On July 7, Afghanistan's Electoral Complaint Commission (ECC), which is supposed to be an independent body for vetting candidates and investigating allegations of electoral fraud, announced that it had disqualified 36 candidates for parliament on evidence they had ties to illegal private militias.
After last year's presidential election, which international and local observers said was badly skewed by ballot stuffing that undercut the legitimacy of President Hamid Karzai, electoral authorities promised new procedures to curtail fraud in upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for Sept. 18.
So a commitment by an independent commission to disqualify candidates with ties to militias – which have undermined attempts at imposing central government authority for decades – might seem like a good start to cleaning up Afghanistan's electoral process.
There were only three problems.
The commission didn't actually have a role in deciding whom to disqualify. None of the well-known commanders who many Afghans believe committed war crimes in the past were on the list. And it appears that many of those disqualified aren't involved with militias.
The way this was handled is a reminder that truly independent electoral oversight has not yet been established after nine years and tens of billions of dollars spent by the United States and NATO allies to establish an Afghan democracy.
US officials once touted a parliamentary election here as vital to improving the country's government. It now appears that the US just hopes there will be less fraud and that this will help Afghans learn the ropes of voting. "There have been a lot of improvements. Yes, there are still going to be problems. But it's better to have a flawed election than no election at all," says one US diplomat.
Disqualified candidate Mustafa Etamadi, an ethnic Hazara from Daikundi Province, is furious.
"The Afghan government is trying to cheat the international community," he says. "Commanders who have committed murder weren't disqualified. How could they be? They're powerful and important. So the government is using people like me to cover it all up."
The ranks of the powerful in Afghanistan certainly include men that have been accused by international organizations and local politicians of involvement in crimes against fellow citizens.
Human Rights Watch called current MP and candidate Abdul Rabb al Rasul Sayyaf a “member of parliament with a notorious human rights record.” Men under his command murdered hundreds of civilians in Kabul in the early 1990s, according to the group.
And President Karzai himself cut deals with warlords and men implicated in past crimes ahead of last year's presidential election because of the votes they could deliver. The choice of Mohammad Qasim Fahim as Karzai's vice presidential running mate was emblematic of this trend; Fahim has long been implicated in possible war crimes from the 1990s and is widely perceived by many Afghans to be connected to criminal gangs.
Fahim was a senior commander of the Jamiat-e-Islami during Afghanistan's civil war and a Human Rights Watch report found "credible and consistent evidence of widespread and systematic human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law" by commanders of the group.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Afghanistan’s parliament voted in secret three years ago to grant immunity from prosecution for war crimes to participants in the country’s war against the Soviet’s in the 1980s and the civil war that followed. That decision was publicized earlier this year.
Mr. Etamadi, a journalist who said he worked as a propagandist against the Soviet occupation of the country in the 1980s but insists he has never belonged to an armed group or carried a weapon in Afghanistan's recent conflicts, says he was only informed by friends that he'd been kicked off the ballot when it was already too late to appeal. "A friend told me it was on the orders of Karzai. I believe him."
Election commission had no say
Officials from the commission say they had no involvement in investigating candidates, despite the announcement. Instead, they say, an ad hoc commission involving the Defense Ministry, Interior Ministry, the National Directorate of Security, and the Independent Election Commission (IEC) made the decision.
"We had no authority to overturn or investigate their findings," says one ECC member. "We feel bad about this," said an Afghan election official involved in the process, who asked not to be identified. "There doesn't seem to be any evidence against some of these people. The others? Well, let's say the net caught a few small fish while the sharks swam around it."
"The ECC cannot just approve a decision made by someone else without asking questions about the credibility of the information provided to them. They have the power to question; they should not just serve as a clerk," he says. "I was disappointed with the lack of proper vetting of candidates with clear links to armed groups and serious human rights abuses records."
'It's an embarrassment'
Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief electoral officer at the IEC, said the process has now finished and there will be no more disqualifications. He predicts there will be far less fraud in the parliamentary election than in the election of President Karzai last year and says that 6,000 people who worked on the presidential election – out of a total of about 164,000 – have been blacklisted from poll work this time.
"Last time we lost control of a lot of sensitive election material," he says. "And we learned a lot. We have a very difficult job in a very difficult situation, but we are going to do a lot better this time."
Etamadi, the disqualified candidate, says that though he has publicly voiced the need for more devolution of power in Afghanistan, he can only guess that the reason he was ousted was that he was one of the few of the parliamentary candidates with an official link to a political party (Karzai frowns on political parties, so few claim to belong to one).
"This whole thing is an embarrassment," he said. "They're talking about reconciling with the Taliban while taking away my rights."