It should have been a time of celebration. Afghanistan was experiencing a rare conjunction of festive dates: our national holiday, the Friday Sabbath, the imminent start of the monthlong Ramadan fast and national elections. The streets should have been packed with celebrants, children in bright clothes, shoppers laying in stores of sweets for the first sundown meal.
But my town, Kandahar, was shuttered tight. Its normally clogged, odorous, noisy streets were nearly empty.
The Taliban had put out the message: Anyone leaving his house on the eve of the election or on election day was risking death. The message was pasted on the walls of mosques. It was repeated in sermons. It passed from mouth to mouth like a contagion.
The regular traffic of minivans and taxis from Taliban-controlled districts to the west of the city was closed down. Even the seasonal labor of packing the area's plump, succulent green grapes for shipment to Pakistan or India was halted.
President Obama called the Aug. 20 elections "an important step forward," and international officials in Afghanistan hailed the lower-than-expected level of violent attacks. But in reality, the Taliban made liars of the government officials who promised us a calm day. Throughout the day, shelling could be heard in the city, and there were reports from witnesses that about half a dozen people were killed. You might not know about the violence. The defense and interior ministries ordered Afghan journalists not to report attacks.
But the Taliban's objective wasn't to commit dramatic acts of violence. Its objective was to shut down the election, and it succeeded.
The village where I was born lies north of Kandahar, among the rocky hills of the Khakrez District. It has been under effective Taliban control for at least 18 months. My family home is a 15-minute drive from the district center, but no one can go there without explaining his business to the Taliban. In such a situation, who would risk death or amputation to cast a vote he's pretty sure won't count anyway?
The situation was similar in another 13 of the 17 districts in Kandahar province. In town, I was willing to take the risk and vote. But those of us who went to the polling places scrubbed our inked fingers with brushes and soap or kerosene as soon as we left. I removed the ink because I wanted to avoid an argument with my mullah, who had exhorted us not to vote; others were afraid of retaliation.
Based on the number of my friends who didn't vote and conversations around town and at prayers, I'd estimate the turnout in Kandahar city was 20% at best. Province-wide, in all but three districts, 5% would be a generous guess. Total for the province? I'd estimate 10% to 15%.
A low turnout in the Afghan south has been described as unfavorable to President Hamid Karzai, because the bulk of his support is thought to reside there. (As though Pashtuns automatically support Karzai on ethnic grounds.) But such a description ignores the reality of political power in Afghanistan under his regime.
Karzai and his key ministers -- including those responsible for security -- and several handpicked governors, as well as much of the "independent" election commission staff, had no interest in holding an election, as you in America understand that word. They were concerned, I firmly believe, with ensuring that Karzai remain in power by any means. This is why they pushed so hard to officially open polling places where they knew no one would really be able to vote. They did that because they planned to cheat.
Low turnout in areas assumed to be pro-Karzai is in fact an open door to vote-rigging. All that's needed is to declare a turnout that sounds plausible to international ears -- say 50% -- and then fill the boxes up to that number with ballots marked for Karzai.
In Khakrez, for example, only three of 10 polling places on the official list were actually open, according to a friend who traveled there. One was at the home of the district commissioner, a henchman of Karzai, and another was at the same man's office. Once the polls closed, the Karzai camp was in exclusive possession of the ballot box and voting materials.
In another, relatively secure Kandahar district where opposition activists have raised their voices, border police are reported to have struck deals with election commission personnel for access to ballot boxes, which they began stuffing in two locations the night before the election, according to eyewitnesses. Where Karzai's people couldn't cut deals to stuff the boxes, opposition voters report having been turned away or refused ballots marked with any name but Karzai's. When counting began, observers told me, opposition candidates' observers were expelled or beaten back from the polling places.
Some of you will read this and turn from Afghanistan in disgust, saying, "How can you help a place like that?" As though cheating is a part of Afghan culture, and we, the Afghan people, are to blame. It's not, and we're not. We object to the behavior we witnessed during this election. I have never seen my friends and neighbors so depressed. But how can we, ordinary Afghans, stand up against such abuses when the entire international community seems lined up in support of the culprits?
We need your help. Those of us who braved the risks to cast a ballot need for our votes not to have been in vain. The international community, having expended so much to secure this election, must not swallow the industrial-scale fraud that took place. The results for Kandahar province, and most likely Helmand, Urozgan, Zabol and Ghazni provinces, should be invalidated.
And, if Karzai is returned to power, international officials should use his blatant cheating as a lever to exert pressure on him. For our sake, and for the sake of the lives and resources you have invested here, please begin to demand more honest, responsive, law-abiding behavior from the Afghan government.