Taliban threaten to derail Afghan vote

AFP – The Taliban threatened Thursday to attack polling stations during Afghanistan’s parliamentary election as NATO and Afghan troops mounted a massive security operation to protect the vote. Tens of thousands of Afghan and US-led NATO forces will provide security for Saturday’s vote, seen as a crucial step to building democracy after nine years of war but which many fear will be marred by fraud and violence. “All the roads leading to polling centres will come under attack and election workers and security forces will be our primary targets,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP.
“Civilians are not our target because we support local people and we have local support,” he said, speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location. “But if people go to polling centres they will get hurt.” The militants have already killed three candidates and dozens of election workers in the lead-up to the poll. The deadly campaign of violence and intimidation against parliamentary candidates and supporters has catapulted security to the top of concerns surrounding the vote. Around 10.5 million Afghans are eligible to vote for the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, in the second poll of its kind since the Taliban were ousted in the 2001 US-led invasion.

Despite some calls for the election to be cancelled because of poor security and the spread of the insurgency to once relatively stable areas, Afghan and Western officials said an imperfect vote would be better than none at all. The ballot is being held more than a year after the fraud-tainted election that returned Western-backed President Hamid Karzai to power for a second five-year term. The militants had earlier issued a statement calling on Afghans to boycott the election “and thus foil all foreign processes and drive away the invaders”.
Abdullah Abdullah, a self-styled opposition leader who lost the presidency to Karzai last year, condemned the Taliban boycott, telling reporters “massive participation will prevent fraud”. Western officials acknowledge that the election is likely to be marred by fraud and Taliban intimidation, which could keep turnout low, but observers believe it can only be an improvement on the 2009 presidential vote. “The election will not be perfect,” Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s special representative to Afghanistan, told AFP. But he said: “Ballots are a better way to solve issues than bullets.” Around 250,000 Afghan soldiers, police and intelligence agents, backed by NATO troops, will provide security on polling day, which has been declared a national holiday. The spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), General Josef Blotz, said foreign troops “will be poised and ready to respond to emergencies”. ISAF reported the death of a foreign soldier in the south, bringing the death toll so far this year in the Afghan war to 505, by an AFP tally. More than 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 seats, including 68 reserved for women, who have been a particular target of intimidation. The future make-up of parliament will little alter the nature of governance in Afghanistan, where power is largely concentrated in the hands of Karzai, who is kept in office by 150,000 US-led foreign troops.

The line-up of candidates — many of them youthful first-timers — promises to inject some new life into what is one of Afghanistan’s few truly combative political institutions. More than 5,800 polling centres will open, though around 1,000 located mostly in Taliban heartlands in the south and east will remain shuttered because safety in those areas cannot be guaranteed. Parliament is often criticised as a forum for Karzai’s cronies, warlords and drug dealers, although it has refused to rubber stamp all Karzai’s cabinet appointments and some presidential decrees. The UN denied a report it had evacuated 300 staff ahead of the elections, after the organisation lost at least five workers — all of them working on the presidential vote — in a Taliban attack on their guesthouse last October. Spokesman Kieran Dwyer told AFP that 170 extra staff had been brought into the country to “provide technical and logistical support” for the vote, but that other international staff not involved had been told to take holidays. Final results from the poll are due on October 31 – France24