Scott Bohlinger is a political analyst and writer who has lived in Afghanistan since 2006. He works for a non-governmental organization in Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan and has traveled extensively in the Middle East.
One of my favorite pastimes of late has been talking to people about who they’re voting for and why. Politics is universal, but political thoughts are heavily shaped and molded by cultural contexts. Whatever people’s education levels, they get the concept of political participation and voting, and I’ve found that they reject voting only insofar as they don’t think the vote will be respected.
The big difference I encounter here in Afghanistan is in how people talk about politics and their candidates, which seems surprising to somebody from the U.S., France or Iran.
In Afghanistan, with its multiplicity of figures in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of alliances and betrayals, the political landscape often appears inscrutable to the uninitiated. The reasons for these shifting currents are there, although outsiders don’t always properly appreciate them.
People who told me they would vote against Karzai because he was supported by former warlord Abdurrashid Dostum all of a sudden appeared teary-eyed alongside the road to watch his convoy a few days later when he returned from Turkey. The cause was simple: Their rational analysis of the pros and cons of his rule had been replaced by their emotional attachment to a man who had brought relative stability to this party of the country, when the rest was in chaos.
One day, while driving to the gym, my driver and I were looking at all the campaign posters and related activity in town, poking fun and sharing opinions. He didn’t have much definitive to say about any of the current contenders, but instead went on at length about some strongman whom he particularly liked during the Soviet occupation. The next day, he had a completely different story. Evidently, my driver had decided to throw his weight behind Karzai. Suddenly, it was Karzai who could do no wrong. “Karzai built everything in this country after the war — he’s honest, clean and has personality integrity.”
The argument against Karzai is that he hasn’t done enough and doesn’t possess any of those qualities, but I didn’t see the point in arguing that. So I asked my driver how he had been convinced of this. He must have had a conversation with his friends over qalyan (sheesha or water pipes) or heard the argument from an akhund (priest), I thought. His response was “No, that’s just the way things are.”
This is one story, but it typifies many others encounters that I’ve had. During a fast food break in Samangan, a man sat across from me while I was eating my kebab and extolled the virtues of a previous regime that he particularly liked for three reasons: 1) you could leave your door unlocked, 2) there was no theft and 3) so-and-so distributed swift and equitable justice.
It annoys me as a Westerner because I feel it sets up unrealistic expectations of leaders and therefore just perpetuates the cycle of violence. But these narratives help people structure the world around them to create meaning — even if they are myths. In Afghanistan, political power is often understood and explained through myths about individuals rather than through the specific issues they stand for.
– Scott Bohlinger