South holds the key to Afghan election credibility

The turnout of voters in Afghanistan’s south will be crucial in judging the credibility of Thursday’s presidential elections, but on the eve of the ballot many residents are still not sure they will take part.

The Taliban have threatened violence against anyone involved in the election, and in recent days have killed poll officials, detonated roadside and car bombs and sent fighters on a suicide commando raid to the capital.

Vast parts of Afghanistan have little sustained Taliban influence—particularly in the north and west—and so the threat of violence is remote and unlikely to deter voting.

But in the south and east, from among the Pashtun community where the hardline Islamist group draws its strength, Taliban threats are a daily reality.

The south boasted a poll turnout of about 70% in 2004—in line with much of the rest of the country—but officials concede they will struggle to match that this year.

“Anything near 50% would be great in some areas [of the south],” said a United Nations official who asked not to be identified.

Janan Agha, a day labourer from Panjwai on the outskirts of Kandahar city in the south, insists he won’t vote.

“I live far away from the bazaar and will not vote because of fear of attack and also because the ink will stay for days on my finger and that will perhaps make me a target for Taliban,” he told Reuters.

He is typical of hundreds of thousands of people in the south who live in the informal shadow of the Taliban. Officially they are under government control, but Afghan security forces—even backed up by the 100 000 foreign troops in the country—can’t be everywhere at once.

“People will most likely only vote in cities or urban areas,” Janan Agha said. “In Panjwai, for example, only people in the bazaar will dare to vote.”

Taliban threats have been very specific, warning anyone with ink on their fingers, which election officials apply to prevent multiple voting, will have the offending digit cut off.

“We cannot vote because of the Taliban threat.
If we vote and they catch us with the ink on our thumb, then they will either cut it or kill us,” said Faizullah (45), from Khost in the east.

For a group that was amputating the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers while in power less than eight years ago, the Taliban threat is not an idle one.

“The Taliban have issued warnings and leaflets all over the place, and people in villages will be scared to go for voting,” said Nasim Alokozai, a tribal elder living in Kandahar.

“People will vote in cities for they would not be much under threat, but in rural areas, the turn out will be less.”

Rasoul Gul (27), a student from Khost, said security had definitely deteriorated since the last presidential elections in 2004—Afghanistan’s first direct vote for a leader.

“The situation is much worse compared to the past and that would bar people from voting in some areas,” he said, “but I will vote for it is important for our future. I am not afraid”.—Reuters

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