In Afghan election, corruption colors aims of many female candidates

Christian Science Monitor

The 386 women running in Afghanistan’s election Saturday have been touted as a clear sign of success. But others say that many of them are merely puppets for rich powerbrokers.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

In a cynical reminder that Afghan politics is rarely what it seems, activists in Kabul question whether many female candidates running in Saturday’s parliamentary elections are actually champions of women’s rights.

The record 386 women running for parliament is seen by many as one of the few clear-cut successes of an election campaign that has been marred by violence and fraud. Yet some women’s rights campaigners say that many of the female candidates are merely puppets for shadowy figures trying to garner influence in the new Afghan parliament.

“It’s quite clear that there are many, many women who are running not because they have interests themselves, but to represent the interests of warlords and power brokers,” says Nargis Nehan, director of Equality for Peace and Democracy, an Afghan nongovernmental organization.

“Those being supported by a bank, a warlord, a tribal leader, these are the people able to spend money,” adds Wajma Frogh, a member of the Afghan Women’s Network, an NGO in Kabul. “I know villagers who have sold their votes [to a female candidate] for $20. People will vote for her. Another very honest women’s rights activist is not able to pay $20 a vote. She’s not going to make it into parliament.”

An age-old rhythm of patronage?

If Ms. Frogh, Ms. Nehan and others like them are right, it’s an uncomfortable truth for those trying to portray women’s participation in Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy as a beacon in an otherwise dark and stormy country. And the proliferation of proxy candidates represents a wider problem in Afghanistan – the country’s politics still beat to an age-old rhythm of patronage.

But not everyone says that competition between female candidates has been compromised.Samira Hamidi, an activist with the Afghan Women’s Network, strikes an optimistic note.

“I know some of the [female candidates] and I know there is no one behind them, no warlords, mafia, drug dealers. We’ve been working closely with the election commission and people at the grassroots level and I haven’t heard anything,” says Ms. Hamidi.

Instead, Hamidi says, the participation of a record number of women is due to growing political awareness among Afghans and the march of women’s rights across the country.

Still, says Frough, the corruption that runs through Afghanistan’s political structure has also affected the new role of women in politics.

“It’s a patronage system,” she says. “Here democracy does not mean that people’s voices are important. Whoever is in power is in power because of coercion, because of someone else’s power…. This parliament is only a check-the-box formality so the international community can say, ‘Yeah, Afghanistan has a democracy.’ “

Women’s seats used to garner broader influence

Saturday’s election will simply reflect how power is disbursed across Afghanistan as a whole, she says. Although parliamentarians in Afghanistan don’t wield the influence they do in some countries, they do retain important powers, such as a veto on cabinet appointments and oversight of the government’s budget.

“Although we have a very centralized government, there is still power in the parliament,” say Nehan, the director of Equality for Peace and Democracy. “Now everyone’s realized that they don’t want just one seat, they want as many as possible. The easiest and least challenging way of doing this is to fill the women’s seats because the competition between men is quite tough.”

With 25 percent of the 249 available seats reserved for women and just 386 candidates contesting them, the women’s field is far less packed than the men’s, where competition is about twice as fierce. Trying to exploit the women’s vote provides good value for money for patrons.

Proxy candidates entrench corruption

The problem with proxy candidates is that it entrenches the political corruption that has become a byword for Afghanistan.

“The country is already damaged and there is no room for more damage,” says Shinkai Karokhail, a female member of parliament (MP) from Kabul. Most MPs, she claims, are “in the service of others,” while others are only “thinking about their own pocket, how to empower their own group.”

“The country is sinking because of corruption,” she says, and every powerbroker wants “to take advantage” of the politicians they bankroll.


Political satire show has Afghans glued to their TVs

The Independent

‘Alarm Bell’ creator has been threatened and beaten but jokes about Karzai go on

Today, President Hamid Karzai will be inaugurated in front of an audience of foreign dignitaries. But appearing on Afghan television, he is a little less statesmanlike. The incessant bickering, it seems, has grown too much, and Mr Karzai snaps: instead of calmly swearing an oath to his country, he is trying to strangle the US ambassador, jowl quivering next to spit-flecked jowl. A UN official gazes placidly at the unfolding chaos but luckily there’s someone here with a little more nerve. “Shut up,” screams a cross-dressing interpreter. It’s not exactly The Daily Show, but this is political satire, Afghan style.

