Security fears abound in Afghanistan as election nears

By Farhad Peikar and Latif Ahmad, DPA,

Zherai (Afghanistan) : Residents in several villages of the Zherai district in southern Afghanistan said they were not ready to risk their lives to vote in next week’s presidential election, accusing Afghan and international forces of failing to provide sufficient security.

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Taliban militants recently dropped off “night letters” in the district in Kandahar province, warning people not to take part in the Aug 20 voting “if they want to remain alive”.

Large numbers of heavily armed Taliban insurgents are often seen roaming around Ashoghar village there. That kind of warning is enough for Rahim Jan Kako, 52, to stay away from the polling stations, even if the Taliban don’t execute its threats.

“The government says it will install the polling stations in secure areas like the centre of the district, but how can we go there from our village?” Kako asked as he sipped green tea in front of his shop in the village.

“I voted last time despite threats, but what the elections brought us was killing and destruction,” Kako said. “I don’t want to risk my life or that of my family members. I will simply sleep that day and be safe.”

His thoughts were echoed by other residents of the strife-torn region as Afghanistan seeks to mount the second direct presidential election in its history as it also fights a stubborn Taliban insurgency.

“Yes, the government might be able to provide security for me during the election day, but who will protect me and my family when we come back during the night to our village?” asked Sayed Jan, 32, a resident of Pashmol village.

A security official in Kandahar province who did not want to be named admitted that because of insufficient manpower in some districts, security forces would only be able to man the polling stations in the district centres.

Those lack of numbers have came despite thousands of additional US soldiers being deployed to southern Afghanistan in June in the lead-up to the election. They joined British and Canadian forces in the fight against the insurgents, who are most active in that region.

Together with Afghan forces, the combined troops began assaults against insurgents in neighbouring Helmand province in early July, trying to strike deeper into Taliban strongholds. It was hoped that their presence would help bolster public confidence in the region and reassure people that it was safe to vote.

However, the pre-election operations resulted in heavy casualties, turning July into the deadliest month for international forces in Afghanistan since their deployment following the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001. A total of 75 foreign troops, including 43 US soldiers, lost their lives.

More than 100,000 international troops and around 200,000 Afghan soldiers and police are to provide security Aug 20 for more than 6,500 polling stations around the country, but Independent Election Commission officials said this week that they would not be able to hold elections in about 10 districts unless those areas are secured, which seemed unlikely one week before the polls.

As a military victory in that short span of time seemed impossible, President Hamid Karzai’s government tried to secure a ceasefire with the Taliban in several regions after local elders struck a peace deal with a group of insurgents in the north-western province of Badghis in late July.

But two days later, Taliban leaders announced that the militants would boycott the elections and ordered all their fighters to disrupt the vote. The militants have conducted more than 20 attacks against candidates and campaign workers in recent weeks, Afghan military officials said.

Karzai’s running mate, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, was attacked by militants in northern Afghanistan, and one cameraman was wounded while gunmen killed two workers for former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main challenger.

Although the Taliban penetrated new areas in northern and western Afghanistan this year, they appeared to be able to make good on their threats to obstruct the voting only in their traditional strongholds in southern and eastern Afghanistan. However, analysts still predicted mass abstentions, which could lead to the new government lacking legitimacy.

A low turnout could be ominous for Karzai, who was expected to get most of his support from areas in the east and south that have large populations of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and the one to which Karzai belongs.