Afghanistan: Mobilizing for Democracy

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From the Fall Democracy Issue

By  James L. Creighton

URUZGAN, Afghanistan—Two days before Afghanistan’s election in September 2010, some 1,200 Afghans stormed a NATO coalition outpost named Firebase Mirwais on a hillside outside Chora in the central province of Uruzgan, where I was the senior military commander. Inside were 200 Afghan soldiers, supported by 60 Australian soldiers and a U.S.–Australian team devoted to reconstruction and development in the province. Soldiers watched from guard towers as the crowd breached the first of two 15-foot adobe walls, opened a storage container, and set fire to a stash of U.S. and coalition military uniforms.

A young American soldier manning a guard tower on the inner wall spotted one of the attackers with an AK-47 assault rifle. After gaining permission from his sergeant to engage the enemy threatening the base, he fired two shots, killing the assailant. Incensed, some in the crowd charged the inner gate. If the central areas of the base were breached, there could have been an enormous loss of life. The coalition soldiers would have been forced to defend themselves and prevent the protesters from seizing NATO weapons. But before that could happen, an Australian soldier fired several rounds at the gate with a .50-caliber machine gun. The crowd saw the sparks fly off the metal gate and heard the deafening report of the coalition’s most powerful machine gun. They immediately retreated and dispersed.

The crowd regrouped outside the military camp and headed for the Chora district central office a half-mile away. Mohammad Dawood Kahan, the district chief, was in his compound guarded by Afghan police. There, two or three other protesters were killed by Afghan officers as they tried to breach the governor’s walls. The crowd disbanded and went home soon after the fight. This ended the demonstrations for that day, but insurgent leaders were able to feed off the unrest and reassemble the following day.

Although some Taliban were present in Chora, most of the crowd consisted of local citizens who had been convinced by insurgents and local leaders that coalition soldiers were infidels who had no respect for their religion and beliefs. More than 7,500 miles away two months earlier, Terry Jones, an obscure pastor with a tiny congregation in Gainesville, Florida, declared he would burn dozens of Qurans to commemorate the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. In Afghanistan, that news emboldened local insurgents in a way that not only cost the lives of civilians in Chora but also threatened to derail plans for peaceful elections.

Elections in 2010 were actually conducted in a much smoother fashion than those in 2009. This was the result of improved capability of the Afghan Security Force, more trust between Afghan Security and coalition forces, and the general population’s feeling of security as they went to their polling stations. With the next national election due in 2014, the challenge is for Afghan authorities to plan, prepare, and conduct the balloting largely on their own. Coalition forces will only provide support from afar. This will not be easy. The first elections after the majority of our combat forces have gone will be the ultimate test of our success in planting a democratic system that can flourish in some quite fallow ground.

At this time, we had a close call that could have produced a very different outcome. Several local leaders and mullahs reported deep concerns that the election materials had been compromised and were no longer secure. This perception was confirmed by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) representative, who recommended that we bring in local and national media to verify security arrangements. We took that advice, bringing in a host of media representatives who filmed Governor Koday Rahim; General Juma Gul, the Chief of Police; General Zafar Khan, the Afghan National Army Commander; Brigadier General Zekrya, Provincial Director of the National Directorate of Security; as well as tribal leaders and myself inspecting the ballot box seals. We then held a joint press conference and sat for interviews with local television, print outlets, and multiple radio stations.  

This is precisely what the United States and coalition forces had been working toward—empowering Afghan leaders to take their country back after years of domination by outside forces or Taliban extremists and demonstrating that they were doing so openly and fairly.


Like so many Afghan provinces, Uruzgan is an ethnically, politically, and geographically diverse region. It is locked between two contrasting and at times contentious lands. To the north lies Day Kundi—an Afghan Switzerland with dramatic mountainous terrain and educated Hazara tribes who have transitioned to a peaceful way of life. To the south lies Kandahar Province, home to the city of the same name—a region dominated by Pashtuns—which, although drastically improved, is still plagued by violence. Uruzgan consists of seven different tribal groups who are at times united in support of government initiatives but more often are focused on tribal and village priorities rather than provincial or national issues.