Zang-e-Khatar (“Alarm Bell”), is a popular TV show in Afghanistan that has been thriving on the country’s political tribulations. It receives primetime billing – 9pm every Wednesday – and almost everyone with a TV seems to have seen an episode.

“It’s good entertainment,” said Ahmad Fawad, a shopkeeper. “It’s our custom to watch it every week.” His friend chimed in: “It’s funny and it’s informative. Our government is weak and Zang-e-Khatar tells people what’s going on.” The election debacle and subsequent speculation over who Mr Karzai will appoint to his cabinet have provided ample material; the visit of Hillary Clinton, David Miliband and a host of other foreign dignitaries to give their support to a man many foreign governments view as a disaster will doubtless provide plenty more. Host Hanif Hangam, whose silk scarf, dark glasses and turquoise rings lend him the swagger of a hip-hop star, is unlikely to be deferential.

In last night’s episode, for example, the show’s panellists lambasted the beleaguered President for failing to control his ministers, who they claimed went sex-trawling in Tajikistan instead of attending to the business of State. They wondered aloud how many positions Mr Karzai would give to the Taliban commanders who had delivered the pro-Karzai vote. And for good measure they derided the announcement that a new anti-corruption squad mentored by the British and Americans will clean up government. “Phew!” exclaimed Hangam, the show’s creator and leading comic, in an expression of relief that was not entirely sincere.

Owing an inevitable debt to Jon Stewart’s US current affairs review, The Daily Show, the show has a satiric sting that has enraged some of its targets. MPs tried to have it banned after it lampooned their opulent lifestyles and broadcast clips of them dozing through debates. Hangam says he has been threatened and beaten up since the show first broadcast five years ago. Now he says he is past the point of being scared – and, after all, he was once thrown in jail for pursuing his previous dream, acting, under the Taliban regime. He glows with pride when asked about his work. “The greatest thing is I made something out of nothing,” he says.

On some occasions politicians have noted the criticism, apparently reining in a tendency to throw water bottles at each other during heated debates after the show called for bottling companies to make softer MP-proof receptacles. The Taliban, foreign agents and even hapless pilgrims trying to get to Mecca are all fair game. The only subjects Hangam avoids are those he thinks will inflame ethnic tensions.

“They talk about the lack of respect MPs and politicians [show ordinary people] and I think to a large extent that’s true and that’s why it’s widely watched,” Fowzia Kufi, a young female MP, said. “Politicians ignore the programme but they should pay more attention.”


Taliban attack UN Kabul guesthouse in attempt to upend Afghan runoff

Christian Science Monitor

Gunmen stormed a Kabul guesthouse popular with UN workers Wednesday in what the Taliban called the first of more attacks ahead of Afghanistan’s Nov. 7 runoff election.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Taliban gunmen stormed a private guesthouse in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in a bloody predawn attack Wednesday that killed six United Nations staff and signaled a clear intent to disrupt the upcoming presidential runoff.

The United States embassy in Kabul confirmed that at least one of the dead was an American.

The raid, which appeared to be coordinated with rocket attacks on the presidential palace and the luxury Serena Hotel popular with foreigners, was the worst attack the UN has faced in Afghanistan and, like assaults on aid workers elsewhere could prompt some to leave the country.

The Taliban said the attack was the start of a campaign to wreck a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 7.

Before dawn three militants disguised as police and wearing suicide vests sealed off the road outside the Bekhtar Guesthouse in central Kabul before shooting their way past a security guard. Once inside, they threw grenades and, by some accounts, dragged guests from their beds before killing them. At least one detonated his vest before security forces recaptured the building following a two-hour siege.

Eyewitnesses said that some terrified guests fled over the roof of a next-door building; others were injured jumping from balconies as flames engulfed part of the building. Twelve people were killed in total, with nine more said to be in serious condition.

Attack could scare off aid workers

Kai Eide, the UN head of mission in Afghanistan, said the attack would not deter the organization from its mission but that there would be a review of security measures. A truck bombing of the UN headquarters in Bagdad in 2003 killed 22 people and prompted the organization to pull out of Iraq for several years. Although UN workers have occasionally been targeted in Afghanistan before, Wednesday’s attack had the highest death toll so far.

