How A War Lord Won The 2009 Election for Hamid Karzai

Afghanistan’s Election Commission has officially announced the date for the next presidential election, which will be held on April 5, 2014. In a good old-fashioned blast from the past, the following anecdote reveals how President Karzai won the 2009 elections in a small village in Kunar province.

Tomorrow I’ll publish an in-depth piece on the 2014 election, so stay tuned for more!

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Keeping the Taliban on their TOWs on election day: U.S. Army soldiers fire a tow missile at Taliban positions in the Dewegal valley of Kunar province, Afghanistan, August 20, 2009. Photo: Simon Klingert

The mountains that flanked the narrow valley echoed with gunfire. Somewhere up on the ridges, a local war lord and his militia were fighting the Taliban. But maybe they just emptied their clips into the air. After all, the U.S. Army Captain had promised to pay for the ammunition. Coming back empty-handed would be proof they had done their job.

The day before, the Captain had collected his company’s reflective runner’s belts and handed them to the rag-tag bunch of fighters. “Wear this all the time, so we don’t drop a bomb on you” he had said.

The fighters, all roughly between of 16 and 60 years old were to provide an additional layer of protection, so that the regular Afghan security forces could protect the polling sites. It was August 19, 2009. The latest round of the Afghan presidential elections would be held in less than 24 hours.

Dressed in loose-fitting traditional Afghan garb, the Captain addressed the fighters and explained the mission they would be tasked with: “Whatever you do, make sure to be as far away from the polling site as possible. And don’t shoot down into the valley, OK?”

With that, the fighters left the small Forward Operating Base that sat on the Western side of the lower Kunar river valley. Haji Jan Dad, the local war lord smiled. Ammunition, rice, vegetable oil and credits for the cell phones they’d use to communicate with their paymasters. He had made a good bargain and his men were happy.

The bought war lord secures the elections. And President Karzai’s victory.

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Portrait of war lord and power broker Haji Jan Dad. A PK machine gun round from his days fighting the Soviet Army is still lodged in his hand. Photo: Simon Klingert

Haji Jan Dad was a crucial ally of President Karzai at the time. As a Mujaheddin commander, he was rumored to be responsible for the demise of hundreds of Soviet soldiers. His stature within the confines of the valley was legendary. A PK machine gun round was still embedded in his hand, a neat bulge that gave him additional street cred.

Haji Jan Dad had even served as the governor of Kunar province at an earlier stage. Once arrested by coalition forces as a suspected insurgent facilitator, President Karzai intervened personally on his behalf. Within 48 hours, Haji Jan Dad was a free man again.

Now he controlled his own personal militia and served as a mediator between the Afghan governor, the Taliban and the coalition. A few days before the election, Taliban commanders had come down from the mountains to negotiate a truce for the elections. They made fun of the American’s inability to eat Afghan food without spilling rice all over them. They also demanded the Dukes, electronic signal jammers in the U.S. Army trucks to be turned off, so they could use their cell phones. As a gesture of good-will, the young Lieutenant agreed.

On election day, Haji Jan Dad he made sure the turnout would exceed everyone’s expectations. Traveling in a small convoy of Toyota Corollas, he ferried voters from other areas to the polling site in the village of Ternaab all day long. Later in the afternoon, news reached the village that the war lord’s large compound had come under fire from insurgents. This added insult to injury, as the agreed truce had never taken hold. “Now it is personal” Haji Jan Dad said.

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A representative of Afghan president Hamid Karzai shows his index finder marked with indelible ink in the village of Ternaab in Kunar province, Afghanistan, August 20, 2009. His job? To count votes for President Karzai and to ensure there is no fraud. Photo: Simon Klingert

The polling site was crowded at times, a sign that Haji Jan Dad was determined to push through with the vote. The village’s kids stood in line to cast their vote as well, and some proudly displayed their index fingers, stained with purple ink as a sign they had taken part in the democratic process.

And even the Afghan interpreter, who accompanied the U.S. troops, who were watching from a respectful distance was offered to cast his vote. When he pointed out he didn’t have a voter registration card, he was told that wouldn’t be an issue: “No problem, we can make you one right here”.

Presiding over this was a middle-aged man with a shrewd smile and a Pakol hat. He introduced himself as a representative of the acting President: “I make sure that all the votes for Mr. Karzai are counted properly. I am here to ensure that there is no fraud.” Did he count the votes for other candidates as well? “I don’t think there are any votes for other candidates” he said with a wide grin.

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