Saturday, an estimated 4 million Afghanis went to the polls to cast their votes in a parliamentary election despite intimidation and violence from the Taliban. At least 21 voters were killed during 294 attacks on election day as insurgents launched rockets, set off bombs and stormed polling stations across the war torn nation.
Even though terror kept many people from voting and caused, what the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan called, “serious concerns about the quality of the elections,” there is still something extremely remarkable about what happened over the weekend.
That remarkable something is that voters turned out at all. Those 4 million voters represent somewhere between 25-40 percent of the voting age population of Afghanistan. (Afghanistan hasn’t had a census since 1979, so population numbers are based on CIA estimates.) That turnout is near the 37.1 percent of Americans who went to the polls in our last non-presidential election.
So despite the very real possibility of bodily harm, the people of Afghanistan vote in the same number as those of us who vote in the freest country on Earth. There are two very important and distinct lessons to learn from this.
The first lesson is that the non-voting populous in this country should revisit its reasons for staying home. Is it that difficult to spend some time reading up on the candidates and issues? Is standing in line one day every two years too much to ask? People in a nation that hasn’t known peace in more than a generation are literally dying to vote and the two countries’ voting turnouts are roughly the same.
The American people have become complacent about their right to vote. They get up in arms about other rights like free speech and freedom of religion, but our most vital right is trampled on, not by the government, but by apathy and laziness.
What do you say to an Afghan who risks his life to vote when you won’t even risk missing the opening number on “Glee” to vote?
There is something to be said about sacrifice. Our grandparents understood. Our founding fathers understood. Our Afghan cousins understand. Perhaps we don’t. Two generations of peace and prosperity will do that to a people, but it’s still a sad realization. We can do better.
The second lesson is the Afghan people have validated the American commitment to their country. American soldiers have lost their lives to liberate Afghanistan from the Taliban. Many others have given up their best years to the cause of that country’s freedom.
People willing to vote despite such great threats are worthy of our help and devotion, no matter the cost. One Afghan schoolteacher reported, “People are scared that the Taliban will catch anyone having ink on their fingers and cut off their fingers as punishment.” Yet, 4 million voted anyway. Four million people stood up against the intimidation and fear.
Historians have called Afghanistan, “the graveyard of empires,” but that might no longer be the case. General David Petraeus said after the elections, “The voice of Afghanistan’s future does not belong to the violent extremists and terror networks.”
Freedom might finally be rising above tyranny.
If you’re betting on the outcome in Afghanistan, the conventional wisdom might suggest it’s falling back into the hands of the Taliban. After all, this was the lowest turnout of any Afghan election thus far.
Yet, this columnist can’t help but think 4 million people willing to have their fingers cut off and their lives taken by murders just to cast their vote in an off-year election might find a way to overcome the odds.
As you reflect on the nine years we’ve spent in Afghanistan and wonder if it’s been worth it and wonder about the costs we’ve had to bear since 9/11, just think about what it would be like to live in a country where you might not come home from the polling place if you decided to vote. Then think about if you would be among the 4 million Afghanis who went anyway Saturday.
If that doesn’t give you faith in humanity, nothing will.