The attack could have a heavy impact on aid agencies in the country, with security analysts warning that some may pack up altogether while others will definitely scale back their operations. Aid workers due to arrive in the country to help with the second round of voting have been advised to delay their flights.

“I think there’s going to be a bit of an exodus,” says one analyst who asked not to be named.

Aid workers are softer targets than the coalition bases, embassies and government ministries that the Taliban has concentrate its attacks on in the capital up til now.

President Hamid Karzai ordered an urgent overhaul of security around international aid institutions.

Deadliest month since 2001

The attack came as the loss of eight more American soldiers on Tuesday brought total troop casualties this month to 54, making October the deadliest month of the war for US forces since it began in 2001. The casualty rate has shot up sharply since July when thousands of additional US troops were deployed to some of the most volatile parts of the country.

Seven soldiers fell victim to a cluster of roadside bombs in southern Afghanistan, while an eighth was killed in an explosion in another part of the country. Improvised explosive devices, the Taliban’s weapon of choice, are the largest single killer of foreign forces in the country. (Read here about how US troops are trying to counter the IED threat in Afghanistan.)

The rising number of casualties, the high-profile resignation of a highly regarded US Foreign Service officer, and the growing tensions over next week’s Afghan election runoff will intensify pressure on Barack Obama as he edges towards a crucial decision on whether to commit thousands more troops to Afghanistan.


Afghanistan runoff: Abdullah wants election chief sacked

Christian Science Monitor

Abdullah Abdullah, the top challenger to President Karzai in Afghanistan’s election, said Monday he would otherwise not participate in the Nov. 7 runoff. The ultimatum could be a cover to withdraw from the race.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Abdullah Abdullah, the main opposition candidate in Afghanistan, demanded Monday the dismissal of the country’s top election officer as a condition for taking part in a runoff vote scheduled for Nov. 7.

Many analysts see his ultimatum – which also called for the suspension of several government ministers – as highly impractical so close to the ballot. Instead, it could serve as cover for an honorable withdrawal from the race.

Although election officials have been rushing to organize a second round of voting after frontrunnerPresident Hamid Karzai reluctantly agreed to one last week, the possibility of a powersharing deal between the two candidates has persisted as a more pragmatic solution.

Flanked by running mates, campaign aides, and turbaned elders, Dr. Abdullah said his conditions were “the most modest demands we could come up with. The people of Afghanistan … were disappointed. They don’t want to go through the same thing in a few days’ time. These are the minimum conditions” for participation in the second round.

On the subject of the Independent Election Commission’s perceived bias towards incumbent President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah referred to a quote by IEC chairman Azizullah Ludin from The New York Times: “We will have another election, and we’ll have the same result. Karzai is going to win.” Abdullah also accused the IEC of violating Afghan law by “changing results announced by the [UN-backed] Electoral Complaints Commission.”

At the very least, analysts say, Abdullah’s demands will intensify the pressure on President Karzai as the two men bargain over the make-up of the next government. “I think they are bargaining now for post-election posts,” says Omar Sharifi, a political analyst in Kabul. “This is Afghan politics. There are always behind-the-scenes talks.”

Abdullah set Oct. 31 as the deadline for his demands to be met. He refused to say whether he would boycott the runoff if they were not.

The Taliban has threatened to kill anyone taking part in the vote.

Campaigning since Karzai’s reluctant endorsement of a second round last week has been muted, with both candidates fighting their corners on US airwaves more than rallying supporters at home. Karzai questioned the reliability of the United States as a partner Sunday, as he fought off criticism of the first, fraud-ridden round of voting. Meanwhile, in an interview with CNN, Abdullah warned that US strategy in Afghanistan would fail without a credible government in Kabul as a partner.


Afghan election runoff: As officials scramble, some voters dig in heels

Christian Science Monitor

Some Afghans say they are tired of the election’s toll on lives and business. A runoff between President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah is slated for Nov. 7.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

No one on Chicken Street wants any more voting.

Instead of the usual brisk trade in carpets, silks, and gemstones, the popular strip of shops in Kabul is largely deserted. Afghans say their country’s political uncertainty is hurting business. For some shopkeepers sales have dropped by half.

Their disenchantment comes even as United Nationsand Afghan election officials make frantic preparations to hold another round of voting between President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah, if they fail to reach a deal before Nov. 7, when the runoff is scheduled.

