KABUL — Amid high tension and tight security, tens of thousands of voters lined up Saturday across southern Kandahar province, where polling in Afghan parliamentary elections was held one week late after the provincial police chief was assassinated in a shooting claimed by the Taliban.
By late afternoon, no insurgent attacks or other violence were reported at more than 1,100 polling stations, where about half a million voters had registered to choose among 111 candidates competing for 11 legislative seats.
Many voting sites opened late or suffered from technical delays, however, echoing a problem that plagued the original voting process across Afghanistan. Results are not expected for weeks.
“The turnout is high. It is amazing,” said Shakeba Hashimi, a Kandahar legislator running for reelection. Despite the delays and technical glitches, she said that long lines had formed outside both male and female voting sites well before the 7 a.m. opening time.
“Thank God, there has been no security problem since morning,” Hashemi said.
Fazel Bari Baryalai, a spokesman for the Kandahar governor’s office, said the day was “above all expectations.”
The Taliban Islamist militia, which was founded in Kandahar in the 1990s and has been battling Afghan and U.S.-led foreign forces since 2001, opposed the entire election and called it a sham staged by international occupiers. On the originally scheduled voting day, Oct. 20, the insurgents staged scores of attacks across the country, leaving more than 50 civilians and security forces dead.
Ten candidates were also killed nationwide during the election campaign, including two in Helmand province, bordering Kandahar. Voting was canceled in advance at many sites in regions controlled or influenced by the Taliban, and elections have been postponed indefinitely in Ghazni province, where a four-day Taliban siege last month devastated the capital city.
Despite the lack of violence in Kandahar on Saturday, with more than 15,000 armed security troops guarding the polls and all cars and motorbikes banned from the capital city, the atmosphere remained nervous and uncertain, as the Oct. 18 shooting death of Lt. Gen. Abdul Raziq, 39, continued to reverberate across the province and the nation.
A ruthless anti-Taliban fighter, Raziq was viewed as a national hero and the linchpin in Kandahar’s stability. But he had many other adversaries, and his slaying left a vacuum in both regional security and political power, awakening rivalries even after Raziq’s younger brother was quickly named to replace him as police chief.
The incident, in which the Kandahar intelligence chief was also killed and the governor gravely wounded, also raised new concerns for the safety of U.S. and allied foreign forces here. The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, escaped unharmed from the attack by a lone gunman, a provincial guard who fired on a group of officials; three other Americans, including Gen. Jeffrey Smiley, were wounded.
During the past week, numerous Afghan officials, including President Ashraf Ghani, have traveled to pay condolences at Raziq’s funeral or later at his grave. The government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, flew from Kabul for a prayer ceremony, where he noted that “even prisoners” across the country were in mourning, and expressed hopes that his death would bring unity among Afghan tribes.
But with presidential elections planned for April, and both Afghan and U.S. officials trying to accelerate negotiations with the Taliban, analysts said the violent removal of Raziq had dramatically exposed the weakness of the Afghan state and could add a new element of uncertainty to both situations. He was viewed as a kingmaker in the presidential contest and a bulwark against Taliban aggression in the insurgents’ onetime stronghold.
Scott Worden, an Afghanistan analyst at the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, noted that the severe problems and violence during the Oct. 20 elections revealed a “tragic gap” between public aspirations for change through democracy and the inability of the state to adequately secure and administer the vote. The Taliban, he said, is “better prepared” for the elections than the government.
“There is little reason to believe the Taliban will have less influence across the country in April than it does now,” he said. The fact that the insurgents were able to prevent voting in hundreds of rural areas, he said, “raises significant questions about how much participation is required to hold a legitimate vote for president.”
Over the past week, officials in several scattered provinces described dire security conditions and persistent Taliban threats. In Ghazni, provincial council member Hameedullah Nawruz said, the capital has been secured by extra troops, but the insurgents control most districts, and police casualties are extremely high. If the province falls to the Taliban, he said, “the fight will come to Kabul.”
In western Farah, legislator Abdul Saboor Khedmat said, voting on Oct. 20 was possible only in the capital city and in two of 10 districts. “It is not an exaggeration to say the Taliban control 80 percent” of the province, he said. “People are fed up with both sides. The government is corrupt, and the Taliban are brutal.”
In Wardak, less than an hour’s drive from Kabul, a car bomb outside a military compound in the provincial capital Saturday left at least six people dead and eight wounded.
Afghan voters, Worden said, have now shown that they “oppose the Taliban’s vision for the country and seek a nonviolent political solution” to the conflict. But despite a relatively calm voting day in Kandahar, the overall election “highlights the tragic gap between the citizens’ peaceful and democratic vision for the country and the failure of either the government or the Taliban to deliver it.”
Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.