"It's started! They're stuffing the boxes!" My friend's voice on the line was a breathless jumble.
He was calling from the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak the night before Afghanistan's last presidential election, in the summer of 2009. I was in nearby Kandahar, where I had lived for seven years. By then, I was serving as an adviser to the commander of the international troops.
"It's the border police," my friend galloped on, describing the house and the street where the crime was occurring. His tone conveyed the wild wish that I could somehow dispatch a platoon to stop the travesty.
But I couldn't. Even then, international community policy - civilian and military, that of embassies and the United Nations - was to "Afghanize" the election.
So, though the world's democracies were paying for the exercise, they stood back and in effect facilitated tremendous electoral fraud, scurrying to rectify the impact only after the fact.
Now, four years later, Afghanistan's presidential campaign season is officially open again, for a vote to be held in April. The roster of more than two dozen candidates, including several whom many Afghans describe as war criminals, gives a taste of the likely integrity of the exercise.
Yet U.S. officials are once again vesting incautious hope in the notion that it will somehow produce, as one told me recently, a "more legitimate government."
Afghanistan fits a pattern of transitioning countries that have rushed to elections before their policies were sufficiently constituted. And the results, from Nigeria in 2004 to Egypt and Libya in the wake of the Arab Spring, have been dire. U.S. officials and democracy promoters would do well to regain the sophistication of our founders, who understood that elections can deliver good or ill, depending on the quality of the framework within which they take place.
The 2009 Afghan vote-rigging operation was sophisticated. It began with what the military would call a psychological-operations campaign - this one mounted against the international community.
President Hamid Karzai and his proxies understood that Afghanistan's benefactors desired an election, at almost any cost. Karzai's clique played on the international presumption that most members of his Pashtun ethnic group would vote for him - untrue, if the disgust of every Kandahari I knew was any guide.
Taliban inroads were concentrated in Pashtun areas, and Karzai threatened to challenge election results if too many polling places were closed for security reasons, thus disenfranchising "his" voters.
All summer, in an effort to forestall this potential blot on the all-important election, international troops and Afghan officials scrambled to pry open polling places. Troops engaged in "clearing" operations, which lasted only through the poll. Afghan government officials negotiated with local Taliban commanders, offering money or prisoner exchanges.
What they got in return was a stunner: no guarantee that people could actually vote, just a Taliban promise to allow ballot boxes and papers to enter the district, then leave unmolested after the election. Tales recounted by villagers around Kandahar confirmed the obvious: Almost no one voted. Taliban threats were too explicit.