Among the daunting tasks: Replacing 200 of 380 district election chiefs implicated in fraud during the first round of voting with more reliable staff.

The scramble comes after Mr. Karzai, under pressure from Western officials, agreed Tuesday to accept the findings of a vote-rigging inquiry that triggered the runoff between the two leading candidates.

But although both men claim that more voters will turn out than last time – Dr. Abdullah said Wednesday that voters would “embrace” the prospect – many Afghans have little appetite for more polling.

Turnout estimates were as low as 5 percent for some areas particularly hard-hit by the insurgency during the first round, held Aug. 20.

Haji Abdul Hakim, a carpet dealer on Chicken Street, says he is angry about the failure of the Afghan government and the international community to bring the process to a swift end.

“Business is very slow,” he says. “Everyone is making a loss. Democracy? The original democracy is good but the United Nations doesn’t know about it. Everybody is angry. There are no jobs and winter is coming. Difficult, difficult, difficult.”

His view is characteristic of most interviewees – others derided the runoff for creating “the same problems all over again.”

Still, not everyone is unhappy with Tuesday’s announcement of a runoff election. In Shorobak, in southern Kandahar Province – where fraud was widespread first time around – tribal elder Haji Mohammad Brits says his community wants a runoff vote.

“We will go for a second round if it’s necessary,” he says. “The delay that happened in the result – it’s good because the people can see who did the fraud and they will know a lot of things about the fraud, the problems that happened.”

However, there are serious questions about how to organize another ballot in less than three weeks, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledging Tuesday it would be a “huge challenge.”

“We have learned very valuable but painful lessons from the first election. We must not repeat what they have done last time,” he said.

Ballot papers, indelible ink, and other election materials supplied by the UN are already in Kabul, ready to be flown to the provinces Thursday, according to UN spokesman Aleem Siddique.

But a major, and largely unanswered, question is how to avoid a repeat of the vote rigging that tarred the initial poll.

Independent Election Commission spokesman Mohammad Noor Mohammad admits this will be a “challenge” for election officials. “It will be something we respond to in coming days,” he says.

Of more immediate concern to potential voters is security. Durrani Shah, from Gereshk district inHelmand province in the south, says: “We did hard work and we lost lots of life and still no result of the election. We can’t go for the second time. We would be very happy to have the next government and to solve our problems.”


Warlords arm Afghans in the north

National on Saturday

MAZAR-E-SHARIF // Gunrunning here is a lucrative trade. The price of a Kalashnikov has quadrupled in parts of northern Afghanistan, driven up by the possibility of civil unrest as officials struggle to produce a result for August’s presidential election.

“The weapons business is good right now,” said Gen Abdul Malek, a local warlord who fought briefly with the Taliban before double-crossing them and executing 2,000 of their followers. “Where it was once $150 for an AK-47 it has gone up to $600,” he said. “Where it was five Afghanis” [about 10 cents] “for a bullet it is now 30.” Mazar-e-Sharif, the cosmopolitan city that straddles international trading routes, shows little sign of the troubles that have swept northern Afghanistan this summer. But its open spaces and gentle hum belie the political and ethnic tensions threatening to divide the previously peaceful region.

Residents say rival warlords are squaring up, exploiting the political deadlock for personal gain at the same time as the Taliban makes rapid inroads across the north. “They exploit the misfortunes of people, using – the name of their tribe to incite violence and make money,” a local journalist, who asked to remain anonymous, said. “People are saying ‘Kill the Pashtuns’. The leader of the Pashtuns is saying ‘Kill the Tajiks’.”

The trouble started when the powerful governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammed Noor, fell out with President Hamid Karzai after the latter overlooked him as his vice-presidential running mate. Instead, Mr Karzai chose one of Mr Atta’s bitterest personal rivals, the warlord Marshal Qasim Fahim. Mr Atta threw his weight behind Mr Karzai’s main challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, campaigning energetically for him and festooning Mazar-e-Sharif with posters of a smiling Mr Abdullah. Billboards endorsing the president were defaced or torn down.

But now with Mr Karzai expected to win the election, possibly in one round, Mr Atta looks vulnerable. Old enemies have taken note. Trying to usurp him is Juma Khan Hamdard, a Karzai ally and governor of Paktia province in the east. Mr Atta and Mr Hamdard go back a long way: they fought with different factions during the civil war and later, as governor of a neighbouring province, Mr Hamdard was held responsible for the deaths of 12 people after his Pashtun-centric policies provoked riots.

