Security concerns make Afghan elections dangerous for politicians, voters alike

The war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. military launched an operation in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The war continues today.
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, August 24, 2010

KABUL -- On a recent campaign swing through Kandahar, Afghan parliamentary candidate Khalid Pashtoon brought the essentials: posters, leaflets and 15 bodyguards armed with pistols and rifles.

Pashtoon, who is up for reelection, figures he's a marked man -- a prime target for the Taliban insurgents, warlords and drug dealers aiming to create chaos during the Sept. 18 elections. Already, three parliamentary candidates have been assassinated, and on Saturday in Herat, insurgents ambushed another candidate's convoy, killing that man's brother.

It's not just Pashtoon who is nervous, but also his constituents. The 500-person banquets he organized for voters five years ago have been reduced to meetings with the few dozen tribal elders brave enough to see him, he said.

"I'm not afraid of a gunfight. We can defend ourselves," Pashtoon said in his home in relatively secure Kabul. "But the suicide attacks, that's what I'm afraid of."

Across Afghanistan, especially in the south and east, increasingly brazen attacks by anti-government groups have cowed many candidates for the 249 lower house seats as well as voters. Afghan election officials announced last week that 938 of the country's 6,835 polling centers will remain closed on election day because of security concerns, leaving 1.5 million of the country's 13 million registered voters unable to participate.

Officials said this disenfranchisement is a side effect of a strategy to limit the rampant fraud that plagued last year's presidential election, when Hamid Karzai was returned to office amid allegations of widespread ballot-stuffing and bribery.

"The lesson learned from the last elections is that where security does not exist, it creates an opportunity for those who want to make fraudulent activities," said Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief of the Independent Election Commission.

Barakzai pledged that the elections, which were postponed from last spring, will go forward next month despite calls from some candidates to delay them again. The commission has improved ballot security, increased background checks for employees and compiled a blacklist of 6,000 people involved in fraud last year who will not be allowed to participate, Barakzai said. His goal is 40 percent voter turnout, with fraudulent ballots limited to 10 percent.

International monitoring organizations praised the commission for publicizing the list of closed polling stations well before the elections. But they said the commission has not implemented other important safeguards, such as establishing an international oversight board to investigate reports of irregularities.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said his organization has recorded a large increase in intimidation by the Taliban of voters and candidates, especially women, as well as threats from warlords who have propped up handpicked candidates against weaker rivals.

Compared with the presidential election last summer, Nadery said, "the coming elections will be much more challenging in terms of security, in terms of conditions on a very local level. Attempts to buy and persuade electoral employees favoring this and that candidate will be much more, but there are not many more prevention mechanisms."

Candidates speak of the Taliban warning men at mosques to stay away from the polls; of corrupt local officials selling voter identification cards in bulk to the highest-paying candidates; and of violent intimidation by insurgents.

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