Election Day in Afghanistan: Ballots, bullets and bombs

Election Day in Afghanistan: Ballots, bullets and bombs
At about noon an RPG is launched inside the base, exploding near a tent. The two Marines inside the tent are unharmed. All around the base, Marines don their Kevlar helmets and vests and take cover under concrete bunkers.

MARJAH, Afghanistan — “Look sharp, it’s a big day for you guys,” LtCol Kyle Ellison tells the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP) on the morning of parliamentary elections in Marjah. “No one gets in here without a detailed inspection.”

Ellison points to the high school where Afghans will cast their ballots. The Marines have come to check the polling site before voting begins at 8 a.m. - and then they will leave.

“This is an exciting day, we’ve had over a 1,000 registered,” says Ellison to the Chief Election Worker. “This is your day. I just wanted to stop by and say hello and make sure you didn’t need anything from us. We’ll get out of your way so you can help people to vote.”

The Afghan National Army (ANA), the Afghan Uniform Police (AUP) and the Afghan National Civil Order Police (ANCop) will run security for the elections. | Photo Gallery

In the high school, Afghans prepare the cardboard polling stations and set up the ballots. There are 53 candidates from Helmand province on the ballot.

As the Marines leave, the first voter enters the high school. After marking his ballot with a pen behind the stall, he places it in a secured plastic bin.

At the election worker’s table, he dips his pinkie finger in ink so that he won’t be able to vote again.

At 8 a.m., he is the only one here to vote, and there is no sign of other locals waiting to vote.

Reports indicate that more voters are gathered a quarter mile from the high school, at another poll near the bazaar.

Marines stop and talk with locals outside of the school. One man says he is headed to another village to vote. 

“As long as you’re voting,” says Ellison. 

Gunfire bursts about 400 meters from the high school. Two squads of Marines from the Police Mentoring Team and the Afghan police are receiving contact on their patrol north of the high school.

Despite the commotion, people are still on the road. Several nomads herding sheep pass the Marines. The Afghan says he’d vote, but he needs someone to watch his 100 sheep.

The Marines joke that they will watch his herd.

Ellison stops and talks with another man on a bicycle. He says he’s not registered to vote.

“You should go over and talk to the voter guys,” offers Ellison.

The man appears interested and goes along his way. Other locals along the way say they will vote after eating and working.

For the next two hours, the voting will continue without a U.S. military presence.

At the AUP station, a tip from locals inform the Marines that Taliban intend on attacking Forward Operating Base (FOB) Marjah.

A few hours later the Police Mentoring Team returns to the outside of the school with the Afghan Uniform Police. According to the Chief Election Worker there has been 27 voters so far.

“Voters were on their way here, but they heard the shooting and they left,” says the Chief Election Worker. 

Another one of the workers, leaning against the wall, says that he is not afraid of the Taliban.

Small arms fire and heavy machine gunfire sound and two RPGs boom.

Inside the school, workers gather to the window, watching for action. The Taliban are firing from positions from the northwest, southwest and the south.
Haji Bazgul, a powerful elder, comes to check in on the high school polling site. He says that voters are still standing in line at the bazaar undaunted, so far, by the firefight.

Outside the school, the dusty streets are becoming vacant.

“The shopkeepers weren’t even at their shops," says Cpl Brandon Felicetty of the Police Mentoring Team after his patrol to the school. "That lets you know something is up or something is going to happen. It makes you want to stay alert, just making sure you’re watching all angles.”

Back at FOB Marjah, the base takes small arms fire. At about noon an rocket-propelled grenade is launched inside the base, exploding near a tent.

The two Marines inside the tent are unharmed.

All around the base, Marines don their Kevlar helmets and vests and take cover under concrete bunkers. As they talk about the day's events, Reaper Drones fly through the air launching hellfire missiles on two Taliban that were identified with large RPGs, which classifies them as people with hostile intent.

The Marines will do anything to minimize threat to civilian or friendly forces, and in this case had a clear shot at their enemy.

After a long day of gunfire and RPGs and voting, the sun begins to set and sounds of the fight dissipate. 

The final voters turned out today in the 26 Marine Infantry Battalion’s area of operation is estimated at 400.

Dan Morrison and Cali Bagby are embedded with the Marines in Helmand province, Afghanistan, north of the Pakistani border, as multimedia journalists for KVAL News.

Morrison teaches photojournalism and multimedia reporting at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication in Eugene, Ore.

Bagby is a freelance multimedia journalist who spent 10 months embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq for KVAL.com.