Kidnappings heighten fears ahead of Afghan vote

Security is ramped up on the eve of Afghan parliamentary elections after the Taliban vows to disrupt the vote
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010; 12:33 PM

KABUL - Insurgents have kidnapped a parliamentary candidate and at least 18 election workers, Afghan officials said Friday, raising fears on the eve of an election that has emerged as a test of wills between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Insurgent leaders have urged voters to refrain from voting in Saturday's election, the third major vote in Afghanistan's short and troubled history as a democracy. They have declared candidates and campaign workers legitimate targets for assassination and have threatened to cut voters' ink-stained fingers.

Amid a spike in violence and deepening skepticism in the United States and NATO capitals about the strategy in Afghanistan, the vote will be a key test for the Afghan government after last year's fraud-plagued presidential election.

Since his reelection last year, President Hamid Karzai has faced growing criticism at home and abroad over rising insecurity and rampant corruption in all layers of government.

The stakes are high for the United States, which is attempting to persuade Afghans to back their government despite deepening doubts about whether the state will hold as the U.S.-led international force begins to thin out next year.

"I can't say I'm optimistic, but I'm hopeful," said Peter M. Manikas, who heads the Asia programs of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute. "The fear is that people's enthusiasm will erode if there's another bad election."

Karzai made a last appeal to voters Friday, asking that they "vote from their hearts." Speaking at a press conference, the president urged Taliban members to vote, saying: "They should serve their country and participate."

The Afghan government and NATO are mobilizing 400,000 soldiers and police officers to guard polling stations and roads - an unprecedented show of force.

The Taliban and the Afghan government have launched competing propaganda campaigns. The Taliban speaks of a "puppet government" and warns that the outcome of the election will have been preordained by the United States. The Afghan government, meanwhile, asked reporters this week to use their media to encourage people to vote and urged journalists to gloss over violence and other problems on Election Day.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, one of the country's main election monitors, has called this election season the most violent since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001.

The 19 reported kidnappings Thursday and Friday were the latest in a string of incidents that have soured voters' mood.

In Laghman province, east of Kabul, candidate Hayatullah Hayat was abducted Friday morning, according to Noor Mohammed Noor, a spokesman for the election commission. The night before, eight election officials and 10 campaign workers were kidnapped in Badghis province, which is in northwestern Afghanistan.

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