Monsters and Critics, September 15, 2010

Lack of security biggest challenge in Afghan polls (Feature)

'When the police forces that are supposed to provide security for us are too scared to even stop one Talib from publicly threatening us, then how could they make sure we are not attacked when we go and vote?'

By Farhad Peikar

Baraki Barak, Afghanistan - About 3,000 people including government officials and police were about to begin a prayer when a man shouted that he had an important message to deliver.

The crowd had gathered Friday on Eid al-Fitr, a day of festivities that follows the fasting month of Ramadan, but instead they heard a message from the Taliban as the young man moved to the microphone.

'If you want to be safe, don't participate in the parliamentary elections, and convey this message to all who are not present here,' he read from a one-page letter in the Baraki Barak district of Logar province, 70 kilometres south of Kabul.

More than a dozen policemen standing guard remained still as the man finished the message, which was similar to notices read in several other mosques in the province that day.

A government official in Logar who asked not to be named said police did not arrest the man because 'it would have created chaos and ruined the sacred day for everyone.' Several attempts to reach district police chief Amanullah Khan were unsuccessful.

Whatever the reason for the government's response to the incident, it has caused district residents to believe it is too weak to provide security for election day Saturday.

'When the police forces that are supposed to provide security for us are too scared to even stop one Talib from publicly threatening us, then how could they make sure we are not attacked when we go and vote?' Baraki Barak resident Abdul Karim asked.

Afghan elections authorities said all preparations had been made for 12.5 million Afghans to select members of the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, but given the Taliban insurgency, a low turnout was widely expected.

At least three candidates and more than a dozen election campaigners have been killed by suspected Taliban militants in the past two months. Others have been injured or kidnapped.

Many of the more than 2,500 candidates running for 249 seats said they are too afraid to campaign, particularly in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are most active.

'Travelling from district to district is impossible,' said Daoud Sultanzoy, who is seeking a seat from the volatile southern province of Ghazni. 'In the city, there are kidnappings and there are grenade attacks.'

'In some districts, only the district centres are secure; the rest of the area is surrounded by the insurgents,' said the former United Airlines pilot who returned from the United States after the 2001 fall of the Taliban and won a seat in the country's first post-Taliban parliamentary elections.

The incumbent said he was doing a lot of campaigning for his second race by phone or meeting with elders in his office, located in the centre of the provincial capital.

Several other candidates in the country's south said the only campaigning they had done was hammering up campaign billboards around their districts.

Many others have withdrawn from the race, preferring their lives over a seat in parliament.

An aide for Omar Sherzad, a candidate in the southern province of Kandahar, a spiritual home and the former headquarters of the Taliban, said Sherzad dropped out of the race this week because a lack of security made him unable to run a meaningful campaign.

Nearly nine years have passed since the Taliban's ultra-Islamist government was ousted in a US-led invasion, but the Taliban-led insurgency shows no signs of abating despite the deployment of more than 150,000 foreign troops.

The Taliban carried out a record number of attacks during the presidential election in August last year. The attacks did not disrupt the polling day but caused a low turnout and prompted Afghans to question the legitimacy of their government.

Analysts said they believe Saturday's elections could either help consolidate the country's shaky democracy or plunge it into a new era of political turmoil.

'Poor elections would produce a weaker parliament, and that would contribute further to illegitimacy of the government,' said Waheed Muzhda, a political analyst who served as a senior official in the Taliban government.

He said that if the polls are marred by Taliban attacks and a repetition of 2009's fraud that saw President Hamid Karzai win re-election, they could turn Afghans against their Western-style democracy and boost sympathy for the Taliban-led insurgency and its goal of re-establishing an Islamic government.

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