When Afghanistan held its presidential elections in 2009, I was barely a year into a four-year stint as a military propagandist. I had written and edited dozens of stories leading up to the election for Afghanistan’s largest-circulation newspaper, Sada-e Azadi, paid for by NATO and other members of a grand coalition that would surpass 50 nations. The message to Afghans in Dari and Pashto was straightforward: Afghan police and soldiers are geared up to protect you, dear reader, so go out and vote to secure Afghanistan’s future.
Contrary to what many might think, modern propaganda – especially the variety inspired by my military bosses – must have more than just a kernel of truth to it if it is to be deemed effective. It should, ideally, follow journalistic principles, albeit sometimes with a dizzying amount of spin. The Afghan security forces were actually upping their game, and elections were scheduled, so it was fairly easy to write about this. That is, until the day after the election.
What do you say to people who risked their lives to vote, only to find out that ballot boxes had fallen out of helicopters and near-unanimous vote tallies materialized from fictional polling stations? How do you turn a sham election into a message of confidence in the Afghan government, a sign of hope for the nation’s future?
Disheartened, all I had to work with were the laughably premature statements of U.S. and European officials that the election was more-or-less OK.
What I arrived at was a story of praise for the brave Afghan people, who stuck it to the “enemies of Afghanistan” by turning out and getting their finger inked, even though the Taliban spokesman promised to sever such offending digits. That much was true, but the message was a pathetic whimper.
My remaining three years in Kabul were punctuated by more disappointments. More and more provinces were no-go areas for guys like me without covering fire. Qurans were desecrated in Florida and Afghanistan by Americans, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Afghans, as well as a few foreigners, at the hands of enraged rioters. I was kidded by my aid worker and journalist friends for being a Pollyanna about the country’s future, but when the streets erupted after our soldiers accidentally burned holy books in a garbage pit, I, too, had lost hope.
I dared not imagine that Saturday’s election would be any different, but I was delighted that journalists could find very little bad to say about it. The expected incidents of violence were, by Afghan standards, tolerable. It wasn’t like 2009, when a journalist in Kandahar told me over the phone that she had been jolted by Taliban rocket strikes all day.
This time, it was as if all of Afghanistan held its breath, stepped outside and voted in surprising numbers. In doing so, the voters interviewed by journalists seemed to share the theme that this was their message to those who prefer destruction over progress. I was especially moved by a tweet from Sultan Faizy, an Afghan producer for a U.S. news network, which pictured a female voter in Kandahar, quoting her as saying, “I voted with one hand and slapped the Taliban with another hand.”
It’s hard to know what’s real in such a difficult environment, but it’s also hard to deny the flood of positive news about the election. I mean, 60 percent turnout puts American voters to shame. There is always some level of fraud, but hopefully not enough to negate Afghans’ confidence in their new leader. Either way, it’s clear that Afghans – unlike many of their foreign benefactors – have not given up.
My friends in Kabul have probably memorized how I feel about Afghans; they were the point of our spear in fighting the Soviet Union. They paid dearly for the supply of foreign weapons and radicalism that lingered once the last Russian soldier went home.
In a haphazard and inconsistent way, we have already done a lot for the country in the last decade. We helped Afghans lift themselves out of the medieval pit the Taliban dug for them. Now our troops are poised to withdraw, and even so, Afghans have shown they have a fighting chance to keep from sliding back in.
There will be strong pressure, once we leave Afghanistan, to help precipitate that slide in Congress by slashing foreign aid to that country. We have domestic priorities, and, after all, we’re done there, right? Afghanistan doesn’t have the kind of ready-made wealth that Iraq has, so it needs our financial help now, more than ever.
Police and soldiers need to be paid better than the Taliban pay. Supplies of food and fuel need to be imported from difficult neighbors. And yes, some of that money will be siphoned off by corruption. That is a fact of life in developing nations and the cost of doing business with them. Perhaps the new president will mitigate that, as the leading candidate, Ashraf Ghani, already proved willing to do as finance minister.
The Afghans were there for us when we needed them. We should show them and the rest of the world that America remembers its friends.
Erik N. Nelson is a freelance writer and editor in Davis. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are his own.