The two men sit on different sides of the ethnic split: Mr Atta is a Tajik; Mr Hamdard belongs to the Pashtun ethnic group. Both have reputedly used ethnic prejudice to stir up their followers at times, and Mr Hamdard has even accused Mr Atta of having local Pashtun leaders assassinated. Mr Hamdard’s spokesman denied suggestions that he was preying on ethnic insecurities. “Afghanistan is a house for all Afghans: Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks. And if you see the story of Balkh, it will tell you all Afghan tribes live together. Whoever tells you [otherwise] – it’s completely wrong,” he said.

Locals disagree. “As long as you have warlords in the government how can you have peace in the country?” said one. Mr Atta, meanwhile, has struck back at Mr Hamdard’s attempts to undermine his authority. In a blistering speech he accused Mr Hamdard, in league with the ministry of the interior, of distributing weapons in order to destabilise the north. “Twenty-five commanders were given weapons by Juma Khan Hamdard in Charbolak, Chintral and Balkh districts. For each commander there were between five and 25 AK-47s, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and motorbikes,” he said. At the same time Mr Atta defended the right of his own supporters to “peaceful demonstrations” against vote-rigging.

Some say that Mr Hamdard is a pawn in the plot, spurred on by government ministers unhappy with Mr Atta’s defiance. The powerful interior minister, Hanif Atmar, is rumoured to be behind the campaign to discredit him. But either way, the fragmentation of the north is down to the central government’s failure to impose itself. “The situation is declining faster and faster in the north,” political analyst Haroun Mir said. “People can’t rely on the Afghan security forces to provide protection. The absence of government authority [is creating the] tension.”

Into the political vacuum have stepped the Taliban. Swathes of the countryside and sections of main highways have become impassable over the summer and previously safe Nato supply lines are under threat. The scale of the problem was highlighted when the German military called in an air strike that killed 30 civilians – the kind of incident associated with seemingly more volatile parts of the country. And then on Thursday Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan warned that Islamist militancy was spreading north into Central Asia. Although some insurgents may have come from the Taliban’s strongholds in the south and east, most are local.

“The Taliban is a bunch of different groups using the same brand name,” a security analyst explained. “The Taliban is essentially using a federal model. The Quetta Shura [the supreme Taliban council led by Mullah Omar in Pakistan's Quetta] lets them do their own thing — which, by the way is where the government fails by being so centralised — and ships in a few high-value assets — Uzbeks, Chechens and so on.”

The map of Taliban activity in the north roughly reflects the location of the Pashtun communities there. Kunduz province, where they have effectively opened a northern front against the German soldiers stationed there, has a number of districts with Pashtun majorities. Balkh too has Pashtun communities. “I see the calm before the storm,” Gen Malek warned. “There will be violence and instability. There will be disagreements between the tribes.”

Some observers struck a more cautious note, suggesting that while some districts might harbour insurgents, trouble would only occur on a large scale if international forces began targeting their leaders. “Then you have a lot of little guys scrambling for power. That would lead to chaos,” the security analyst said. Meanwhile if Mr Atta is forced out of office he is unlikely to be out of power. During his five years as governor of Balkh he has consolidated up to 60 per cent of the province’s business interests – particularly construction companies. Even if Mr Hamdard wins the governorship he covets, Mr Atta will informally continue to run things.


Afghans criticize UN’s strong hand in their election

Christian Science Monitor

Several analysts and opposition figures in Afghanistan say the UN’s decision to fire Peter Galbraith for urging a harder line on election fraud affirms popular fears that it is the international community calling the shots on who wins.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

Before their country’s fraud-riddled election in August, some Afghans complained it was the international community that would decide the result. With the United Nations having fired a top diplomat for urging a tougher stand against vote-rigging, a move made public Wednesday, they say they now have proof.

Several Afghan analysts and opposition figures criticized the decision to sack Peter Galbraith, the UN’s No. 2 person in Afghanistan, for accusing his boss, Kai Eide, of endorsing a decision by the Independent Election Commission to allow fraudulent ballots to be counted – a move he said gave the election toPresident Hamid Karzai.