As the 2010 election approached, the challenges of voting in Afghanistan had already become quite clear in the central planning offices for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul a year earlier. For the 2009 presidential election, the United Nations provided the military with lists of polling sites, but we received only part of the information, since the United Nations did not want to be seen working directly with any NATO military organizations. The IEC and the United Nations intentionally limited their coordination with Afghan and coalition security elements to ensure that the military did not have even the appearance of influencing the election results. Some of the 7,000 site locations the United Nations sent to ISAF were villages that did not exist, were in the middle of rivers and gorges, or were located outside Afghanistan—in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan. We attempted to conduct reconnaissance of the polling sites, but the security situation and remoteness of the locations precluded our doing so. We rehearsed actions required for a successful election with coalition and Afghan leaders, but much of the discussion was general in nature and not based on concrete data.

Some voting locations were accessible only by donkey, which did not go unnoticed by those hoping to disenfranchise voters. The Taliban and others sometimes simply killed the donkeys to prevent voting materials from arriving at polling stations. Once the central authorities heard of an irregularity or voter security problem, they had to find a way to send help, often over poor roads or foot trails, or by air to areas with hostile terrain and military threats.

In Afghanistan, you can’t just call up the local authorities to take care of a problem. In many cases, there is no one on the other end of the phone.

The NATO coalition was called in to play a supporting role, but many requested actions were either based on inaccurate information or came too late to have a real impact on an already difficult situation. The challenge for our coalition’s limited support elements was determining which calls for assistance were legitimate and which were inflated or false. Even for genuine claims, it was difficult to decide who had the authority to send in reinforcements or to determine whether the available forces were adequate for the task. The choices were all the more challenging because of exaggerated claims that the Taliban were attacking polling stations, murdering or slicing off fingers of Afghans who had the courage to vote and dip their right index finger in purple ink. These choices were made through tenuous coordination between an immature Afghan military command center and the ISAF operations center. The lack of properly defined authority to use forces, the absence of means of communications, inaccurate information from the field, and undeveloped coalition and Afghan decision-making processes led to staggering difficulties in reacting to calls for support in a timely and effective manner.


Power vacuums and ethnic rivalries often emboldened the Taliban in its efforts to weaken the government and undermine the elections. Neither the Afghan National Police nor the Afghan National Army nor the NATO forces were in control of large swathes of the country, which complicated the security challenges.

I experienced firsthand the efforts by terrorists to sabotage the August 2009 elections. Two days before the polls opened, I heard a massive explosion from my office in ISAF headquarters. A suicide bomber had driven his car to the front gate of the ISAF headquarters and detonated an 800-pound ammonium-nitrate-based bomb. Dust poured out of the roof of the building we were in. The ground shook, and glass in many of the buildings shattered. The ISAF operations center was in the middle of its daily update brief that continued uninterrupted. Everyone outside of the briefing was fleeing. Windows were broken 200 yards away. Accompanied by other soldiers and Marines, a fellow Army colonel and I ran against traffic to the front gate to investigate.

Macedonian troops, who had orders not to operate outside the gate of the base, were holding their position inside ISAF headquarter around an eight-foot diameter and three-foot-deep hole. The ground 100 yards from the blast was covered by an inch of leaves blown off 200-year-old oak trees nearby. The street outside ISAF was littered with the bodies of innocent Afghans killed or wounded by the bomb. Several cars were scattered around the road. They clearly had been lifted and burned, destroyed in the attack. The American embassy across the street was mostly undamaged, but the Ministry of Transportation was all but leveled and remained closed for more than a year afterward.  

When we arrived at the gate, our small party of colonels immediately set out to assist local first responders. From 8:15 to 10 that morning, we worked with Afghan ambulance crews—onsite within minutes—helping to rescue the wounded. We carried the maimed and bleeding survivors to the ambulances. Many of the wounded did not make it. I returned to my barracks covered in blood and threw my uniform away.

