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.
Three candidates and more than a dozen campaign and election workers have been slain. Many candidates say threats have prevented them from campaigning.
Citing security concerns, Afghan officials decided not to open roughly 1,000 polling sites, leading critics to say as many as 1.5 million voters would be disenfranchised.
U.S. and Afghan officials, seeing violence as the top threat on Saturday, have spent months developing a security plan. Afghan police will be on the front lines, securing polling stations. Afghan soldiers will provide an outer ring of security.
"We have considered all the threats and possible incidents," said Maj. Gen. Afzal Aman, the Afghan army's chief of operations.
American and other international troops will be on high alert Saturday, providing air cover, intelligence capabilities and emergency response teams.
However, U.S. military officials say they will try to remain inconspicuous.
"We don't want to be too conspicuous," Col. Wayne Detwiler, the deputy chief of operations for the NATO ground forces command, said in an interview. "We would like to not be seen and not be heard."
Election workers and ballot boxes will be ferried across the country aboard NATO aircraft.
U.S. officials have sought to temper expectations for the vote, cautioning that some degree of fraud and violence are to be expected.
"This is an election being held for the first time ever by the Afghans themselves," a senior Obama administration official said Thursday in a conference call with reporters. "There's no denying that it's being held in the face of an active insurgency, so security is going to be a challenge."
Afghan and American officials say election challenges won't end after the polls close. Election officials are expected to take at least two weeks to tally votes cast for the roughly 2,000 candidates vying for the 249 seats on the lower house of parliament.
"You're going to have for every seat roughly one winner and nine losers," the administration official said in the call, during which the official declined to be identified by name. "The losers, of course, will have the potential to want to complain about the results."
The process is likely to strain Afghanistan's electoral commission and the independent body empowered to review complaints. Both have limited reach outside major urban areas.
If rampant fraud takes place again, as many candidates predict, U.S. and other Western officials would be hard-pressed to put their stamp of approval on the election.
"Capitals can't be seen as condoning corruption in Afghanistan," a senior U.S. official with years of experience in Afghanistan said, speaking on condition of anonymity. But criticizing the results could be interpreted as a victory for the Taliban.
"They know they can't stop it, so they want to be able to find a way to adjust for it," the U.S. official said, suggesting many Western officials have come to the conclusion that they must tolerate a degree of fraud.
Many Afghans say they have lost faith in the democratic system the United States has spent billions of dollars attempting to shore up during the past nine years.
"I'm not going to vote for anyone," Nangiyalai Jan, 32, a day laborer from Kabul, said. "The people who are running are all traitors. They just work for themselves and their pockets."
Jan said he voted for Karzai during the country's first presidential election but soon grew disheartened.
"After that, I ripped up my voter registration card," he said. "I want a government that pays attention to the poor people."
Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.