x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Fears of violence as election draws near

Tension is growing in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces as the date for the presidential election draws near.

Election posters: The US hopes the Aug 20 poll will bring more stability to Afghanistan.
Election posters: The US hopes the Aug 20 poll will bring more stability to Afghanistan.

MATA KHAN DISTRICT// Tension is growing in one of Afghanistan's most dangerous provinces as the date for the presidential election draws near. Here in Paktika, on the country's south-eastern border with Pakistan, there is widespread concern among residents that it will be impossible to hold a free and fair vote come Aug 20. Many people claim the Taliban are gaining power and they blame US troops for making the security situation even more precarious in the build-up to the poll.

"There are a lot of differences between this election and the first election. "The first time security was good; everyone hoped Afghanistan would be rebuilt and there would be no fighting. Now day by day security is getting worse," said Sayed Mohammed, a shopkeeper. A mountainous and remote area with few natural ties to the central government in Kabul, Paktika has become increasingly volatile in recent years. Hizb-e-Islami, an insurgent group, has some support locally and Jalaluddin Haqqani, a Taliban commander, draws respect from large sections of the population who remember his fight against the Soviets.

The province's rugged border with Pakistan has also made it a crossing point for militants travelling between the two countries. Last month, insurgents kidnapped a US soldier here. He is still missing and footage of him in captivity was recently aired by the Taliban. This, then, is likely to be a key testing ground for the democratic process on Aug 20, which Washington hopes will usher in a new era of greater stability that will eventually allow US troops to pull out.

Speaking in the district of Mata Khan, Mr Mohammed said it was impossible for the US "to finish fighting with fighting". He warned that if more reinforcements continued to arrive, the mistakes of the Vietnam War would be repeated. "It's not just in Paktika; all Afghans don't want the American soldiers to stay," the 35-year-old man said. Despite reporting that insurgents have sent out letters overnight telling people not to vote, he was quick to point out that the Taliban did not rule by intimidation alone. "They should be given positions in the government because they are a very big group and we are happy with them. In the areas they control there is Sharia law, there are no robberies and no one fights with each other," he said.

Forty-one candidates are due to stand in the presidential election and the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is the clear favourite. His main rivals are Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister. Should either of them mount a genuine challenge, and no single candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote, a second round of voting may be required.

But with only a month to go, Afghan officials and members of the public are alarmed by spiralling violence. One of Mr Abdullah's campaign team was recently killed in Kapisa province, north of Kabul, and even Mr Karzai's office has expressed some anxiety over the situation. However, Barack Obama, the US president, has made a successful poll a cornerstone of his plan to defeat the Taliban. He has expressed his hope that American involvement in Afghanistan can start "transitioning into a different phase" after the election.

Attah Mohammed, a farmer with five children, said people in Paktika were caught between the government urging them to vote and the insurgents ordering them not to. "If the Americans leave the country, god willing, security will get better. Nothing will happen after that because brothers do not kill brothers. The Taliban regime was the best time because there were no robberies and the situation was good. Now it is the same again in the areas under their control," he said.

Provincial council elections are also scheduled to take place on Aug 20 but the mood is significantly more downbeat throughout the country than it was in 2004. Back then, Mr Karzai won more than 55 per cent of the vote for the presidency and turnout was put at 70 per cent. Rahmatullah, another Paktika resident, said the government had failed in its promises to build schools and reduce unemployment.

The father-of-two also exhibited the type of growing anger people here feel towards anyone they suspect might be working for the US and its allies. "Are you a spy? Why are you asking these questions?" he said. "Go from here or I will give you to the Taliban." skarim@thenational.ae