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Holbrooke: Democracy At Work In Afghanistan

Richard Holbrooke (right), U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, shakes hands with a worker during a visit to the Independent Election Commission office in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 25.
Rafiq Maqbool
Richard Holbrooke (right), U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, shakes hands with a worker during a visit to the Independent Election Commission office in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 25.

President Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, is traveling in Afghanistan ahead of next month's presidential polls, which he characterizes as "the first contested elections in Afghanistan's history." Holbrooke says he is pleased with the Western-style campaigning he has seen, but that certain Election Day glitches should be expected. He spoke with NPR's Renee Montagne at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Renee Montagne: What have you seen as you have traveled through the country these past days that would allow you to say that this election will be fair enough for most Afghans to accept it?

Richard Holbrooke: I'm not ready to judge the elections. All I can say is they're really important. As President Obama has said, they are the most important event in Afghanistan this year, the first contested elections in Afghanistan's history. What I've seen is democracy at work.


A lot of the techniques Americans are most familiar with — campaign rallies, negative advertising, positive advertising, one of the candidate's supporters all turn out in a special color of blue at the rallies — this is all politics, Western-style, in a wartime condition. It's just remarkable to watch. It's exciting.

Even a couple of weeks ago, the feeling was, among those here in Afghanistan as well as outside observers, that this election was almost a done deal for [President Hamid Karzai] if for no other reason than because —

I heard that in Iraq, and I heard that in Iran, too.

Is there a comparison? Not in many ways, but in the sense of how things picked up late in the game?

I think late voter interest is almost certainly going to happen here. The rallies are quite large — 10,000, 15,000 people — that's huge. The candidates are touring the country — or most of them are. So, I'm not concerned about the voter apathy. I am very pleased with what I've seen.


Do you think — in the time you've been here and as much as you've been able to observe — it's what you might call a horse race? Do you think there's a real chance that these other candidates, especially the other major candidates, can really pull ahead to the point where they win or force a runoff?

I don't know the answer to your question. But what the United States is concerned about — and this I really want to stress — what the United States cares about is that the Afghan people choose their president in a level playing field under conditions which create an election where the outcome is accepted as legitimate by the Afghan people and by the world.

We know that in a wartime election it's going to be difficult. For example, originally the government talked about 7,000 polling places. We know that isn't going to be possible. But that isn't going to mean the election is a failure. It means it has to take into account changing local circumstances. In the United States there are polling places which don't open or have to be moved or closed. So, this doesn't concern me very much.

But talking about a level playing field, you were just down in Helmand province, where 4,000 U.S. Marines have poured in. They've been fighting to drive Taliban out of villages. And the theory that they're working under is they'll be able to protect these villages, make these people feel comfortable voting. From what you observed and from the people you talked to, could you say that particular important province will be a level playing field in terms of this election?

The American and NATO-allied commanders in Helmand are going to be participating in security on Election Day. And they believe that most of the polls will be open, but not all. There's nothing wrong with that. It happens. Do a few closed polling places invalidate an election under these circumstances? Absolutely not.

Wouldn't the people, though, who can't vote think maybe it wasn't fair because their voices can't be heard?

Does that invalidate the election? If that's true, the 2004 election in the United States should be questioned. Because a lot of the voters in Ohio stood in lines and the polls closed and they were left out there not voting. And that was in the world's greatest and oldest democracy.

Elections are rarely perfect. This election, in unprecedented wartime conditions, is certainly not going to be without its rough spots. It's the integrity of the voting process in the middle of a brutal war. How many countries would have had the courage to hold an election under these circumstances? But Afghanistan is, and they should be given credit for it.

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