Coping with warlords and votes delivered by donkey

Less than a week before Afghanistan's first democratic election, organizers fear violence and hope for legitimacy.


Ewen MacAskill
October 4, 2004 5:03PM (UTC)

The U.N. organizers of Afghanistan's first democratic presidential election admitted over the weekend that they expect the polling on Oct. 9 to be marred by fraud, intimidation and violence.

David Avery, chief of operations for the joint electoral management body, predicted that with more than 100,000 staff who had not seen an election before, it "will not look pretty." But he insisted that the irregularities would not be enough to deny the election legitimacy or affect the final outcome. "Not every box is going to make it? That is probably true. In the end, you count what you have got," he said at his headquarters in Kabul, heavily fortified against the threat of attack by the Taliban and al-Qaida.

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The Taliban have posted "night letters" -- overnight posters -- on mosque and other walls in southern Afghanistan, threatening retribution against anyone taking part in the election.

Aid and other international organizations have reduced their staff and operations for the election campaign period; the U.S. and other NATO countries have sent in reinforcements, increased patrols and arrested suspects. Although there have been intelligence reports of hundreds of Taliban fighters moving about the country, the election campaign has so far been relatively quiet.

Afghanistan's transitional president, Hamid Karzai, who is expected to win, has seldom been seen outside his compound in Kabul since coming under fire on a helicopter trip to Gardez on Sept. 16. The other 17 candidates include warlords with long records of human rights abuses, a solitary woman and a poet. The latter, probably the most liberal, is Latif Pedram.

His movements too have been hampered by death threats. "I can no longer enter Seelo and Baghbal [two Kabul districts] after a warlord delegated 20 men to kill me on sight," he said. A kidnapping threat forced him to cut short a visit to his home province. One of his main offenses was to advocate that women should enjoy the same right to divorce as men.

Another candidate, professor Satar Sirrat, who is threatening to boycott the election as unconstitutional, accused Karzai of misspending the $3 billion donated so far from the international community for reconstruction. "The only visible project is the road from Kabul to Kandahar," he said. "You could have built a road of silk with this kind of money."

As well as coping with the Taliban and warlords, the election organizers have to ensure that 22,000 polling stations are working in a country with little infrastructure and communications. The ballot box at one polling station in the Hindu Kush will take two weeks to deliver to the counting post, by donkey.

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Avery, an Australian who has been involved in postwar elections in Cambodia, Sierra Leone and East Timor, regards Afghanistan as his toughest challenge yet. He has hired 5,000 mobile phones, 1,150 Russian jeeps, 300 donkeys and 114,000 local staff.

There will be a polling station in every district except Mandol, in Nuristan, which even by Afghan standards is thought extremely dangerous. "No one goes there. Not even the Taliban," Avery said. He has smuggled election material into some of the most hostile areas in the gaudily painted traditional trucks seen all over this part of Asia. Each had a stripe painted on the roof so that it could be tracked from the air.

The U.N. estimated that 9.5 million people would be eligible to vote, but 10.5 million have registered, suggesting multiple registration.

Those voting will have a finger marked in indelible ink to try to prevent second visits to the polling station. Telibert Luoc, the senior program officer with the National Democratic Institute, which is responsible for monitoring the elction, has had problems finding international monitors because of the country's lack of security. He has found only 385, most of them recruited from embassies. Unusually, there will be no monitors' report.

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Although concerned about Taliban attacks on election day, Afghans appear intent on enjoying the novelty of voting. Zahal Mahbuby, 20, a social science student sitting in the shade of the campus at the University of Afghanistan in Kabul, said: "We have a lot of fear the Taliban will attack. We expect them to attack." She said she would vote for Karzai because she regarded him as honest. Mahbuby is rare in that she does not intend to vote on ethnic lines: A Tajik, she was prepared to vote for a Pashtun.

Although it will take two weeks to collect all the ballots, the organizers will count the votes as they come in. They expect that the trend will be obvious within a few days of the election.


Ewen MacAskill

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