Just two days later, I was under another ancient oak just a few blocks away, leaves intact, working in the Afghan military’s equivalent of the Pentagon. The difference between the sprawling complex in Northern Virginia and the Afghan headquarters could not be more distinct. The unreliable communications inside the Afghan building forced Afghan military leaders outside where they sat around in circles drinking tea, eating watermelon, and fielding calls about voting irregularities on a plethora of personal cell phones. The phones, the more numerous the more important their owner, were ringing—each successive call bringing more requests for security back-up. In some cases, the Afghans could manage themselves. More often, the request called for air support, medical support, or combat reinforcement, which we would try to accommodate. Before the coalition could send anyone flying in to help, however, we had to determine what requests were authentic. From Farah in western Afghanistan, for instance, arrived a report of 500 Taliban insurgents at an election point, but we knew there weren’t 500 Taliban in the entire area. In other places, we got reports that would require a two-day journey by donkey.

Several of the most powerful Afghan military leaders were personally coordinating the 2009 election support efforts—duties usually handled by seasoned coalition mid-grade staff officers. Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak directed the Afghan National Army effort in coordination with the Minister of the Interior, Mohammad Hanif Atmar. Minister Wardak is still in office, with ties to the Karzai administration and multiple business relationships throughout Afghanistan. Minister Atmar, who is a capable administrator, fell out of favor with the Karzai administration but is still influential in Afghan politics. The former Tajik warlord, General Bushmullah Kahn Mohammadi (Chief of Staff of the Afghan Army) is a Tajik first but a proven supporter of the Afghan government. He went on to replace Minister Atmar as the Minister of the Interior in 2010 until his dismissal in August. Lieutenant General Sher Mohammad Karimi, chief of Afghan Army Operations, is a phenomenal soldier and respected leader who would be selected the new Chief of Staff of the Army in late 2010. The incorruptible Karimi somehow manages to survive on his monthly pay of less than $1,000. As a former Taliban prisoner of war, he loves his country and has dedicated his life to building a professional army that defends its people. All four of these leaders will be integral to successful elections in 2014, if they are able to remain in power, because of their leadership and experience in conducting security operations in support of national elections. 

Of the 7,000-plus polling sites, we never managed to locate or check more than 1,000. Based on those experiences, we realized that future elections would require some big changes and that even the best-laid plans could go wrong in this complex environment. There is no textbook for setting up elections in a mountainous, multiethnic country with pockets of insurgent violence and no history of real democracy. I took the lessons of 2009 with me to Uruzgan in 2010.


Uruzgan houses the home of Taliban leader Mullah Omar and his mosque. It is the province where President Karzai launched his bid for leadership in Afghanistan. The Taliban have committed numerous atrocities in each of Uruzgan’s six districts. Given the brutality of Taliban rule here, it’s no surprise they are overwhelmingly hated. But provincial and district governments have been unable to capitalize on this hatred as they themselves, though not as brutal, have stolen from villagers, favored one tribe over another, and acted out of self interest rather than in support of the people’s needs. Dutch and Australian support helped the government begin to provide value and service to their people. The subsequent multi-national support of the election process in 2010 became a critical element of the equation, working to reinforce good actors and serve as an honest broker among competing interests.

Having observed the national presidential election process from Kabul in 2009, a year later out in the field for the 2010 parliamentary elections, I was directly responsible for 77 polling sites in Day Kundi, Kandahar, and Uruzgan (a combined area the size of Maryland with a total population exceeding 500,000 people). But I had only 6,000 local Afghan and coalition forces at my disposal. We started planning as soon as I arrived, six weeks ahead of the election. We rehearsed coordination to prevent the sorts of problems I’d encountered in Kabul—especially medical evacuation plans in great detail. We worked hard to make sure Afghans were more involved in selecting polling places and physically validating each location. 

Our concept was to form three security rings around each polling site. The innermost ring would be manned by the Afghan Police. The second ring around villages where polling sites were located would be secured by the Afghan National Army. Coalition forces would form the third ring, providing general oversight in the form of helicopter and medical support, transportation backup, and communications and combat reinforcement as requested.

