Afghanistan was not a place I expected to find myself in the course of 2014 – or ever, to be fair. One morning in early August I arrived at my office on Wray Avenue to read an email from a friend and former colleague, Peter Yates, asking if I would consider joining an international election observer (IEO) team involved in the audit and recount of the Afghan Presidential election.
That was Thursday. On Saturday night I was standing in the departures hall at Perth Airport trying to convince the reluctant Emirates staff to check me in because at that stage I had neither a return flight nor a visa for Afghanistan. Eighteen hours later I was in waiting in line at Kabul Airport as the power went off and on again, wondering whether the scanned copy of a letter from the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs that I’d printed in Dubai would get me through.
Deciding to go was an interesting process in itself. Following on the heels of the invitation’s out-of-the-blueness came a 24-hour period in which I swung pretty evenly between excitement and strong apprehension. I spent a day and a night considering what was involved and talking about the risks with my family. Peter supplied some security specifics and precautions that helped, but also had the effect of reinforcing the danger. Abby, my youngest, said she didn’t want me to go, which was tough to hear. I said I would bring her something extraordinary back from Kabul. She said, “There’s nothing in Kabul you could bring home for me. There’s only ballot papers, dust, and war.”
She was right about the ballot papers of course – some 8 million had been cast in the Presidential run-off election which marked the first democratic transition of government under the Afghan Constitution that was adopted in January 2004. Unfortunately, the process of choosing between Dr Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah had become mired in distrust, allegations of serious fraud, and the prospect of widespread civil unrest. Without the two-pronged agreement that was brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to conduct (1) an audit of the election and (2) a set of parallel negotiations around the formation of a unity government with participation from both sides of the Presidential contest, it’s possible that Afghanistan would have descended from a tense leadership vacuum into a downward spiral of civil and political disintegration.
The potential value of the election audit was at least threefold. First, it had the capacity to provide some reassurance about the fairness of the result, even if that was achieved by showing that incidents of fraud were not confined to one side or the other, and that in aggregate they didn’t affect the outcome. Second, it would allow a close examination of the election’s administrative strengths and shortcomings (which are present in every system, as we saw in the WA Senate election fiasco last year), and in so doing deliver a better sense of the resources and capacity of the Afghan Independent Election Commission. Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, it would provide some productive breathing space during which the possibility and practicalities of a unity government could be explored and negotiated.
At the outset, the task was to consider the basic integrity of 24,000 ballot boxes, including 6000 that had been selected for ‘special scrutiny’ – 3000 from each candidate – because of concerns about fraud in certain provinces. The audit was administered by the AIEC with oversight and adjudication provided by UN advisers. Candidate observers watched the box audit and had input (sometimes very robust input!) on matters of contention, while the international and domestic observers remained fully independent of the process in order to observe its integrity and record anomalies of process or conduct. It was a slow and painstaking job for all involved. The mundane and everyday human considerations – such as how to best arrange the loose air-conditioning conduits in order to stay cool but at the same time minimise the turbulence of dust, and whether anyone had a spare teabag with which to flavour a polystyrene cup of hot water – were often what gave a long shift moments of colour and spark.
It was a strange scene, but good work. I never stopped feeling that we were all part of a weird but hopeful endeavour designed to let Afghanistan pass over a tightrope to firmer ground on the other side.
When people think of international development assistance (or foreign aid) it’s usually in terms of disaster relief or basic health and education or maybe water & sanitation infrastructure. It’s much less common to think about it in terms of strengthening democracy and governance, let alone supporting the long-range and subtle trajectory involved in civil society capacity building. Yet these are critical. They are the basis for stable and participatory decision-making; for the rule of law; for the checks and balances that hold back or uncover corruption; and for problem-solving through consultation, argument, evidence, and reason rather than by the application of force.
To put this in Fremantle local government terms, our local democracy starts with the structure and regulations provided by the Local Government Act which are subject to revision by the Western Australian parliament. To that we add the framework, resources and bureaucratic capacity of the City of Fremantle; the decision-making of its elected Mayor and Council; and the guidance and transparency of its budgets, strategic plans, and local policies. These are the spelled-out and tangible features of our local democracy and government. But we also have an established culture of high participation in local elections. We have a distinctive local engagement structure in the form our precinct system. We have two local newspapers, including one that is genuinely independent and located in the heart of our City (the Fremantle Herald), and we have a range of civil society groups, old and new, that observe and contribute to local decision-making (e.g. from the Fremantle Society to the Fremantle Residents and Ratepayers Association, and others).
