x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Taliban impeding Afghan election

Campaign of intimidation and distrust by militants sparks security concerns in Logar province, driving down voter registration.

Military vehicles patrol in Pul-e-Alam, in Logar province, Afghanistan where the strength of the Taliban is a cause of widespread concern.
Military vehicles patrol in Pul-e-Alam, in Logar province, Afghanistan where the strength of the Taliban is a cause of widespread concern.

PUL-E-ALAM, AFGHANISTAN // Insecurity in a province bordering the Afghan capital is jeopardising the chances of holding a free and fair presidential election here this summer, residents and a senior official say. The Taliban's strength in Logar, on Kabul's southern border, is a cause of widespread concern with the poll due to take place in a little more than two months. A campaign of intimidation by the rebels, along with public discontent towards the democratic process, has contributed to a drop in the number of locals registered to vote.

Khoja Aminullah Fazelly, director of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan in the province, was unable to give any figures but admitted there had been a decline in interest for a couple of reasons. "The main thing that people are worried about is security. We don't have 100 per cent security in Logar. I am sure if it gets better we will have a good election. If it gets worse, there will be some problems," he said at his office in Pul-e-Alam.

"There were a lot of people who tried to come here to get their registration cards, but the Taliban threatened them and searched them." Afghanistan's second presidential election is due to take place on Aug 20, five years after the first was meant to usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. Security has deteriorated during the intervening years and the Taliban are now a permanent presence surrounding Kabul.

Extra US soldiers have been sent to Logar in an effort to stem the growing insurgency and, according to residents, they have had success in some areas. However, the Taliban continue to operate freely elsewhere in the province. The rebels have refused to take part in the election and are actively disrupting the process, searching male members of the population and confiscating any registration cards they find.

Gul Ahmad, a 30-year-old father of four, claimed they had even murdered some people for wanting to vote. But rather than blame the Taliban for the bloodshed that has crippled Logar, he criticised Hamid Karzai, the president, and the US-led occupation. "This time we will not vote for Karzai Sahib because there are no jobs, there is lots of fighting and there is no security. The Americans search houses without permission and kill civilians, which is not good. The foreigners should go back to their own countries. We are very tired of them and they should leave," he said.

"The security is not good in Logar and the election will not be free. The first problem is that the people cannot trust the candidates. The second problem is that in all the districts and villages the Taliban are saying 'don't vote because the candidates are infidels'." Mr Karzai is the overwhelming favourite to regain his seat this summer, largely because many of his potential rivals have already dropped out of the race.

Out of the original list of 44 candidates, there are only two real challengers to the incumbent. They are Abdullah Abdullah, his former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, his former finance minister. Zalmai, a 33-year-old carpet shop owner, voted for Mr Karzai in 2004 but has now decided to support Mr Ahmadzai. However, he questioned whether it was possible to hold a fair election this time around.

"Everyone knows that the people of this province are not free to vote. Even now we are in the centre of Logar and we are very afraid of the Taliban." Afghanistan's ministries of defence and interior have pledged to improve security in the build up to Aug 20, when provincial council elections are also due to take place. The deployment of thousands of extra American soldiers is also designed to stabilise the situation in the south and east, where fighting is fiercest.

Sayed Younus, 42, said additional US-troops had helped bolster the area around Pul-e-Alam. But he added that similar measures would have been more effective at the start of the war. "There is still some fighting in parts of the province. If the troops had come here in 2001 the situation would have been better, so why didn't they do that? I'd be happy if the government negotiated with the Taliban. Talibs are good people and the government must talk to them."

skarim@thenational.ae