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Of ballots and bullets: Why the Afghanistan election was a victory of hope

PAKTYA, AFGHANISTAN -- All day Aug. 20 I was looking up. I kept expecting a rocket, mortar or spurt of small arms fire to pierce the brilliant blue sky.

But on election day, the air over Paktya, Afghanistan remained unexpectedly serene.

Paktya province lies along the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan, a region which largely remains an insurgent safe haven, and which was plagued by enemy attacks, propaganda and intimidation in the weeks leading up to the second presidential and parliamentary election in Afghanistan's history.

So those of us who worked here during those turbulent weeks were perhaps more relieved than anyone when the polls opened and closed in relative peace. And, on behalf of those personnel, the more than 3,000 Afghan National Security Forces members who diligently guarded the polling sites, and the tens of thousands of Paktya voters who risked their lives in the name of democracy, I feel obligated to say congratulations.

Because, despite the claims of international media, and amid rumors of fraud, corruption and low voter turnout, the election was a success.

Granted, it was not an easy road. Troop movements had to be coordinated among thousands of inexperienced security personnel. The distribution of thousands of ballots had to be facilitated from Kabul to Gardez, the provincial capital, then to each of Paktya's 13 districts, across difficult terrain and routes known to be hotspots for enemy ambush and improvised explosive devices. The population - largely inaccessible and largely illiterate - had to be educated on voting processes and procedures, and on information for 140 presidential and parliamentary candidates. One hundred seventy six polling sites had to be set up, staffed and secured, not only on election day, but for the following two days while ballots were counted and transported back to a long-term storage facility in Gardez.

All this coordination, though assisted by international forces, was for the first time an Afghan-led process.

It was not without incident, though. In late July, six suicide bombers initiated a complex attack near the governor's compound in Gardez, leaving five security personnel dead. The Taliban took credit, claiming the incident as an attempt to disrupt elections. The pre-election period was littered with other, smaller-scale attacks and widespread Taliban propaganda calling democracy an anti-Muslim affair, and "night letters" warning that anyone who voted would be killed. On election day itself, more than 80 attacks occurred across the province. But damage was minimal. In the battle of fear, the enemy suffered a decisive loss.

The enemy lost because the Afghan security forces did their job. Two suicide bombers on a motorcycle were killed by Afghan National Army soldiers before they reached their target. Three would-be rocket launchers were also stopped prior to deployment. Several district centers were successfully defended against attacks with no significant damage and no casualties. American forces stood by on the sidelines, ready to assist if they were needed. But they weren't.

The enemy lost because people voted. They voted in spite of the threats and in spite of the violence. In one of Paktya's more volatile districts, a rocket attack didn't deter voters; it merely delayed them while Afghan National Police secured the area. Ten minutes later, the voters returned to wait patiently in the long line outside the polling site, eager to have their voices heard after 30 years of forced silence.

Was the turnout low? Compared to 2004, perhaps. But given the security situation, so much more precarious now than five years ago, it was admirable. What percentage of Americans would vote under the threat of ambush, torture or murder?

The election wasn't perfect, and it wasn't America. But was it a victory for democracy? Absolutely. And more importantly, it was a victory of hope.

Hope that one day voters won't have to cover their faces for journalists' cameras, because they're afraid of reprisal if the Taliban recognize them from news broadcasts. Hope that in the future they can proudly display their ink-marked fingers without the fear of losing them to Taliban knives. Hope, for the women, that one day they will be able to freely vote for themselves, without their husbands escorting them to the polls. Hope that the next five years will bring increased safety, development of basic services, access to justice and a progressively viable economy.

There's still a long way to go, but in the wake of the successful election, I'm hopeful too.


(Editor's note: 1st Lt. Lauren Johnson is a member of the Paktya Provincial Reconstruction Team, a group of U.S. military members and civilians, which aims to strengthen governance and development throughout the province, and build local capacity through mentoring Afghan leaders and professionals. She is deployed from Hurlburt Field, Fla.)