Fear of violence shadows Afghanistan’s provinces on election eve

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that 11 candidates were contesting the Afghan presidential election. Eight candidates were on the ballot. The story has been updated.

While outgoing Afghan president Hamid Karzai is urging his citizens to vote in the April 5 polls, the Taliban is threatening to disrupt elections through a campaign of bombings and killings. (Reuters)

As Afghans head out to vote for their next president Saturday, violence is expected to be intense and widespread. But the risks won’t be dispersed evenly.

Just a short drive from Kabul, close enough for a daily commute, hundreds of thousands of potential voters will have to face down the Taliban if they go to the polls. Many have already decided that the danger is too great.

On Thursday, Hiran Gharat was on his way home from the sprawling capital, with its sea of campaign billboards, to Ghazni province — a trip that took him from Afghanistan’s most fortified city to one of its most vulnerable villages.

Behind him, in Kabul, thousands of police officers have been stationed to secure the presidential election. But 90 miles to the south, where he and his friends were headed, voters will be afforded no such protection.

“If we vote, the Taliban will cut our fingers off,” said Gharat, 20, a student at Kabul University, speaking at this city along the route. “They will see us leave our homes, and they will track us down.”

Some 3,000 donkeys are being deployed across the country to deliver ballot boxes to the country's most inaccessible areas for Afghanistan’s first election on Saturday. (Reuters)

Gharat is one of many Afghans who move daily between the nucleus of the country’s security infrastructure and its rural periphery. The rift between those two worlds has rarely been wider as Kabul residents prepare for a day at the polls and people elsewhere prepare to hunker down.

“Ninety percent of the people in my district will not vote,” said Abdul Karim, also a student in Kabul, who lives in rural Wardak province. “It’s too dangerous and not worth it.”

The dangers here, for both Afghans and foreigners, were underscored Friday when an Associated Press journalist was killed and another was wounded in an attack by an Afghan police officer.

Anja Niedringhaus, 48, a German photographer, was killed instantly. Kathy Gannon, a Canadian reporter, is in stable condition. Both were veterans with deep experience in the region.

The journalists were traveling with election workers in the eastern province of Khost in a convoy that was protected by Afghan soldiers and police officers, according to the AP. Like Ghazni and Wardak, Khost is far more dangerous and less secure than Kabul, just 150 miles to the northwest.

The winner of the election, which is being contested by eight candidates, will succeed Hamid Karzai, who has been president for 12 years, in the first democratic handover of power in the country’s history.

In preparation for the historic vote, Afghan forces closed the roads between Kabul and the surrounding districts Thursday, an effort to insulate the capital from insurgent strongholds.

“This is the road the Taliban wants to use,” said Col. Zalmay Mangal, the police commander charged with blocking the main highways, indicating the road connecting the capital and Ghazni.

U.S. forces have largely withdrawn from the volatile districts outside Kabul. While Afghan troops and police have filled the gap in many places, Taliban fighters exercise influence in dozens of villages, and undermining the legitimacy of the vote has become their top priority.

In a statement last month, the Taliban ordered militants to “use all force” to disrupt voting.

If that effort succeeds, keeping thousands of voters at home, it will raise questions about the election’s fairness and representativeness, particularly in restive southern and eastern communities where ethnic Pashtuns predominate.

On the day of Afghanistan’s most recent presidential election, Aug. 20, 2009, the Taliban stepped up attacks across the country. More than 400 attacks were recorded by the NATO coalition, one of the most violent days of the war. At least 31 people died, more than half of them police officers.

The Taliban violence kept many voters home. After more than a million fraudulent votes were thrown out, election observers calculated that about 4.5 million people had voted out of more than 15 million registered — about half as many as had gone to the polls in 2004. About 700 polling sites didn’t open.

During the 2009 election, the violence was concentrated in the districts outside Kabul, a worrying precedent for the men and women leaving the capital for their native villages as they weigh the risks of voting.

This year, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission has announced the closure of only 5 percent of the more than 6,000 polling places because of pre-election violence. But that number could increase dramatically Saturday if insurgents launch attacks.

For weeks, the streets of major cities have been plastered with the images of presidential candidates. Television stations have broadcast candidate debates and analysts’ panel discussions. Thousands of Afghans have packed stadiums for campaign rallies.

U.S. and other Western officials have called the election a transformative moment for Afghanistan and have spent $129 million to bolster the election commission’s work and mobilize a nervous electorate. A series of TV advertisements proclaimed the importance of the poll. A telephone hotline was set up to answer questions from — and to encourage — potential voters.

For some rural Afghans, those initiatives provided useful information, but they weren’t enough to offset the threat of violence.

Qiammudin, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, watched as election billboards flooded Kabul. But back home in Wardak, his village showed few signs that the country is poised to choose a new president. The Taliban still exercises significant power in the area.

So, like many of his neighbors, Qiammudin devised an Election Day plan: He will wait and see, gauging the likelihood of violence before going to a polling site.

“If I hear gunfire, I’ll know it’s not safe to vote,” he said. “If I hear nothing, I will go.”

Kabul is by no means free of insurgent violence. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, a number of high-profile attacks targeted civilians, candidates and government employees. But both Afghan and U.S. security forces remain disproportionately focused on the capital, with its population of about 5 million.

It remains unclear what resources the Taliban have to disrupt the election, and estimates vary wildly. With Kabul now protected by a police cordon to send potential attackers back to the hinterlands, the Afghans on the wrong side of that security bubble have further reason to worry.

“Over there, it’s safer,” said Hamid, a bus driver, looking back to Kabul.

Then he looked down the long stretch of highway leading to his village.

“Security in my home is much worse,” he said.

Partlow reported from Kabul.

Kevin Sieff has been The Post’s bureau chief in Nairobi since 2014. He served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and had covered the U.S. -Mexico border.
Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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