Just as protests against the threatened Quran burning were occupying our entire team three days before the election, I got a call to secure Kajran district, establish a polling site in Adozi in the northeast region of Uruzgan, and set up another in Kalatch in the southern part of Uruzgan’s Chora district. These requests from President Karzai’s government would improve voting opportunities for the area’s Pashtuns (Karzai’s tribe), who overwhelmingly support the president’s party in parliament. The dilemma for government officials, security forces, and any other support agencies is how to ensure legitimate elections when ordered to take actions that could tilt the results. The personal relationships between the local government and military officials as well as the trust built between the people and their government will help mitigate the impact. There needs to be open communication between local and national election officials in order to minimize attempts to influence election results by eliminating polling stations that are likely to vote for a specific candidate. The IEC also must have the authority and access to prevent vote
tampering at the polling sites.

Securing numerous polling stations in unfamiliar terrain was a dangerous mission. On September 16, with less than three days to prepare, new Afghan security forces supported by U.S. Special Forces flew medium-sized cargo helicopters supported by AH64 attack helicopters to Kajran district. The Kajran region is 25 miles north of Forward Operating Base Tinsley in the northwest region of Uruzgan where we had been fighting insurgents steadily over the previous year. It is a stretch of lush green valleys laid between jagged brown mountain peaks. We had not been to Kajran and had very little intelligence other than the understanding that it was a known drug production area that was generally secure. One of our concerns was a report from the provincial Chief of Police General Juma Gul, based on a letter from Taliban leader Mullah Omar, that the Taliban planned to increase attacks on coalition forces and civilians in the area. The letter reportedly encouraged his insurgents to disrupt and oppose the election by a variety of techniques—the infiltration of Afghan National Security Forces using fake identification, the delivery of “night letters” threatening local residents, and attacks on isolated locations.

In the first week of September, U.S. Special Forces of Task Force 34 linked up with Afghan election officials and a new platoon of some 40 Afghan soldiers who had arrived fresh from basic training in Kabul. These Afghan soldiers had just completed a movement from Kabul where they had lost two soldiers due to vehicle accidents and internal attacks. When the team landed in a field outside the village of Kajran, an insurgent who had enrolled in the Afghan Army immediately shot and killed Senior Airman Daniel Sanchez and wounded others. A loyal Afghan soldier turned his M240B, a belt-fed machine gun, on his fellow Afghan, killing the traitor who had just murdered the American airman. The election in Kajran proceeded as planned at the cost of Sanchez’s life.

Multiple requests for opening new polling stations began to arrive quickly. On September 16, the same day we were attempting to open a station in Kajran by air, the Afghan government ordered us to open an election polling site in Adozi in the northeast region of Uruzgan, 20 miles northeast of our closest Forward Operating Base. This required another airborne operation. We had not operated in the region since we fought a battle with insurgents there the previous spring. Our information regarding the enemy situation in Adozi was limited. Still, we felt that if we could get into the town, we could set up conditions for the Afghans to administer their election. But when we sent another team of U.S. Special Forces with Afghan election officials, Afghan National Security Forces, and a team in Chinook helicopters, locals crowded onto the small landing zone in what was then relatively unknown territory for the American troops, preventing them from landing. The helicopters decided to turn back rather than push the issue and potentially wound or kill Afghan civilians while attempting to land.

In late August, we were ordered to open polling sites in the southern Day Kundi district of Gizab. This region revolted against the Taliban in April 2010 and was viewed as a shining example of the potential of the Afghan people to overthrow the insurgents and create a stable life. Successful elections were important to demonstrate the ability of the Karzai administration to govern in this region. Opening these nine polling stations in mountains 120 miles north of Tarin Kowt and not connected by a secure road presented a unique set of challenges. Many of these sites could not be reached by vehicles and required donkeys to deliver materials and collect completed ballots. Communications with units delivering materials was not possible. These were primarily Afghan forces who did not have the equipment or training, and even if coalition forces were there, communication was difficult given the terrain and distance. The coalition had only nine Special Forces soldiers in Gizab, who coordinated with the only Afghan National Security Forces in the area—some 300 poorly trained Afghan police under the local police chief, Chief Lala Jan, who had led the uprising against the Taliban in April 2010. The U.S. Special Forces were able to coordinate with local elements and election forces to open these sites using the close relationships they had developed in the course of defeating the Taliban in the district. 

