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  • Writer's pictureSean D. Carberry

January 6 Seemed Like Something that Would Happen in Afghanistan

Updated: Jan 18, 2022

In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, one of the two candidates warned the vote could be marred by fraud. He told supporters and the media that his opponent was engineering an effort to steal the election. The bottom line, he said, was that the only way he could lose the election was by fraud. He would not recognize any results that showed his opponent won.

Election day went off as planned and millions came out to cast ballots for the two candidates. Initial reports indicated voting was peaceful and properly conducted.

When elections officials announced initial returns, the numbers favored the opponent. The candidate who had warned of fraud announced that as he had predicted, his opponent cheated. He said he would contest the results through every means possible.

For weeks the candidate rejected the results, alleged massive fraud, and filed complaints and challenges. He said he would not accept the results. He threatened to declare himself the winner and form his own government. His supporters grew increasingly vocal and took to the streets. They threatened to take up arms and fight for their candidate.

As the standoff progressed, international fears grew that the country’s democratic order could collapse. Talk of civil war grew. The nation was on a knife edge.

As much as it may sound like it, I am not talking about the 2020 presidential election in the United States. Instead, I am describing the 2014 presidential election in Afghanistan.

In 2014, I was the NPR correspondent covering the dumpster fire that was the Afghan presidential election. Abdullah Abduallah won the first-round vote handily but came up less than a percentage point from hitting the magical 50 percent mark required to avoid a runoff election.

Abdullah declared that there had been fraud that prevented him from winning outright (he was probably correct). Given the challenges of holding an election in a predominantly rural nation with high rates of illiteracy and a patchwork of powerbrokers with their own militias, there was no question that there had been fraud, just like every previous election in Afghanistan.

Abdullah reluctantly accepted the results of the first round and agreed to participate in a runoff against Ashraf Ghani, the runner up, who had garnered around 35 percent of the vote to Abdullah’s 49 percent.

On June 14, 2014, Afghans went to the polls for the second time that year. The initial results, which came out weeks after the vote, favored Ghani.

What played out over the summer was a slow-motion car crash, a Kabuki performance that would have been funny if the stakes had not been so high. Each day brought new drama. In the morning, Abdullah would agree to terms of an audit of the vote. By the end of the day, he would be threatening to pull out of the process and declare a parallel government.

International officials held mediation sessions. The candidates held dueling press conferences. Citizens held demonstrations. The media pinballed from the candidate’s houses to election facilities to UN offices to keep track of the machinations.

It was impossible to spend time reporting other stories as each day one of the candidates, usually Abdullah, would throw a new wrinkle into the mix. It was maddening and enervating, and almost deadly.

I spent several days at the election compound in Kabul watching international monitors audit every ballot box. All the ballots were identical small pieces of blue paper with white boxes featuring the name and photo of the two candidates. Voters had to make some sort of mark in the box next to their chosen candidate. It could be an X, a check mark, or any kind of scribble clearly indicating their selection.

I watched as officials pulled the ballots from sealed boxes and laid them out on tables to examine. In multiple cases, it was clear that all the ballots in a box had identical marks—one person had filled all of them out. It was obvious fraud.

One day, I spent an hour watching the auditing of a single box of ballots. It was stuffed with votes for Ghani and the election workers declared the ballots fraudulent. Ghani supporters in the election center huddled around me and accused me of supporting Abdullah. They claimed I spent too much time observing fraud on Ghani’s behalf. It turned into a shouting match. They started pushing and shoving. They threatened to report us to election officials.

I called their bluff and marched to the office and explained to the senior Afghan election officials that Ghani supporters were threatening my producer and me. The officials warned the Ghani supporters they would be banned from the facility if they did such a thing again.

A few days later, a fight broke out. Despite the extensive security measures to get into the compound, at least one person had smuggled in a knife. Supporters of the two candidates scrapped and chased each other through the compound.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had to travel to Kabul multiple times to broker a resolution to the election. Eventually, Abdullah relented and accepted a new position as “CEO” of the Afghan government under President Ghani. While that ended months of political crisis that threatened to plunge the country into civil war, it started an era of government paralysis as Ghani and Abdullah fought constantly over the terms of their political agreement and who had power over what government officials and offices.

Having lived through one of the most contentious elections of the 20th century, I couldn’t help but think about Afghanistan as I watched the 2020 U.S. election play out. And it all came flooding back to me as I watched coverage of the anniversary of January 6.

It was no surprise that the 2014 Afghan election was the mess that it was. Afghan elections in the post-Taliban era were notoriously fraudulent. Afghanistan had neither the infrastructure, labor force, nor the educated public needed to hold an election that could resist the powerbrokers, militias, and corrupt officials rampant in the country.

I think many westerners in Afghanistan at the time expected the election to be a disaster in some form. Many of us who spent time on the ground there felt that the country was simply too raw and undeveloped to be able to hold credible elections, and the 2014 vote was self-fulfilling prophecy in that regard. We watched it play out like a Monty Python movie. Nothing like that could ever happen in the United States or other “advanced” countries we thought with smug superiority.

And then, it did. The parallels were haunting, uncanny, depressing, and embarrassing. The key difference was that in the Afghan election, there was clear and massive fraud, a fact recognized by Afghans and the international community. That was not the case in the United States in 2020.

Despite the technology, laws, and centuries of practice holding legitimate elections, a candidate and most of his supporters still think the election was stolen when (unlike Afghanistan) none of the audits, investigations, or court challenges found any evidence of fraud or irregularities on a level that could have changed the outcome.

At least the Afghan people stopped short of storming their parliament and killing law-enforcement personnel in an attempt to overturn the results of their election. For all that the Afghan people have been through and their sad state of affairs today, at least they can hold their heads up and say, “at least January 6 didn’t happen here.”

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