Mullahs Work Against Ballot

Reporter tells how clerics urge Afghans to boycott August 20 vote.

Mullahs Work Against Ballot

Reporter tells how clerics urge Afghans to boycott August 20 vote.

Thursday, 13 August, 2009

It is a risk for a journalist to go into Taleban-controlled areas without permission but I had heard that mullahs were organising gatherings against the elections and I wanted to see for myself. I also wanted to gauge people’s reaction to the mullahs’ propaganda.

It is not easy to plan such a trip: you have to put yourself in the hands of people you do not know very well. You are never really sure who you can trust.

I started out from Herat city at about 2:00 pm heading for Pashtun Zarghon district, about 70 kilometres east. The area is controlled by those in opposition to the government, and I was worried about being kidnapped or robbed by thieves, as well as being identified as a journalist by the Taleban.

I went by motorcycle, which is very difficult on our roads, but I decided that it would be even riskier by car. Much of the way is not paved, and I was entirely covered in dust. This was a good thing, though, as it made it difficult for others to recognise me.

After about 20 km, I reached the place where my guide was supposed to meet me to take me to the village. He had not yet arrived, so I waited for a while.

Nearby, some children were swimming in a pond. I was an unknown face and they stared at me, making me uncomfortable. It was quite possible they would inform the insurgents that a stranger had come.

Finally, my guide arrived, heavily armed. He jumped aboard my motorcycle and we set off.

He showed no fear, and I was pretty sure that he was from the group controlling the area. He would often greet other armed men we met along the route, and it was obvious that they knew each other well. These men were not Taleban – they were members of former mujahedin groups who are not happy with the central government.

I saw several other motorcycles like mine along the way – a rider backed by an armed man.

The further I got from Herat city, the more distant the elections seemed. Although there are 37 presidential contenders and more than 180 provincial council candidates in Herat, I saw no posters along the road. It was as if there had been no campaign at all out here.

The police, too, were absent.

Finally, we reached our destination: a village where, I had been told, mullahs were preaching against the elections at afternoon prayers.

I was in a mosque with my guide when suddenly several armed men entered. They were dressed like Taleban, all in black. A little while later more men arrived, with white turbans. The mosque was full of weapons.

The scene was very scary for me. I kept expecting that foreign forces would bombard the area at any moment.

One of the mullahs sounded the Azan, or call to prayer, and summoned people through loudspeakers to gather in the mosque to hear speeches of religious scholars.

Local people started to arrive. After the prayers, one of the mullahs in a white turban, with blue pirohan-tunbon (Afghan traditional clothing) began to speak, starting with verses of the Koran. He was unarmed, looked to be about 35 years old and was of average height.

The mullah spoke in generalities for a bit, asking people to maintain their unity. But slowly he came to his main point – exhorting people not to participate in the elections.

“These elections are a trick, a fraud perpetrated by western countries, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom,” he said. “Whoever participates in these elections will be shamed in front of Allah and his prophet.”

Ehsanullah Ehsan, a member of this group, had a black turban and black clothes. He looked like Taleban, and he told me that they had given speeches like this one in Karokh, Gozara and Oba districts of Herat province. The people in those areas had welcomed them warmly, he added, and the process was continuing.

Ehsan said that he himself had given some of the speeches, and added that participation in the elections was a very great crime.

“The Americans are just picking a puppet for themselves,” he said. “The president of Afghanistan is not going to be elected by the people.”

Ehsan urged participants at the gathering to tell their relatives not to vote.

The purpose of this counter-election propaganda was to motivate people to take up arms against foreign forces rather than vote, said Ehsan.

“Afghanistan has been invaded by these foreigners,” he said.

Ehsan knew how to play on people’s emotions. He talked about subjects designed to make people very angry, such as the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in western newspapers; the alleged abuse of the Koran by Americans; and the “genocide” caused by coalition forces’ bombardment of peaceful communities.

Ehsan told people that the foreigners had come to control our country and our people, and it was the job of each and every Afghan to spread the word that foreigners are the enemies of our culture and our religion.

Ehsan said that the mullahs did not belong to any specific group, but were just trying to serve Allah and rescue Afghanistan from the invasion of the infidels. He did say, however, that the mullahs were being financially supported by the Taleban.

Each of the mullahs had a mobile phone and modern weapons, and they were walking around the area without fear.

Their propaganda seemed to have an extraordinary impact on their audience.

“I agree that the president of Afghanistan is not elected by the people, but is selected by foreigners,” said 50-year-old Khudaidad.

Gholam Dastgir, 70, told IWPR that the election is just a game played by the Americans.

“What the mullahs say is true,” he insisted. “The people should listen to the principles of Sharia, not to the United States or the government in Kabul.”

The counter-election propaganda team in Herat province told me they had had more than 200 sessions with the people so far.

The armed individuals said that they are trying to recruit more men from among the people and to extend their areas of operation to other districts of Herat as well as neighbouring provinces.

It was starting to get dark, and I decided to leave for home. A friend of my first guide offered to accompany me. On the way back, he kept reminding me to watch out for thieves and other armed men after he left me.

It was a difficult trip because my motorcycle had a broken headlamp. I kept waiting to be abducted. Finally, I made it home.

The reporter requested that his name not be used for reasons of security.

Support our journalists