Voters go to the polls across the UK today to elect their district councils. The democratic process was a little different in Afghanistan:
“NAHR‑E‑SARAJ IS ONE of 14 districts which make up Helmand Province. Each is governed by a council of elected officials known as the District Community Council (DCC). This was an entirely Western institution conceived by the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (HPRT) and overseen by the DST. Founded in 2010, elections were to be held every couple of years when each of the mosques in the district would be entitled to select three men to represent them. These representatives would then form an electoral college who would vote on the 20 or so from their number who would actually serve as DCC councillors.
Gereshk being a shockingly liberal city, the Nahr‑E‑Saraj DCC was unique in Helmand Province in having a small number of female councillors. This was something the DST had insisted upon at the initial election and which had been grudgingly accepted by the district’s menfolk. To get around the obvious problems of actually allowing women a free vote, or the possibility that a female might defeat a male election candidate, such women as were permitted to do so by their husbands held a separate vote to select only the female councillors. On election, these token women councillors were not allowed to join their male colleagues at the council table and were authorised to debate and vote only on women’s issues. No one seemed entirely clear what these gender specific issues were, but this didn’t matter because they were never discussed.
Despite these rather obvious flaws, the DST took great pride in its female councillors. To my mind, rather than representing progress towards gender equality, they highlighted the lack of it.
It was not only women who lacked representation on the Community Council. Many of the outlying areas in the district did not have a councillor to represent them. This was because these areas were under the control of the Taliban who had not conveniently signed up to the PRT’s plan to bring democracy to Helmand Province. In fact the Taliban had so actively discouraged participation in the DCC that a few would‑be councillors had died of democracy as they slept in their beds. Somehow, the PRT managed to find the silver lining even in these assassinations by declaring that this demonstrated the ‘resilience’ of the DCC institution.
In reality, while the DST looked the other way, Balool Khan the DCC’s venerable Chairman, a former Mujahideen fighter, gifted these vacant seats to his friends and tribal allies without the need for troublesome elections and they, in turn, re‑elected him as Chairman. This way Balool retained control of the Council and ensured that his own tribesmen were first in line for any handouts from the District Development Fund. This purported to be a state fund managed by the Ministry of Finance in Kabul. It was in reality a multi‑donor international aid package less an undisclosed percentage skimmed off by Ministry of Finance mandarins. This was how democracy worked in Afghanistan and by these standards it worked very well in Nahr‑E‑Saraj.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised. The PRT was, after all, trying to overlay democracy onto a regime of tribal patronage that had been in existence long before the birth of democracy in Athens around 510BC. Balool Khan was a wise old bird and I was pretty certain that as far as he was concerned the DCC’s only purpose was to part the infidel from his money. It was fair to say that he easily out‑smarted any of the DST officials, and I had to admire his ability to run rings around them. It seemed inevitable that he would revert to the old patronage system as soon as the funding dried up.
Naturally, the Helmand PRT glossed over these failings and relentlessly communicated progress in expanding governance and the delivery of basic services, when no such progress existed.
Having imposed the DCC construct on the province two years earlier, an election was now due. Between the DST’s incompetence, Balool Khan’s contrivance and the Taliban’s intimidation the Nahr‑E‑Saraj DCC had failed from the outset to represent the people of the district but this was an ideal opportunity to redress this parlous state of affairs. Giving residents the opportunity to vote for their chosen representatives and thereby gain some influence and control over their own future might just compel them to support the GIRoA administration.
The PRT was responsible for running the election and made it very clear from the outset that they did not require, or desire, military assistance in this matter. Much to my surprise residents of the district were to be given just ten days notice of the impending election. When I raised my concerns about the brevity of this timeline, the Helmand PRT’s Governance Advisor helpfully explained to me that this was intentional. His team would not be able to cope with large numbers of citizens actually turning out to vote. In a revelatory late‑night conversation in the J9 cell he further elucidated that it was important to create the semblance of an election without going to the trouble of actually holding an election. In his opinion this would be unnecessarily bothersome and might even result in candidates considered undesirable by the PRT getting elected.
I was stunned. In part by the suspiciously racist manner in which the GOVAD appeared to view the populace of Helmand. In far greater part by the implication that American, British and Danish soldiers were risking, and losing, their lives in the district so that the PRT could create the semblance of an election.”
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the true story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.