"Green Shoots" of Democracy in Afghanistan

Summer in Afghanistan is known as "fighting season," but this year it's also voting season. You wouldn't have known it following the news coming out of the country.

With barely two weeks left before the elections, the contest is heating up and the media is finally beginning to notice that this is an open race. The tide in the headlines is now turning against the false idea that Pres. Karzai's re-election is inevitable.

Just yesterday the British Ambassador to Afghanistan said in a news conference: "I think it's genuinely in the balance as to whether there will be a second round," referring to the fact Karzai would need to win more than 50% of the votes on August 20th to avoid a run-off.

Many articles continue to emphasize that the security situation may be too volatile to hold a legitimate election. It is too soon to tell, but the Taliban are doing their best to make it so.

When I arrived in Kabul yesterday morning eight Taliban-fired rockets had just landed in the city. It was the first rocket attack on the capital in years. On the same day another Talib in Zabul province blew himself up and killed five people with the same wanton goal: to scare voters from the polls.

Despite all the violence, corruption and lawlessness that haunt the country, the "green shoots," of democracy are undeniably here.

There are still about 40 candidates running, but the race is really between three men: Pres. Karzai, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. The only polling data is months old, but showed Karzai's support well below the 50% he would need to win outright.

Right now Afghan voters are engaged in the issues and demanding answers. One young Afghan I spoke to on the street today told me that the most important issue for him was reliable electricity and he was voting for Dr. Ghani. Another young man nearby interjected and told me he was voting for Karzai. There was no tension between them.

The streets of Kabul are plastered with posters from the various presidential campaigns. The average lamppost bears the images of at least four different candidates. Though Karzai's is usually the largest and most frequently peppered face among them, it is clear this has become a real contest, at least on the surface.

On July 23rd Afghanistan had its first-ever presidential debate. Almost one in three of Afghanistan's 33 million people tuned in to the event on TV and the radio (Karzai didn't bother showing up to participate).

The forces of democracy are at work but they up against the violence of the insurgency and they are up against the state (check out this weekend's New York Times article "Karzai"s Labyrinth").

The Karzai regime is using all the institutions of the government to prevent a free and fair election so it can hold on to power. Security forces are threatening observers and voters, state media is obsessively stumping for Karzai and there has been widespread fraud in registration and vote buying. For example, since women cannot be forced to show photo identification, their voter I.D. cards are being sold to the highest bidder.

Tragically, last month was the deadliest for foreign forces in Afghanistan since 2001, yet that is exactly why bringing attention to their political crisis right now is essential.

People on the street here believe the process is corrupt, but they are still participating, showing up to rallies, debating ideas and criticizing the incumbent.

P.S. To see some great photos of the three main candidates on the trail, check out Lynsey Addario's narrated slideshow on