Don’t come to my house,” she pleaded. “There are Taliban outside. I just got a visit from one and he demanded that I drop out of the race.” She believed that the Taliban fighter was paid by a rival candidate. As one of the few independent and non-corrupt candidates, she had no militias to defend her or corrupt election officials to stuff ballots in her name. “Just go back to Kabul,” she advised me. “If you are looking for voters, you are not going to find them here.”
She was right. As the day wore on, the militiamen disappeared, as did the U.S. military vehicles. The brawling supporters of the rival candidates went home. The town grew still. In a nearby ravine lay the bodies of two armed men—presumably Taliban—but no one had come to retrieve them.
By midday, a leathery, wrinkled old man approached and asked us to leave, for “people were coming to see us,” which was to say insurgents. We jumped aboard the minivan and sped toward Kabul. As we drove, a number of rockets struck villages on both sides of the road, spewing dirt and mud high in the air. As we neared the furrowed hills and ridges that mark the outskirts of Kabul, we heard the governor of Wardak on the radio. The elections in his province, he proclaimed, had been an overwhelming success.
Anand Gopal is an Afghanistan-based journalist who has covered the war for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor. His dispatches from the region can be found at anandgopal.com. He is currently working on a book about the Afghan war.