I first went to Afghanistan in 2004, the year Hamid Karzai was voted president in the country’s first post-Taliban election. Despite the rockets and bombs that regularly rocked Kabul during my six-month stay, it was a period of relative optimism. The Taliban had been defeated – or so it was thought – girls were returning to school and women to work. Development and democracy seemed to be progressing hand-in-hand.
But even that first election had massive problems. People were receiving multiple voting cards and selling them on the black market. It wasn’t at first clear how this would lead to fraud, because as Karzai (then serving as interim president) pointed out at a press conference, polling staff would mark voters’ fingers with indelible ink to ensure they could only cast one ballot. But outside a polling centre I visited in Kunduz on election day, voters easily rubbed the ink off while staff inside insisted it was impossible. There were similar incidents from other areas of the country, and there were scattered reports of violence. But both Afghans and the international community seemed to accept Karzai’s landslide victory.
By the time the next presidential election rolled around, in 2009, the optimism had all but faded away. The Taliban had rebuilt themselves and now controlled large swathes of Afghanistan, including much of Kunduz where I had spent election day in 2004 driving around the countryside talking to villagers. In 2009, I spoke to villagers in Balkh, previously considered the safest province in the country, who said Taliban had begun showing up and threatening to cut off the fingers of anyone marked with ink from voting.
The country still had no voting list. The number of cards distributed to voters had ballooned from the already inflated 2004 number of about 11 million to the highly dubious figure of 17 million. Opportunities for fraud were ripe, and the 2009 presidential election was marred by violence and intimidation.