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.”

Kandahar voters live in fear as Taleban tightens grip before election

The Times

Squatting on the floor of a traditional Afghan house the chubby cleric shrugs off yet another Taleban death threat in the run-up to today’s presidential election. This one, delivered by telephone the previous night, warned Maulavi Hekmatullah Hekmati that he would be dead within a week.

Mr Hekmati knows that the threat is real: he often denounces the insurgents on local radio and enough of his fellow mullahs have been murdered for him to live under armed guard. For him, however, as for so many others in Kandahar, the threat of assassination has become almost routine as this southern city falls deeper into the hands of the Taleban.

The city is the heart of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtun majority, which rallied behind President Karzai at the election in 2004. This year, however, the Taleban have been steadily infiltrating the city and waging a campaign of intimidation designed to disrupt the poll. Graffiti, posters and “night letters” tacked to mosque walls warn people not to vote. The chatter of gunfire is commonplace.

Dozens of government employees, clerics and activists have been killed, including a prominent female politician, Sitara Achakzai, who was shot by the Taleban in April.

Ahmad Wali Karzai, the chairman of the provincial council and President Karzai’s half-brother, admitted that political violence was part of life in Kandahar. “This terrorising people is always in the air, people breathe it,” he told The Times inside his heavily fortified compound. “There will be attacks. The fear is there.”

Western officials and many locals say that Mr Wali Karzai is partly responsible because he is an alleged ringleader of the province’s powerful drug trade — a charge that he denies.

The fear, for many, is that the Taleban are taking over Kandahar — although to what extent it is difficult to gauge. Some say that a recent drop in suicide attacks means they already control the city; others say that the insurgents are trying to minimise civilian casualties by carrying out fewer bombings while continuing targeted killings.

For others police corruption is the main problem. Ghafar Shah was driving to the bazaar when he was stopped by three police officers, beaten unconscious, abducted and kept in chains in a house outside the city. “I didn’t think I’d live,” he said. He was rescued and his captors were jailed, but others have been held for ransoms of as much as $1 million (£600,000).

President Karzai hopes that Kandaharis will defy such risks to back him again today — but even those brave enough to defy the Taleban have little faith in the electoral process. “In the previous election there was fraud and in this election there will be, I’m sure,” Haji Mohammad Hussein, a local man said. “The country is corrupted. The power is with gunmen.”