Participant | Observer
by Eileen Guo
In the fall of 2012, I moved to Kabul, Afghanistan.
The country was less than two years out from a presidential election with unusually high stakes. It was the first time that the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, who had been in power since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, was not running for reelection. The field was open for political change and, if successful, the country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power. The frontrunners were Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik leader from one of the main factions of Afghanistan’s bloody civil war, and Ashraf Ghani, an Afghan-American former World Bank official.
I had been desperate to return to Afghanistan since my first trip four years earlier as a research assistant at the coalition military-run Counterinsurgency Training Center. At the time, I was a starry-eyed sophomore in college majoring in international relations and anthropology, and I treated the trip as a test run for a career in post-conflict reconstruction. But rather than falling in love with the sector, as expected, I instead fell in love with Afghanistan.
In high school, I used to say that I was socially progressive but fiscally conservative.
I don’t know when or where I first heard these labels paired together, but I liked how they sounded and parroted the combination. It seemed like a reasonable, well-thought-out, and measured perspective that avoided the trap of being too opinionated. It was bland — the type of statement designed to elicit thoughtful head nods and a breezing through to the next topic of conversation.
Descartes famously said, “I think, therefore I am.” In my adolescent quest to figure out the “[who] I am” part of that statement, I played my opinions, and my identity, close to my chest.
When I returned from my first, brief trip to Afghanistan in 2009, I was disillusioned by our government’s efforts, often described not as one war lasting eight years, but eight wars of one year each — one year being the duration that the average military unit spent in a country before rotating out. With each new unit, the relationships and lessons of the previous one had to be re-forged and re-learnt.
Luckily, as that disillusionment was setting in, I discovered entrepreneurship and its growing influence on government and policy. At the time, Silicon Valley was still overwhelmingly focused on mobile apps, but there was a small contingent that was starting to turn their energy and talent towards the bigger problems in the world. This was especially the case among the small start-up community in Washington, D.C., where I had moved after graduating.
From the nation’s capital, I watched the Internet-enabled Arab Spring take off in Libya and Egypt, and excitedly discussed “digital diplomacy” and “democracy 2.0,” which emphasized the role that technology could play in government and democratic participation, with fellow enthusiasts. Under Hillary Clinton’s leadership at the State Department, there were many of us, and their expertise around the world confirmed my growing belief that we needed a more creative, entrepreneurial approach to progress in Afghanistan.
All the conditions seemed ripe for a digital awakening in Afghanistan and, in March 2013, I started the country’s first digital media agency with an Afghan friend whom, fittingly, I had met on Twitter. Our purpose was ambitious: getting Afghans onto the Internet (often for the first time), convincing them of its potential for social activism, and encouraging online participation in the hopes that this would lead to a similar offline engagement at the polls that spring.
Within a year, our small but growing team of six (four Afghans, two expats) launched the country’s first national social media conference (the “Afghan Social Media Summit”) as well as its largest citizen journalism platform, Paiwandgāh (Dari for “Place of Connection”). We conducted mobile-based polling for international news organizations; advised embassies and international organizations on their technology and youth engagement strategies; live-tweeted the Loya Jirga, a historic meeting bringing together tribal elders and community leaders to counsel the president, at the invitation of the Afghan Presidential Palace; and created an interactive website for citizens to monitor the first 100 days of the incoming administration.
With democracy and social media simultaneously coming of age, it was a heady time to be leading a digital media agency in Kabul.
On election morning, April 5, 2014, I woke up early to coordinate the efforts of my Afghan team, who had to make time to go to the polls to vote themselves while still fielding calls and text messages, monitoring social media, and managing real-time updates from around the country for our citizen journalism platform.
At 7 a.m., I sent a group text to my team, but it didn’t go through. I tried again. Error. Frustrated, I turned to Twitter to vent. I found that I was not alone; the government, it seemed, had shut off text messaging across the country.
They provided no reason, though two competing explanations circulated. Perhaps they aimed to prevent violations of the Constitutionally mandated “campaign silence period,” which banned any candidate campaigning in the last 48 hours before polling to prevent undue influence on voters’ decision-making. Or perhaps they wanted to block the Taliban from intimidating voters by SMS. The government neither confirmed nor denied these rumors. With their silence, it became just another unanswered question in an election season full of them.
We adjusted quickly, turning to Whatsapp for internal communications, and phone calls and social media for our citizen journalists’ reports. By 9 a.m., my team, who had all lined up to vote before the polling stations had even opened, had provided their own reports of success at the ballot boxes across Kabul, and we turned our focus fully to collecting reports from around the country.
Though we feared otherwise, ultimately, the ban had little effect on our platform, which still received nearly 600 reports from 27 of the country’s 34 provinces. But in the back of my mind, there was a broader concern: turning off SMS was a capability that no one knew the Afghan government possessed — what else could they do?
