/ 18 September 2010

Rockets, attacks strike as Afghan poll opens

A string of attacks hit Afghanistan’s parliamentary election on Saturday, after the Taliban vowed to disrupt a poll that is a crucial test for the credibility of the government and security forces.

Voters appeared hesitant to go to polling stations after a series of rocket strikes in provincial centres across the country, as well as one which landed near the United States embassy and the headquarters of Nato-led forces in central Kabul about three hours before polls opened at 7am (2.30am GMT).

Two Afghan election observers were wounded by an explosion inside a polling centre in eastern Khost province, a Taliban stronghold near the Pakistan border, said Khost police chief Abdul Haqim Eshaqzai.

In terms of violence, the early pace was similar to that of the flawed 2009 presidential election.

Significant security failures would be a major setback, with Washington watching closely before US President Barack Obama conducts a war strategy review in December likely to examine the pace and scale of US troop withdrawals.

A policeman was wounded earlier when a rocket landed near a government compound in Ghazni city, south-west of Kabul. At least three other rockets landed in Ghazni province, police said.

Similar attacks on polling stations and government buildings were reported in Badakhshan and Kunduz in the north, Jalalabad and Khost in the east and in Herat in the west.

“People are in their homes and they want to see the security situation. They will come out later and vote,” Mohammad Omar, governor of Kunduz province, told Reuters.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the poll and urged potential voters to stay at home even as President Hamid Karzai called on Afghans to come out and vote.

“As in every election, we do hope that there will be a high voter turnout and that nobody will be deterred by security incidents,” Karzai told reporters after casting his ballot at a high school near the presidential palace in Kabul.

Despite the attacks, other voters defied the Taliban’s threats. “This is for Afghanistan’s future,” said student Sohail Bayat after casting his vote in Kabul. “People don’t want the Taliban back, so every Afghan needs to go out and vote.”

Flawed ballot
Corruption and fraud are also serious concerns after a deeply flawed presidential ballot last year when a third of Karzai’s votes were thrown out as fake. Even though he is not standing, Saturday’s vote is seen as a test of Karzai’s credibility.

Washington believes corruption weakens the central government and its ability to build up institutions like the Afghan security forces, which in turn determines when Western troops in Afghanistan will be able to leave.

Election watchdogs have reported thousands of fake voter registration cards across Afghanistan in the lead-up to the poll, although the IEC maintains it has put measures in place that will guard against major fraud.

It will not be clear for several weeks at least who among the almost 2 500 candidates have won the 249 seats on offer in the wolesi jirga, or lower house of Parliament.

Preliminary results from Saturday’s voting will not be known until October 8 at the earliest, with final results not expected before October 30.

Election observers expect thousands of complaints from losing candidates, with Afghanistan’s own poll watchdog expecting a “disputatious” election, which could delay the process further.

Almost 300 000 Afghan soldiers and police are providing security for the poll, backed up by some 150 000 foreign troops.

A heavy security clampdown was imposed on Kabul on Friday.

A wave of abductions spread across much of the rest of the country on Friday, however, with 23 kidnappings of people working on the elections, including two candidates.

The Taliban staged dozens of attacks on election day last year but failed to disrupt the process entirely. A total of 272 security incidents kept voter turnout low in some areas, especially in the south and east where Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s main ethnic group, dominate and where the Taliban are strongest.

Voter turnout may also be hit by cynicism and disillusionment. Billions of dollars in foreign aid cash have flowed into Afghanistan over the past nine years but, for many people, have brought no real improvement in their lives. – Reuters