With many of the polling sites located in the jagged mountains of the Hindu Kush, we could not verify that all were under the control of Afghan forces. The polling material was secured centrally until the last minute. As a result, distribution to the isolated mountain villages presented a significant challenge. Plans for distribution had to be made weeks in advance. Most materials were delivered via a complex air support plan designed to get the materials, security forces, and election officials to their designated areas in time to execute a legitimate vote. Without the close coordination and support of the American military planes and helicopters, this election would have been impossible.


Much seemed to go better in 2010 than in 2009. The size of the Afghan National Security Forces had doubled, and the government had control of the major population centers and primary road systems. It was beginning to build trust between the provincial government and the outlying districts, villages, and tribal elders. Improvements in development, systems, and personnel helped cement the influence of the national and provincial governments. The government information campaign on the radio and during numerous Shuras in every district and many villages was also critical to the process of rebuilding ties between the people and its government that has been at war for 30 years.

Yet, numerous obstacles to a successful election remained. The military forces and the United Nations continued to have disagreements. Polling station locations, numbers, and priorities changed weekly, which made planning for security, delivery of election materials, election execution, and vote retrieval difficult. The requirement that all voters, including women, be searched, was a constant challenge. Most Afghan men do not allow their wives or daughters to work at polling sites, because they feel threatened by insurgent forces and don’t support women’s right to vote.

In our case in Uruzgan, we were fortunate that the key provincial official recognized the importance of close coordination with coalition forces. The threats on his life from warlords and insurgents, combined with his orders not to associate with coalition forces who were willing to protect him, put him in a precarious situation. An election official without the courage and integrity he displayed in Uruzgan could easily have derailed the 2010 election in that region.

The Karzai administration had disagreements with local governments over which polling stations to open. Kabul seemed more concerned with ensuring domination by Karzai’s Popalzai tribe—a Pashtun subgroup—while the provincial government and election officials were more interested in fair distribution of polling sites. The difficulty in determining where to place polling sites was compounded by the fact that the last census was conducted in 1974, so the information required to accurately identify population centers is highly inaccurate. Manipulating vote tallies at the national level is far easier if it’s impossible to determine if there are more votes than people in any given area. There were reports of overflowing ballot boxes being delivered from tiny villages. During the 2010 election, fewer polling sites were threatened, but targets seemed designed to discredit the votes from specific non-Pashtun tribal areas.

The Taliban worked to undermine the legitimacy of all pockets of emerging democracy in Afghanistan. They stirred up violence in Chora, infiltrated the Afghan National Army in Kajran, and threatened local election officials. The 2010 election represented the fourth national election in six years and was being held to elect parliamentarians (not the president), so voter apathy was a considerable concern. Voters remembered the violence and corruption associated with the 2009 presidential election, and many were hesitant to risk their lives to support an election that followed barely a year later.


The strength of local authorities who handled Uruzgan’s violent protests in 2010 was a clear indication of growing trust between the people and their government, which, on a local and national level will need to continue as NATO forces begin their drawdown. The success of the elections in Uruzgan highlights the value of strong partnerships between the Afghan government and Afghan security forces on one side and remaining coalition forces and the international community on the other. Despite many tribal, administrative, and insurgent obstacles, the detailed planning and preparation for the last election by local officials and international election and security elements ensured effective and efficient execution. Certainly, local governments are not perfect, but even corrupt police chiefs can be partners when they see cooperation in their interest. The coalition must be able to see the many shades of gray in dealing with local politicians if the officials’ effectiveness is to be maximized and their corruption mitigated. The coalition will also make mistakes, but as soldiers and civilians learn the local politics, they can work more effectively to empower Afghans and improve governing systems. In 2010, the combined team of Afghan and coalition civilians and soldiers successfully opened 71 of 77 polling sites located in remote districts of Day Kundi, Uruzgan, and Kandahar.