Together the skeleton and the soft tissue, the structure and the culture, make up a healthy, complex, mature, organic local democracy. And while Afghanistan has its own long-established forms of local and regional decision-making, at the national level the structure, institutions and culture are relatively fragile. Right now they need to be nurtured and strengthened. After decades of war and various instalments of foreign interference, Afghanistan faces challenges the magnitude of which is hard to reconcile with life in Australia.
There would be many people better placed than I am to assess the geopolitical circumstances of present Afghanistan, but at the risk of over-simplification I think it can be said that there is a path now that leads forward, however roughly, from the current and relatively new government and democratic structure as it cycles through elections at the national and provincial levels, working to tackle the inevitable obstacles and imperfections, and seeking to implement a range of administrative, policy and cultural reforms – or there is a path that leads back to a broken system of ethnic and regional division, the brute power of warlords, and a country rife with civil conflict and civic chaos.
People like Peter Yates, my friend who works for The Asia Foundation (TAF), put their expertise and energy into what is unquestionably a vocation, for working to support the development of democratic institutions and culture is a labour of love that gives our fellow men and women a chance to collectively shape a peaceful life free from aching disadvantage, disease, and oppression.
A few weeks ago, as we marked 100 years to the day since the first Western Australian troops departed for their service in WWI, it was impossible not to reflect on the trauma and loss that followed, on the damage and dislocation that would penetrate deep into communities around Australia. It was a reminder that all the wonderful things about life in Australia are built first on the foundation of peace. Without peace, without freedom from violence and persecution and hatred and fear, it’s almost impossible to get on with education, health, urban planning, local parking policies, and so on. So rather than thinking of democracy and governance as being the boring political stuff that happens once peace has been achieved, it’s just as important to realise that effective governance and participatory democracy actually function to prevent conflict and to maintain peace.
What’s more, at their best they also enable us to address common problems, reduce suffering and inequality, and pursue shared wellbeing.
From my time in Kabul I was left in no doubt that Afghan people want a government that can deliver peace, stability, and social and economic development. In terms of age profile Afghanistan is quite a young nation (about 65% of Afghans are under 25, in Australia it’s 31%), and this is partly as a result of war and partly through the generally poor health and nutrition outcomes of a developing country. The younger adults I spoke with expressed a common desire to see their country move past conflict and instead provide economic activity and jobs and basic services.
Supporting the TAF IEO team was a group of about 20 Afghan interpreters, coordinators, and drivers, in addition to local staff from the Asia Foundation. There were some lovely blokes among them and their stories gave me a grounded sense of daily life and family; of Afghan humour and piety; of their personal ambitions and fears.
The interpreter I was closest to, Mohammed Naim, has three kids as I do – though his were much younger, being literally 3, 2, and 1 – and he thought it was funny that his daughter Muska and my son Oscar had similar sounding names. Muska means smile in Pashto. Naim had previously worked with US Special Forces and lost half his foot when a misdirected ‘friendly’ airstrike exploded next to his patrol. He was a quiet bloke with a lot of natural dignity and gentle humour. A number of the interpreters were understandably desperate for work, having lost jobs with the US, British or Australian military or with development NGOs as the international security and aid commitments are wound-back. On my second day I was part of an interview panel tasked with choosing the first five interpreters and in a surreal atmosphere created by jetlag and the vibration of US Chinook helicopters through the yellow Kabul mid-afternoon I felt the weight of making decisions that seemed to represent such good fortune or such disappointment for these men and their families.