Across the country, there were a few reports, including from our citizen journalists, of attacks around polling centers, isolated cases of the Taliban cutting off fingers marked with the tell-tale blue ink indicative of voting, and instances of minor fraud. However, these were low in number and did not take away from the overall jubilation of the day. That they surfaced at all was seen as positive indicators of increased transparency, rather than concerns about the legitimacy of the elections.
At the end of the day, 7 million of Afghanistan’s 12 million eligible voters showed up at polling booths around the country, evidently undeterred by an increase in pre-election violence by the Taliban. The optimism was palpable. The Afghan people seemed to be sending a clear signal to both the Taliban and the watching world: Afghanistan was embracing democracy.
Growing up as a Chinese-American daughter of divorce in an upper middle class white suburb, I always felt misplaced. “Other.” It was this sense of otherness that first piqued my interest in anthropology, where being simultaneously part of and yet apart was not only embraced, but also professionally mandated. And still, even so, it was an uncomfortable feeling and, in my everyday life, I could rarely shed my heavy mantle of self-consciousness.
In Afghanistan, my East Asian features and basic Persian allowed me to pass for Hazara, one of the country’s many ethnic groups and one that was often said to be of Mongol descent. (Genghis Khan once counted Afghanistan as part of his empire.) This gave me a freedom to move around Kabul with an anonymity that was uncommon for expats — and rare even in my own life experience.
Being mistaken for a local, I sometimes forgot that my physical passing was not the same as being Afghan, and how much this distinction mattered.
April 5 did not turn out to be the first day of a rosy new era, but merely a pause in the crescendo of violence that preceded it and the months of political uncertainty that followed.
In general, Kabul tended to be far less violent than the media reports suggested, especially for foreigners, but in the early months of 2014, like a petulant teenager, the city began living up to its dangerous reputation. Attacks increased and changed in purpose. As Canadian magazine journalist and longtime Kabul resident Matthieu Aikins wrote for Rolling Stone, “The blows came one after the other, like a hammer setting a nail: six attacks in four months. By the end of April, more foreign civilians had been killed in Afghanistan this year than foreign soldiers.”
With their new strategy of targeting aid workers and journalists, it seemed as if the Taliban had a clear message: leave Afghanistan and our democratic experiment behind.
My friends and family, who had settled into an uneasy truce with my choice to live in Afghanistan, began to break rank. They asked with a new urgency: “When are you coming home? What are you fighting for? Are you sure it’s worth it?”
These were familiar questions that I asked myself as I cycled regularly between euphoric conviction and debilitating burnout. They were not, however, questions that I considered now; as the violence increased, I doubled down. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being in Afghanistan on election day. Kabul had become home and many Afghans my extended family.
Perhaps I could not vote. But at the very least, I could be there, and show solidarity with my presence.
The first round of voting had proved inconclusive, with neither of the top two contenders receiving enough of the majority vote required for an outright victory. A run-off election was scheduled for June, but 1 million more votes were cast in this second round, a suspicious circumstance given the widespread accounts of lower turnout around the country.
The possibility of fraud was raised, and the country entered another period of depression and uncertainty.
Some political leaders took to social media to incite protest. Supporters answered these calls by taking to the streets. The Parliament debated blocking social media completely to prevent an escalation from online remarks to offline violence. And in the expat community, the whispered questions of, “How long will we [personally] stay?” took on a new political meaning.
The UN intervened, organizing an audit of all 8 million votes cast. But ultimately, the election crisis was resolved not by the final vote tallies, but by the power-sharing deal brokered by American Secretary of State John Kerry. And so, after all the hoopla, Afghanistan’s new government was decided not at the polls, but by the same backroom dealings by which power has always been transferred.
A few weeks after the second round of voting proved inconclusive, I flew back to the United States for my annual R&R.
That morning, two of my staff members joked about the state of the country — or countries — that I might be returning to. One of them, referring to the ethnic and geographic split between the main contenders’ bases of support and the fear of another civil war, said, “By the time you come back, I might need a visa to work in Kabul as well!”
We laughed, though we all knew that beneath his attempt at levity, a heavy-heartedness was settling over Afghanistan. People were angry, disillusioned, and afraid. Some declared that they would never vote again, and burned their voter ID cards in protest. Many had voted for the first time and now felt betrayed by their tentative foray into democracy.
I wanted to shake them and tell them not to give up, but who was I to speak? They were right.
I was disappointed as well, both in the results themselves and the futility of technology they seemed to have revealed. Technology got out the vote and allowed for unprecedented transparency, but could do little to counter the realities of power or the limitations of the democratic system itself.
But ultimately, this was neither my country nor my election. I could leave at any moment. I was, in fact, leaving that very moment.