Although the people of Afghanistan were free to exercise their right to vote, what happened to those votes once they reached the national level brought to light another level of manipulation. Several polling stations in Kaz Uruzgan were unilaterally disqualified. There was no more corruption in these areas than in other locations. But at these spots the population was perceived as being unsupportive of the government, further tarnishing the government’s claims of legitimacy. Jan Mohammad Kahn, the one-eyed former Uruzgan governor and local warlord who had been forcibly removed from office, was seen as the ultimate election boss. The common belief was that he conspired with Afghan election officials to eliminate specific polling stations based on tribal affiliation. In the future, the IEC and coalition forces must retain the authority to closely monitor ballot counting in Kabul to curb elimination of valid votes based on tribal affiliation.

Over the course of the 2009 and 2010 election cycles, we learned lessons as to what does and does not work when supporting elections in developing nations. Unlike older democracies with more highly developed infrastructure and government officials who enjoy broad legitimacy, Afghanistan is a nascent democracy where reaching voters can require treacherous movement on foot over ancient roads. Motor vehicles and electricity are rare luxuries. Often frustrated, many of those charged with building a new Afghanistan have questioned whether democracy is even possible under these circumstances. There are real issues as to what kind of democracy can be expected in today’s Afghanistan and how the international community can help Afghans build it.

Of course, the nature of the international community’s presence will be drastically different as the coalition drawdown accelerates toward 2014. We’ve worked with a vast range of groups and multiple agendas—national authorities with their partisan interests, local elders often operating with bad information, and local authorities working to shore up their power. None is all good or all bad, and it’s our job to find ways to be on the good side and help Afghans build a stable country. We try to be honest brokers, but we bring, above all, capacity. The local and national governments on their own lack the basic supplies and equipment required to operate a fair and democratic election.

Our remarkable Afghan colleague at the IEC might never have been as effective without us. He repeatedly declined—in the interest of impartiality—offers to take refuge on the coalition base in the face of multiple death threats. Throughout, he knew we had his back.

The presidential elections coming in 2014 will have their own sets of challenges. Though two years away, there is much we can do now to ensure they are as legitimate as possible. The IEC and remaining coalition forces must work closely with the Afghan National Security Forces to validate polling stations at least six months prior to the election. The polling stations must be accurately screened by independent auditors to verify that they are tribally equitable and accurately located. Changes to this plan at the last minute must be held to a minimum. 

The Afghan National Security Forces performed admirably during the attacks leading up to the 2010 election and during the actual voting and post-election period. The coalition was able to provide helicopter, medical, and logistics support. In 2014, the Afghans will not have the capacity to deliver and retrieve election materials as effectively with existing forces, nor will they have the capability to reinforce critical areas with combat forces and logistics support at the same level. The coalition should plan on providing temporary helicopter and logistics support to augment Afghan capability for the election. The rehearsals and preparation for the 2010 election were much more detailed than for the 2009 voting. The coalition should maintain the capacity to assist the Afghans in planning and preparing for the election through detailed rehearsals and advanced reconnaissance. Afghan election officials should also plan on more ground movement. This will be more time consuming but—with improvements in security—should be possible in most of the 34 Afghan provinces.

The success of the election requires a perception by the people that it is in fact legitimate. By 2014, the government must earn the trust of its people. It must attack corruption at all levels. This has proven problematic to date. There are good leaders in Afghanistan who care about their people and are willing to serve them. The coalition must continue to use its influence (although reduced based on the drawdown) to exert pressure on the Afghan government at all levels to develop a culture of selfless government service.

Afghan elections will not be perfect, but they can continue to improve even as the coalition begins to withdraw. Afghans overwhelmingly despise the Taliban and mistrust Pakistan, but they are caught in the middle, because they also do not trust their own government. The coalition can learn from the hard lessons of the 2009 and 2010 elections, as they help Afghanistan prepare for the 2014 elections. With courage from Afghan officials and assistance from the coalition, the Afghan government can begin to build trust with its people through a flawed, but fair, election.



James L. Creighton, chief of staff at the EastWest Institute, served as Chief of Plans for ISAF Joint Command, Kabul and Commander, Combined Team Uruzgan in Afghanistan 2009-2011. A retired Army colonel, he served as Deputy Commander Second Infantry Division, Korea; Chief of Staff, Eighth United States Army; and Commanding officer of the 10th Mountain Division Artillery.

[Photo courtesy of the U.S Army]

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