My life as an IEO was very structured and constrained. At no stage were any of us able to walk the streets of Kabul. That was a long way outside our security protocol, which essentially confined us to the hotel. It was possible to arrange to take one of the armoured cars to visit a highly protected supermarket called Finest, and there was a bar favoured by expat security personnel called Raven’s Nest that some of the guys went to for a very expensive beer on a couple of occasions. Every day we travelled in a convoy to the Afghan Independent Election Commission – either in the morning (8 am – 1 pm) or afternoon (2 pm – 8 pm) shift – to undertake our election observation work in one of five air hangars stacked full of plastic ballot boxes. Otherwise we ate from the buffet in the hotel restaurant or attended briefings or did paperwork. There was a small gym and a tiny rooftop pool. I loved being able to stand outside on the rooftop in the jagged cauldron of mountains that circle Kabul, even though it made me yearn to walk up through the houses and streets arranged on the flanks of those hills. We were warned not to approach the balustrade as apparently the Embassy of Iran next door didn’t appreciate being overlooked. This is a kind of ‘overlooking’ issue for which my time as a member of the City of Fremantle’s Planning Services Committee had not prepared me.
Actually, my perspective as a Fremantle Councillor came through at unexpected moments. One morning, as we drove a different route through the city, I had the opportunity to really understand the importance of ‘activated frontages’. The precinct in which our hotel was situated, Wazir Bahan, featured lots of embassies, all of which sat behind high concrete walls topped with razor wire. The narrow and featureless footpaths were little used, and the streetscape was bleak, grey, empty and scary-looking. On the day we drove an alternative route through central Kabul it was a revelation to see shops and second-floor apartments and people everywhere going about their lives. It showed that a built environment needs life and colour, especially, at ground level. It also showed that when a city has its built form dictated by considerations that are essentially anti-social, like the dangers of terrorism and war – or, less dramatically, the private passenger car – you end up with an urban environment that doesn’t encourage walking and riding, street conversations, al fresco dining, kids playing in the street, or neighbourliness in general. In Kabul the prime consideration is of course safety, but it would be wrong to think that those other things aren’t important to Afghan people, and in fact you could see everywhere the instinct to be out in the open air so as to enjoy the company of friends or the banter of casual street-soccer opponents.
All the circumstances of the mission made the camaraderie of the people in the IEO team special and necessary. In addition to Peter, who arrived back in Kabul from his base in Dhaka about ten days into my stay, I also had the company of my friend Patrick Gorman, and of Luke Gosling – all three easy-going talented men of excellent character who share with me membership of the Australian Labor Party. But there were also Americans and Indians and Indonesians on our team, two fantastic blokes called Bujar and Urim from Kosovo, a guy from Nepal, a woman from the Philippines, a very experienced election operator from Scotland named Hugh, and a Canadian/Englishman named Bill. Writing this paragraph makes me want to explain a bit about each of them (the relentless jokes of Dennis, the stillness of Shanthie, the agro-entrepreneurship of Pradip), and I feel anxious that if they find their way to Freoview they’ll wonder why I haven’t explained more about their unique charms. All I can say is wait for the book!
I was one of the early arrivals in the formation of the TAF team and on 30 August, after three weeks, I was the first to leave. On one level it was tough to drive out to the airport knowing that my colleagues still had a week or more to go, but by the time the date arrived I was ready to be going home. When the plane lifted off and the suede folds of Afghanistan dropped away below, a feeling washed through me of sadness, weariness, accomplishment, and relief.
Since I have returned home the audit process has concluded and an agreement on a unity government has been reached. Dr Ashraf Ghani has been elected as Afghanistan’s new President and Dr Abdullah Abdullah will occupy the specially created position of Chief Executive. The Taliban greeted the peaceful outcome with a series of bombings in Kabul, including an attack at the front of the International Airport.
Ahead lies a difficult period in which stability for the new government is not guaranteed, and the parallel challenges of seeking peace and economic development for the Afghan people in one of the poorest and most conflict-riven countries on earth are awesome in their scale, but also in their potential to change lives for the better.
I arrived home with a mild case of giardia and after unrolling a small Afghan carpet in the Kilim style as a 20th anniversary gift for my wife, I hopped into bed at 1 pm intending to take a nap only to wake at 7 am the next morning. Walking to the office through Fremantle was a bright revelation – just the simple act of being able to go by foot through the streets in the sea air and sunshine. No razor wire, no military vehicles, no metal detectors and checkpoints.
It’s not possible to write a couple of sentences to sum up Kabul and my time there. It was a privilege to go and be part of the IEO work in Afghanistan and I’m grateful for the friendship and camaraderie in our team, and especially for the hospitality we received from the Afghan people who deserve some days, weeks, months and years of peace – and who deserve to walk their own streets easily and without fear.