A U.S. Marine embedded trainer with the Afghan National Army describes the atmosphere in northeastern Afghanistan ahead of national elections. The personal views expressed here do not reflect the views of the U.S. military.
Read more about his experience overseas in his blog, Embedded in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s election is coming up on Thursday. Here in the northeastern part of the country, conducting an orderly election will be a difficult task, to say the least. This region, due to the high mountains and its shared border with Pakistan, is a well-known insurgent haven. Our enemies inhabit the high ground and getting up there to deal with them is tough.
Nearly every engagement here involves the insurgents shooting down at us from above. When that hasn’t been the case, the enemy has been shooting at us from inside a village on the other side of a valley. Fighting an enemy while he’s inside a village presents its own set of concerns.
Conducting day-to-day operations here is difficult. Holding an election here against the wishes of our numerous enemies will certainly be interesting. Not only are we sure to see more attacks, but we’re also sure to have less support in the form of air since those air assets are likely to be needed everywhere else as well.
Coalition forces just don’t have the numbers to control much of the vast hinterland in this northeastern part of the country. Those air assets in the form of attack and reconnaissance helicopters and fighter aircraft are a vital part of how we get things turned in our favor once the shooting begins, but we’ll make do with or without them.
Generally speaking, if we don’t have a paved road leading to an area, we don’t control it. Geographically, the province sits in the middle of a mountain range. The mountains are interspersed with valleys carved by streams fed by melting snow runoff. The only flat areas you’ll see around here are the areas around the streams. Those flat areas vary in width from a kilometer to maybe 10 meters across. Given the challenging topography, road building is a difficult task. Where roads have been put in, bases and security have followed. Without a paved road, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are regular, which prevents a strong U.S. presence.
We focus on the larger population centers, which are not surprisingly generally located in the larger valleys. Of the many small valleys branching off from the larger ones, we control the terrain at most a couple of kilometers in. Far down into some of these valleys, we haven’t had Americans go in years. This fact hasn’t stopped the unnamed, unseen planners on high from deciding to put election polling sites in some of these places. Exactly how we’re supposed to secure a place we don’t ever go, in addition to all the other sites in our normal area of operations, is a question which has occurred to many of us in recent weeks.
Thankfully, as the election creeps closer, reality is beginning to set in, and numerous planned polling stations are not going to be opened. We’ll consolidate some, and others will just not be available, necessitating the local people taking a longer trip to vote. It will be the courageous family that decides to take a trip down an unsecured road while bearing voter registration cards. The insurgents aren’t always in the mountains…they do come down to the roads to conduct checkpoints, often with an IED in the road between us and them to prevent our arrival in a timely manner to deal with them.
For an election you need ballots. It’s Afghanistan’s election, so U.S. forces aren’t supposed to escort or handle the ballots. As embedded trainers with the Afghan National Army (ANA), my unit is exempt from this guidance. And so, on our way to pick up the ballots yesterday, we got in a nice little enemy engagement, which resulted in one of our trucks getting a tire shot out, two antennas blasted off and a round of indeterminate caliber (we’re still debating what size it had to have been) cracking up our windshield. Armor is a good thing to have when the element of surprise is not on your side. The firefight was a nice way to welcome our recently-arrived replacements to the joys and adventures of life in Afghanistan.
We should have good security for most of the ballots and polling sites, but a few of those ballots are going to be headed a little further up the road into country we don’t venture…and are not going to venture for this election. The Afghan National Police (ANP) refuses to escort the ballots around here without our help, and in this case we’re not helping.
If not the Americans or the ANA or the ANP, who’s going to take the ballots up there and provide security for the election, you ask? Well, in Afghanistan, when the official government representatives aren’t doing the job, the responsibility falls to the traditional power brokers, i.e. the local elders. Turning over official election ballots to citizens who hold no official capacity may not be how things were drawn up by the 10-pound heads who wanted to hold an election in a war-torn country in the midst of raging insurgency, but as someone in the news stated recently, we shouldn’t let perfection be the enemy of progress.
If even the elders can’t guarantee the security of the ballots and the ballots end up getting burned in a bonfire in the square next to the village mosque — well, at least in that case, the insurgents have clearly shown themselves to be destructive agents and enemies of their peoples’ freedom of choice. In the past, just to make a point, we’ve dropped off humanitarian aid like schoolbooks in places where we thought it would get burned by the insurgents before the local people could get their hands on it. Something similar may end up happening with a small portion of the ballots.
However imperfect, Afghanistan will have an election on August 20 and new elected officials will take up their posts sometime shortly thereafter. Undoubtedly, some of our enemies will abuse the election process and the general lack of security in this region to get themselves elected. But I reckon we’re on the right track if they’re playing by our rules and participating in the process, whatever their ultimate motives may be.
I’m just thankful I get to be here to see how this thing turns out.
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