Landings and take-offs from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport (renamed shortly after the election) are emotional affairs.
A friend claims to have once seen an Afghan man, traditionally dressed, chugging an entire bottle of Duty Free vodka during a three-hour flight from Dubai to Kabul. The man grew more despondent as the flight inched closer to its destination, but at the end of the journey, he still walked out, reeking of grain alcohol yet barely stumbling, into the dusty Kabul day.
As for me, as the plane draws higher and higher into Afghan airspace, I always feel a mixture of relief, nostalgia, and guilt — then more guilt at that initial relief, and then an endless spiral from there. I hate that I am leaving, and I already miss the endearing chaos of my Kabuli life on the dry earth below.
I wanted to be different, special, as if my personal commitment to Afghanistan could erase all the mistreatment and abandonment that the country has suffered over the past half century. My decisions in Kabul became driven by a constant personal battle to prove myself.
Eventually, I saw that even in this desire, I was not unique and that, in trying to demonstrate my commitment for commitment’s sake, I was my only scorekeeper.
I moved back to the United States for good in December 2014, soon after the newly brokered National Unity Government took office, and just as the Republican primary season was kicking off in the United States.
I resettled in Coastal Virginia, far from the life that I had lived before Afghanistan, hoping that this way, I could get a fresh new start. But from what? My eyes were still firmly fixed on Kabul, where our social media for civic engagement work continued.
At the same time, I began tenuously exploring how and where to reengage in my own country. I did not consider politics, or government, as the right avenue.
Instead of participating or encouraging participation in the upcoming election, as I did in Afghanistan, this time around, I simply sat back and observed. It was a relief to have that luxury.
After all, I thought, I lived in a country in which the institutions were strong, the people’s wisdom usually prevailed, and progress was ever-forward-marching. Wasn’t it in 1992 that history itself was declared over?
Don’t get me wrong. I followed the elections.
I laughed along with the rest of America at Donald Trump, shuddered at the idea of a Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Chris Christie presidency, and tilted my head at “Bernie Bros,” who I didn’t understand or care to. I was pro-Hillary from the beginning. That she had enemies emphasized to me that she both cared enough about her issues, and had the moral conviction to act on them, even in the face of criticism. But in the campaign season that followed, I neither worked for, volunteered, donated to, nor advocated on behalf of my candidate.
Instead, I focused my activity online: reading the news and priding myself on being a well-informed citizen. I tweeted, shared memes, referred to Trump as “Drumpf” (following late night comedian John Oliver’s lead), and regularly teared up reading the stories shared on secret Facebook groups for Hillary.
And on election day, I pulled out a white pantsuit that I had forgotten I owned, woke up early to vote, and then took a GIF selfie that I shared on Instagram with a hashtag I created: “#shimmyingforhillary.”
The hashtag did not go viral, and disappeared quickly into the graveyard of obscurity.
Unlike in Afghanistan, a democracy in its infancy, where even dirty politics were brightened by a veneer of hope, I saw American democracy as stable but stagnant. I was turned off by images of politicians with fixed grins pontificating from quickly mantled and dismantled stages, perfectly coiffed talking heads whose main qualification were how far removed they were from reality, Occupy-style protestors, always in some other city, disorganized and clamoring for some impossible change.
With my narrow and unforgiving understanding of American democracy and politics, I failed to reclaim the concepts in a way that resonated with me. And so, unlike in Afghanistan, where I participated in every way short of casting a ballot, back in America, I did nothing except cast that ballot.
When it most mattered, I shrunk away from declaring to the world what “I think, and therefore [what] I am.”
Unlike the candidate that I so admired, I could not act or speak without fear.
But in both Afghanistan and in the United States, my participation had at least this in common: It started and ended with social media.
It was just that, back home, I had made myself into a caricature of democratic participation in 2016: the voter selfie and the identity-politics-posturing had become just as sure signs of civic engagement as my voting itself.
“Now Americans can never again promote women’s rights in Afghanistan, because they need to secure women’s rights in their own country.”
The morning after the U.S. election, a friend from Afghanistan posted this on Facebook.
It shook me. How could I have told women and youth across Afghanistan that their voices mattered if, across the ocean in my own society, I was afraid of my own?
I had been under the impression that apathy was safe and apolitical, when in reality, all choices — even the choice to remain silent — are political.
Eileen is a writer whose work explores how place, identity, and technology shape our beliefs and behaviors in the modern world. Previously, she was a tech entrepreneur that started Afghanistan’s first digital media agency. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, World Economic Forum, Nikkei Asian Review, and VentureBeat. Additionally, she has been interviewed for and featured in a number of publications, including Foreign Policy, Fast Company, Vice, and the Columbia Journalism Review. Featured image courtesy of Eileen Guo.