Photo Information

One by one, local Afghans turn in their votes during the elections in Marjah, Afghanistan, March 1, 2011. Elections are being held to elect District Community Representatives for the Marjah District. Regimental Combat Team 1 is deployed to Helmand Province while in support of the International Security Assistance Force.

Photo by Cpl. Nicholas S. Edinger

Representation takes root in Marjah, Afghanistan

1 Mar 2011 | Sgt. Jesse Stence

A new voice has arisen from the tiny hamlets and bazaars along the Helmand River.

Marjah residents selected the district’s first representative body at the District Center, March 1, during an election that was coordinated primarily by the provincial government.

Now, they wait for their new District Community Council to bring further development to their district in Helmand province.

“The implications are huge for Marjah,” said Lt. Col. James Erwin, the advisor and mentor for Marjah District Governor Abdul Mutalib Majbor. “Marjah, one year ago, was a center of Taliban efforts and the efforts of the narcotics industry in Central Helmand. No one would even fly [helicopters] over Marjah. Now, the District Center is packed with people from all over the district openly supporting [the local government] and looking to participate in the process of government.”

Prior to the election, the provincial government appointed an interim DCC for Marjah.

Now, the newly-elected DCC represents between 120,000 and 180,000 people who are spread among five sub-districts. The exact population isn’t known because district census data hasn’t been collected since 1979, before the Soviet era in Afghanistan, Erwin explained.

According to Erwin’s records, 75 percent of approximately 1,500 registered voters participated in the recent election.

Although the total turnout was low by Western standards, local coalition officials believe the voters represented most of the district.

According to Bill Gillette, the Provincial Reconstruction Team advisor for Regimental Combat Team 1, and an official with the US Department of State, most voters were village elders, mullahs and block leaders who spoke for entire communities. The election reflected a tribal, collectivist adaption of democracy -- different in appearance than US democracy, but functioning in a similar spirit, Gillette said.

Gillette added that the new representatives will be able to procure funding to improve the district’s infrastructure, which will improve the democratic process. For example, he explained, better roads and public transportation will make it easier for citizens to get out and vote.

Currently, the DCC’s main function is managing a budget for local development, explained Erwin. The budget provides the district $1 - 1.7 million. The DCC identifies projects and gains approval from the provincial and national government. The provincial government executes funding for the projects, and the DCC oversees the work.

The annually-elected DCC representatives also serve as advisors to the district governor and help report local issues to the provincial government, Erwin said.

For Marjah, the DCC election was the district’s second election under Afghanistan’s new government. In September, Marjah citizens made history by participating in the Helmand province parliamentary election for the first time.

Results from the DCC elections were slightly better than the parliamentary election. Fewer than 1,000 citizens voted in September, whereas this month’s election tallied more than 1,100 votes. The election-day turnout of registered voters also increased; 75 percent of registered voters participated March 1, up from 72 percent in September.

According to Erwin, nine more DCC seats are open to sub-district representatives.

“The nine seats are reserved for the under-represented areas,” Erwin said.

“Those seats will not be absorbed by the other council members but left vacant until those areas are ready,” Erwin explained.

The DCC’s first development projects will begin in late summer or early fall, Erwin said. In the upcoming months, the DCC will undergo training, draft their spending proposals, and route the proposals to the provincial and national government, he said.

According to Erwin, there were no security incidents on election day. The atmosphere was calm and cheerful, signifying greater freedom for local citizens and trouble for the Taliban.

“Central Helmand was a bastion of Taliban support,” said Erwin, “and [now] this area is becoming hostile to them.”