“I think it will further undermine the credibility of the election,” says Haroun Mir, head of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. “The majority of Afghans were already saying the final decision would be decided by the international community.” Read the rest of this entry »


Afghan election aftermath to be tackled by UN troubleshooter

Daily Telegraph

The United Nations is flying one of its top election experts into Kabul to help break Afghanistan’s political deadlock, as preparations get underway for a possible second round of voting.

Julius Cavendish In Kabul and Nick Meo

The arrival of Carlos Valenzuela in Kabul this weekend would be the most visible sign yet of increasingly desperate efforts by the international community to bring the drawn-out and contentious aftermath of last month’s election to a tidy end.

The UN hopes that he will be able to find a solution that makes it appear that foreigners are not influencing the result too much.

Mr Valenzuela has been given the job of ensuring a final certified result from the vote on August 20 is announced in time for a second round to take place if necessary. Read the rest of this entry »


Democracy or disaster?

Sunday Herald

AFGHANISTAN: IT was aimed at giving the nation a common voice but Afghanistan’s election, riddled with corruption and violence, may have only added to the country’s ethnic and political tensions

AFTER weeks on the campaign trail, Afghan politics is suddenly quiet as president Hamid Karzai and his closest rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah wait for the result of Thursday’s presidential election.

Spokesmen for both candidates declared victory on Friday before bowing to pressure from the country’s Independent Election Commission to maintain a dignified silence.

“It is not the job of the campaign managers to announce the election results,” said Zekria Barakzai, a spokesman for the IEC, who estimated national turnout at 40-50%.

US envoy Richard Holbrooke met both candidates to ask them not to incite their followers. There had been fears their rhetoric might stoke violence and split the country along ethnic lines.

Karzai belongs to the Pashtun majority and derives much of his support from Pashtun voters in the south of the country, where turnout was lowest. Analysts fear that allegations of fraud among his supporters will prompt Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik, and has his support base in the north to protest against an unfavourable result, sparking violent clashes.

Another possibility is that high turnout in northern Afghanistan and low turnout in the south, where voters carried Karzai to victory five years ago, may force the race to a second round. Karzai has said in the worst-case scenario this may lead to a civil war.

“We’re in a period where the outcome is unclear … Everyone said that they would respect the process,” Holbrooke said.

The British ambassador to Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said that the two candidates had responded with a “responsible attitude”.

International election observers also urged caution, saying it was too early to say who had won and whether fraud had affected the outcome. Violence, particularly in the south, made the vote hard to analyse.

The IEC will start to publish preliminary results on Tuesday. But election monitors have already criticised it for failing to release results from individual polling stations as they come in.

“I can’t think of an election that was this opaque, where no-one seems to have a good sense of how many people voted, whether they felt restricted or not in their ability to vote, what the breakdown between men and women was, what the support of various candidates was,” said Glenn Cowan, a principal with Democracy International. “All that information tends to act as a pressure release. You’re not getting that here.”

If Karzai receives the 50.1% of the vote he needs to win in round one, the depressed turnout in the Pashtun belt across the south and east Afghanistan, where he garners most support, may actually boost his legitimacy by showcasing him as a leader able to appeal to voters countrywide.

Some polling stations remained closed amid insurgent intimidation and violence. Residents of parts of Helmand, Kandahar, Wardak, Ghazni, Logar, and eastern Herat had little or no opportunity to vote. In Helmand, where thousands of British troops fought a month-long operation to provide security allowing 80,000 people to vote, just 150 were reported to have cast their ballots.

Gun-battles between militants and police raged all day in several districts in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s heartland. Insurgents attacked the provincial governor’s palace at 3.30am and kept up a barrage of rockets, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades until after dark.

Police said they fought gun battles with the insurgents, killing several. About a dozen roadside bombs were destroyed in controlled explosions.

The Taliban targeted Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother and a powerful figure in southern Afghanistan. Two rockets fizzed overhead as he voted. Another fell short of his house, blowing a young girl’s head off and wounding three members of her family. The Taliban fired more than 200 rockets across the province in total.

A few defiant Kandaharis did cast their ballots, mainly for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai.

“We must make our country and now is the time,” said one voter, squatting by a puddle and trying to scrub away the indelible ink that election officials had stained his finger with. Although the ink was intended to prevent people voting twice, it also identified those who had ignored a Taliban boycott of the election.

“They will kill me,” he said, asking not to be named.

