US Army Maj. John Bircher
BAGRAM, Afghanistan, Oct. 11, 2004 — Something amazing happened in Afghanistan Oct. 9: a people who have lived in fear for the past 25 years, a people who in 2,000 years have never had a say in who their leader would be, a people who have been threatened, intimidated and attacked stood up, and with one simple act, said “We’ve made our choice, and we choose democracy.”?
The first indication that something unusual was about to happen arrived in Kabul at the Election Support Operation Center shortly after midnight on the 9th. An election worker in the province of Bamian reported that snow had been falling all evening, and it was beginning to pile up. Immediately the operations staff began to worry – what if the weather kept voters away? Would elections have to be rescheduled?
At 3:00 a.m., a follow-up report from Bamian stopped everyone in their steps: the snow was now about a foot deep, but the voters were already lining up, wrapped in blankets, four hours before the polls would open, on schedule. The only disruption in Bamian province occurred when late in the afternoon a group of voters wanted to cast ballots for their relatives who were too infirm to make the trek to the polling station. A station closed for about 30 minutes as election officials explained the rules to the group, who then cast their votes, one per voter, and went home.
In the southern province of Zabul, an area that many reporters have claimed to be a Taliban stronghold, voters lined up all day at 24 polling sites to cast their ballot. In the Maruf valley, a Coalition officer, assisting the Afghan National Army with security, reported that from his vantage point more than 3.5 miles away from the polling site he could see people in a single file line, almost two miles long, heading to vote.
He personally witnessed old people walking and being ferried in goat carts, amputees on crutches in droves moving towards the polling booths and then late in the evening aged adults running to beat the deadline to get into line to vote. He concluded his report by saying “This may be a small area, but I think that’s pretty damned promising and in a way inspiring.”?
At another village in Zabul, election workers reported that three Taliban fighters came into town, intent on intimidating the voters and disrupting the election process. The Taliban were stunned when they were met by the entire village population who stood their ground, refusing to allow the Taliban entry into the village. The Taliban left, and voting continued.
Stories like this played out across the country, and many have been captured by the international media. When asked why they were wearing the finest clothes they owned (their wedding gowns), two women in Dai Kundi Province replied that this day was the most important in their lives and in the history of their country. What better reason to dress accordingly?
In April 2004, the United Nations hoped to have 6.5 million Afghans register to vote; by September, 10.5 million Afghans had chosen to embrace democracy. Originally, it was hoped that females would account for 25% of registered voters. In a country where women’s rights are still in the infant stage, 41% of all registered voters were women.
Coalition and International Security Assistance Force personnel worked hand-in-hand with U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and Joint Electoral Management Body staff and Afghan leaders to ensure the security and logistical requirements of the election were fulfilled. Coalition and ISAF forces worked together to develop and execute a voter education program that provided a primarily illiterate society the necessary information for this first step of democracy to be successful.
U.N., Afghan, and coalition officials worried that the Taliban threats to disrupt the election would bring increased violence. On Election Day, only one attack occurred: Taliban criminals drove past one of almost 5,000 polling sites, fired a few rounds without hurting anyone, and were chased off by the Afghan National Army forces providing security. The polling site was moved to a new building, the voters moved their line to the new site, and voting continued.
In an interview with “The News”? in Islamabad, Pakistan on Oct. 10, Taliban spokesman Mufti Larifullah Hakimi, stated “We tried our best to strike in the urban centers but the tight security foiled our plans.”?
Something amazing happened in Afghanistan on October 9th, 2004. A country and its people came together, set aside tribal and ethnic decisions, and chose democracy. The people of Afghanistan chose to have a say in their future, to leave the repression and terror of the Taliban in their past.
Through their actions and words, the people of Afghanistan have sent a message, loud and clear, that the Taliban and the world cannot ignore: no longer will Afghanistan be a safe-haven for terrorism; no longer will the Afghan people accept intimidation and terror as a facet of life. Instead, the people of Afghanistan have embraced the most fundamental principle of democracy: the right to have your voice heard.
There is still work to be done in Afghanistan, schools to be built, electricity that needs to be provided. And this work will be done, but not because the world has vowed to fight terrorism. This work will be done because the Afghan people have made their voices heard, and their voices demand freedom.
MAJ John Bircher has been serving on the staff of Combined Joint Task Force 76 (CJTF-76) in Bagram, Afghanistan since March 2004. He is assigned to the 25th Infantry Division (Light), Schofield Barracks, Hawaii.