Elections in a hostile environment [Archives:2004/751/Reportage]

July 1 2004
Afghan militants who follow a warlord in north Afghanistan	(Yemen Times photo by Peter Willems)
Afghan militants who follow a warlord in north Afghanistan (Yemen Times photo by Peter Willems)
By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

The Joint Electoral Management Body in Afghanistan has shifted into high gear. Responsible for registering Afghan voters for elections expected to be held in September, the joint UN-Afghan electoral authority got off to a slow start last December: Only 1.8 million out of 9.5 million eligible voters were registered at the beginning of May. But at the end of June, registration reached five million.
“Voter registration sites and teams have been increasing on a daily basis, and the coverage area has been expanding,” said Said Mohammad Azam, Media Relations Officer of the Joint Electoral Management Body. “We register more than 100,000 people daily all over the country. It used to be only 50,000 people.”
But many are wondering if Afghanistan, which has experienced a quarter of a century of ongoing warfare, is ready to carry out elections in the near future.
Last week, Taliban fighters killed up to 16 Afghans after the militants learned that the victims had registered to vote. The Taliban bombed a bus killing two female election workers and wounding 13 others while traveling to a registration site.
In June, violence erupted in north Afghanistan which had remained calm since the Taliban regime was overthrown in late 2001. Dozens of foreign aid workers and civilians were killed by terrorist attacks, including a raid on Chinese railway workers that left 11 dead.
The Taliban, fighting US forces in the south, has been carrying out new attacks to destabilize the country and derail the upcoming elections. Some believe, however, that it is not only the Taliban trying to create more instability.
“Extremists, the Taliban and drug dealers all have an interest in destabilizing Afghanistan,” said Lutfullah Mashal, Special Assistant to the Minister of Interior in Afghanistan. “Factions and irresponsible armed people have also created a lot of problems, not only for aid workers but also for the central government and the international community.”
Last month, NATO, which leads the peacekeeping force in Afghanistan, gave a warning that instability and violence has risen dramatically this year. “The security situation is far from being stable. It is deteriorating,” said Major Jacek Ciszek, Acting Chief of Public Information for NATO based in Afghanistan.
To help improve security, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has vowed to disarm militias – groups that fought against the Soviets in the eighties and the Taliban a few years later – before the coming elections. But powerful commanders, such as the governor of Herat Ismail Khan and the heavily armed Abdul Rashid Dostem, have been reluctant to cooperate. Only a few thousand out of 100,000 weapons have been collected up to now.
“Any force not part of the Afghan National Army is a challenge,” said Umer Daudzai, Chief of Staff of President Karzai's administration. “But this is reality, so we ought to deal with it diplomatically and peacefully. I hope we will succeed.”
According to Mashal, warlords that have control of militias may have the power to undermine the elections by intimidating voters.
“We fear that the warlords will send their own people by influencing the voters to vote for who they want,” said Mashal. “Representatives from their areas will be their own men, work for the warlords and always do what is best for the interests of the warlords.”
It was agreed in Bonn in late 2002 that members of the cabinet would be replaced in six months, but Karzai has stalled. According to Azizullah Lodin, President the General Administration against Bribery and Corruption, 80% of the cabinet is made up of militia leaders, put there by the United States for their help toppling the Taliban.
He added that if the cabinet remains the same “all the help from the outside and the chance for the country to be democratic would come to nothing. Afghanistan would remain the way it has been in the last few decades: A backward country that lives in the dark ages.”
Some believe that even if the situation in Afghanistan is not suited for holding elections in September, it is important that they be carried out, especially after Karzai postponed the elections scheduled to take place in July.
“We face a lack of security, the presence of guns and warlords bullying the voters, which makes it appear that we are not ready for elections,” said Abdul Latif Rahmani, Professor of Law and Political Science at Kabul University. “But it is necessary that we have elections in September. If the elections are delayed again, it will hurt the credibility of the interim government. I believe that we have no choice: Carry out the elections to make the government legitimate to the people.”
At a NATO conference in Istanbul earlier this week, member states promised to boost the number of peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan to help stabilize the country during the elections. Until now, the International Security Assistance Force, led by NATO, has been made up of only 6,500 soldiers to protect the capital, Kabul. US forces have been preoccupied in the south trying to destroy the remnants of the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the international terrorist network Al-Qaeda. NATO plans on increasing the number of troops to 10,000 and broadening its operations outside the capital.
But some still have doubts about the elections, even with a greater presence of a peacekeeping force. They hold that Afghanistan is being pressured by the United States to hold elections too early so that President Bush, whose support from US citizens has dropped resulting from continued violence in Iraq, will gain votes next fall by showing that he has brought democracy to Afghanistan.
“I don't think Afghanistan is ready for elections,” said an Afghani political analyst. “It's probably better to secure a country before holding elections. It looks like Bush wants Afghanistan to have elections despite the lack of security because he wants to show something good to his people before the US elections next November.”
And as the elections get closer, the increase in violence may have just started.
“We are expecting violence to increase between now and the elections,” said Mashal. “It is difficult to predict by how much, but there will be more attacks to try and stop us from holding the first elections since the Taliban regime was ousted.”