Exiting the white tent where he had just voted, another man, Mohammad Younis, recalled that the last time he had cast a ballot, in 2004, it was with a spirit of optimism.

This time a rocket exploded nearby.

“You see our situation,” he said.

By early afternoon, the explosions and the baking desert heat had driven almost everyone off the streets. Polling stations were deserted save for a few election staff. When polls closed at 4pm, 1838 men had voted at what officials said was the city’s busiest polling centre. The IEC had estimated 6000 would turn out to cast their votes. “It’s been a quiet day,” said Sediqullah, the registrar at another polling station in central Kandahar City. Only 387 people had voted there.

The numbers at female-only polling stations were even lower.

The deputy president of the provincial council said that besides security being “very, very bad,” minor irregularities in voting were being reported in Kandahar City. “First bring security, then elections,” said Toorjan Dastagir, a stocky shopkeeper who refused to visit the polling station barely a hundred yards from his store. “All night there were rockets.”

The insurgents hanged two voters in Kandahar and cut the ink-stained fingers off two others. Rumours that militants would cut off voters’ ink-stained fingers had spread before the vote. A Taliban spokesman had said militants would not carry out such attacks, but the Taliban remains a loose confederacy of individual commanders who act on their own initiative.

Overall, though, the level of violence was less than had been feared. The UN, American and Afghan officials hailed the election a success, not least because the Taliban failed to stage any of the “spectacular” attacks they had promised. The Afghan government said at least 26 people were killed in 135 incidents countrywide. US President Barack Obama called it an “important step forward”.

Meanwhile, campaign managers for presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani have reported ballot-box stuffing by local commanders loyal to the Karzai family. This has been vociferously denied. Election monitors said turnout levels would give an indication of how much fraud had taken place; early indications are that a suspiciously large number of ballots were cast in places savaged by fighting.

In Kandahar one man also told the Sunday Herald that votes were being sold for $20 a time. Later, I saw people being admitted into polling stations after they had officially closed. The Election Complaints Commission has so far received 100 formal complaints about irregularities, including “allegations of ballot-stuffing in Kandahar”. European Union observers had difficulty getting to polling stations in southern Kandahar because of rocket attacks.

Nader Nadery of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan said his group saw widespread problems of election officials pressuring people to vote for certain candidates. In Mazar-e-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan, a fistfight broke out when a Karzai supporter began distributing campaign literature to people queuing to vote. In Balkh, three election workers were fired because they were campaigning for Abdullah during the election.

Election monitors saw voters carrying whole boxes of voting cards to polling sites, Nadery said. There were widespread reports of underage voters. In Kandahar, I found one 15-year old girl who had not only voted but was working as an election observer.

And yesterday, a long-shot presidential candidate displayed torn and mangled ballot papers that he said had been cast for him and tossed away by local election workers who support Karzai.

Mirwais Yasini said his supporters had found them ditched outside Spin Boldak city in southern Kandahar province. The ballots bore the stamp of the Independent Election Commission, which is applied only after they are used for voting.

“Thousands of them were burned,” he said. Spin Boldak is where campaign staff of Ashraf Ghani also alleged large-scale fraud was orchestrated by Karzai supporters.

Election observers were split in their opinions of the poll: some said low turnout reflected how dreadful security in southern Afghanistan has become. Others said just holding an election was a success. The ballot took place in a country at war, with little history of democracy, deep ethnic splits and endemic corruption.

The National Democratic Institute said it saw orderly voting, but added that the vote “involved serious flaws that must be addressed in order to build greater confidence in the integrity of future elections.”

The fact that members of the IEC were appointed by Karzai suggested a degree of bias, it said.

Democracy International reported that although violence and intimidation disenfranchised voters in large parts of the country, in more secure areas Afghans were able to cast their votes. The IEC was able to administer the elections effectively enough to prevent questions of legitimacy arising on this front, it said, but the lack of a voter list created plenty of opportunities for fraud. Around 17 million Afghans were registered to vote, although it is unclear how many hold duplicate cards.

United Nations Special Representative Kai Eide recently referred to the Afghan poll as “the most complicated elections anywhere in the world”.

After the events of last week few would question his assessment.


Taleban threats and attacks take toll on polls as voters stay away

The Times

Jeremy Page and Tom Coghlan in Kabul and Julius Cavendish in Kandahar

The credibility of Afghanistan’s presidential election hangs in the balance today after Taleban threats and attacks severely depleted voter turnout, especially in the southern province of Helmand, and observers reported widespread electoral fraud.

