Days after the August 20 Afghan elections, the media action is centered on the conference rooms, coffee shops and corridors of the Intercontinental Hotel, a great hulking, Soviet-esque building that overlooks western Kabul from its perch in the foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Journalists of seemingly every stripe and nationality now spend their days dashing between the press conferences staged by various organisations – the Afghan Independent Election Commission, the EU Election Observation Mission, the US-based International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute. They’re all here. Between press conferences, journalists grab a Coke and smoke with the various international observers and Western diplomats hanging around the premises.
But if the Intercontinental is an air-conditioned break from the heat, dust and security fears of covering the Afghan election, the atmosphere here is no less charged than outside its fortified walls.
For one, the national and international journalists gathered here are losing patience with the “generally fair, victory for the Afghan people” line emanating from these halls.
We’ve seen polling stations in Kabul where reporters outnumbered voters. We’ve spoken to our colleagues and observers outside Kabul who recount tales of ducking rockets near polling stations. We’ve noted the absence of observers during the critical counting period after polls closed on August 20, when it was too dangerous to have international monitors in the field after sundown. And now, some of our colleagues - especially the local Afghan reporters - are losing their patience with inanities from an international community that has put so much credibility, and money, into these election.
At Saturday’s EU Election Observation Mission presser, the mood boils over. “So, you’re saying there was low voter turnout, there were attacks in the south, there are many reports of irregularities, and yet you say the election was generally fair?” asks a reporter sarcastically.
Seconds later, another query, this time from a local Afghan TV station correspondent, is a full-frontal assault. At the end of a sharply worded question, the journalist notes, “how can you declare the election was okay when you were more concerned about your security than monitoring the election?”
It’s not a great thing to say, but we all know that EU travel restrictions in Afghanistan curb staffers from going pretty much anywhere – this dates back to 2005 during the previous parliamentary elections, when the security situation was much calmer.
But Philippe Morillon, chief of the EU Observation Mission, is not putting up with this nonsense. The former French general launches into an impassioned, Gallic admonishment at the nature of the discourse. “The tone of the question was unfriendly and not merited,” says Morillon. “The safety of our staff is of course important, but we are not in a bunker, we are here in the middle of the population. We are here to help the whole process. The process is not finished at all,” he reiterates.
It’s an impressive display which is greeted by applause from a solitary audience member, grins from most of the Afghan journalists and baffled shrugs from other international reporters.
Minutes later, the presser is over and we all rush to grab a coffee and disparage the latest conference. But we don’t have much time. There’s a National Democratic Institute presser down the corridor, followed by yet another by the Afghan Independent Election Commission. Everyone predicts that nothing new will come out of either briefings and reporters are struggling with the eternal in-the-field conundrum: should we hang around for more information or just retire to file our stories or gab before the cameras?
Whatever the decision, it can all be done from within the precincts of the one institution that has seen it all in Afghanistan – the '70s Soviet invasion, the ensuing mujahideen wars, the Taliban era, the 2001 US invasion, followed by the international reconstruction mission. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s hear it for Kabul’s incomparable Intercontinental Hotel.