The Times has learnt that turnout in Helmand was as low as eight per cent and fewer than 150 people cast ballots in the district where British forces launched Operation Panther’s Claw in June to allow 80,000 more people to vote.

UN, Nato, American and Afghan officials hailed the election as a success last night, saying the Taleban had failed to disrupt a poll seen as a test of President Karazai’s popularity and international efforts to build democracy. But evidence from observers, electoral officials and polling stations visited by The Times suggests that turnout was so low, and electoral violations so rampant, that many Afghans will doubt the election’s credibility.

In Helmand, where British troops have been deployed since 2006, only about 50,000 people cast ballots out of an estimated 620,000 registered voters, according to the local election chief.

Panther’s Claw aimed to push back the Taleban and allow people to vote in the area around Nad e-Ali, Helmand’s most populous district with 107,500 residents. Brigadier Tim Radford, commander of British forces in Helmand, said last month the operation had allowed 80,000 more Afghans to vote.

But fewer than 150 people actually cast their ballots in Nad e-Ali out of about 48,000 registered voters, according to Engineer Abdul Hadee, the local head of the Independent Election Commission.

“The number we hoped to get to vote — it has not happened,” he told The Times.

Haji Ahmad Shah Khan, a tribal elder in Nad e-Ali, was one of many Afghans scared off by the Taleban’s warnings to attack polling stations and cut off voters’ index fingers, which were marked with indelible ink.

“We couldn’t come out of our house. The Taleban are patrolling the area,” he said. “Nobody could vote.”

Mullah Ghulam Mohamamd Akhund, a Taleban commander in the district, said: “Everything was fine. There were no polling centres and no voting. We didn’t face any problems.”

Engineer Hadee said there was a similarly low turnout in most of Helmand’s 13 districts despite the recent efforts of British troops, 13 of whom have been killed this month. No votes at all were cast in Nawa and Garmsir districts, which had 85,000 registered voters between them. In Nawzad, which has a population of 46,300, the vote was cancelled because there were no presidential ballot papers.

The poor turnout is troubling for President Karzai, as well as for British forces, because most people in Helmand are from the Pashtun ethnic majority from which he hails and derives most of his support.

His aides worry that low turnout across the Pashtun-dominated south could mean that he fails to win the outright majority needed for a first-round victory. That would force him into a second round run-off in early October with his main rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, who is half Pashtun and half Tajik.

“One round will be in the interest of the nation,” Mr Karzai said yesterday as he cast his vote.

Early results from near Lashkar Gar, Helmand’s capital, gave an idea of people’s affiliations in the south. At a polling station at Kareyz School, about two miles south of Lashkar Gah, there were 2,418 votes cast, of which 2,400 went to Karzai, and 18 to Dr Abdullah, according to a local councillor.

Many observers, analysts and diplomats fear that Mr Karzai’s allies may try to rig the vote to compensate for the poor turnout in the south.

Although Helmand appeared to be the worst affected province, turnout was also low in many other provinces with large Pashtun populations. “This is Karzai country but they really failed to get the vote out today,” said Tom Fairbank, an observer for Democracy International in the eastern city of Jalalabad, which voted overwhelmingly for Mr Karzai in 2004.

“The interesting thing now is to see how many people they will say voted here when they release the results.”

Observers also reported a very low turnout in the southern city of Kandahar, where the Taleban fired several rockets, one of which killed a young girl.

The biggest attack of the day was on the northern city of Baghlan, which militants stormed in the morning, shutting down all its polling stations. Between eight and 22 militants were killed in the ensuing battle, according to local officials.

In Kabul, Afghan forces killed two more militants who took over a building in the east of the city.

“The kind of spectacular attacks that we were warned about have not happened,” said Kai Eide, the UN envoy to Afghanistan.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Nato chief, said: “Seen from a security point of view the election has been a success.” Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan, said: “So far every prediction of disaster turned out to be wrong.”

The view from Helmand was less upbeat. Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a local councillor from Nad e-Ali, said he went to his local mosque at lunchtime and asked 40 elders who they were voting for

“They said, ‘are you crazy? My life is much more important than the presidential election’. Among all those forty I was the only one to vote.”


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