Taleban Threat to Election Campaign in North

Voters and candidates in Balkh and Herat warn that security fears are disrupting election preparations.
By Bahman Boman, Shahpoor Saber - Afghanistan
ARR Issue 370,
24 Aug 10
Candidates and voters in Afghanistan’s upcoming parliamentary election warn that insurgent threats are hampering campaigning and are likely to seriously disrupt the ballot itself.
Campaigning should be now in full swing for the September 18 election, when 2,545 candidates, including 410 women, will compete for the 249 seats in the the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the Afghan parliament.
But even in comparatively peaceful parts of the country such as Balkh province in the north, candidates complain that security problems are hindering their efforts.
The insurgents have been focusing their attempts to disrupt voting in the Sholgara, Chahar Bolak, Chemtal and Kaldar districts of Balkh.
One female candidate in the province, Gulmakai Siawosh, said that she had been unable to travel to certain districts to campaign, as the Taleban believe women have no right to participate in politics.
“Even when we invite women from outside Mazar-e Sharif to campaign events, they say they can’t come because the insurgents have threatened them so that they won’t participate in the elections. So I go to wedding parties and other traditional events to talk to people and campaign.”
Another female candidate from Balkh, Qamar Nuri, said that for her own security she felt she needed to wear the all-enveloping burka when travelling, as the Taleban still banned women from leaving their homes without the veil.
“I cannot publish photos of myself in Balkh, because the Taleban won’t allow us to do that,” she added. “So I only distribute small cards to people I know.”
Male candidates say they face security threats, too.
“When there’s no security, we cannot go to the people and explain our objectives and gain their support,” said Haji Mohammad Abduh, a sitting member of parliament in Balkh who is standing for re-election.
He predicted that security problems would have a serious effect on voter turnout.
“If, God forbid, security is not maintained and people are not reassured, I think that either they won’t take part in the election, or else only a small number will go and vote. In either scenario, the election will be neither transparent nor fair.”
Prospective voters interviewed by IWPR were equally concerned.
“Because of the lack of security, a lot of people have left their villages and have moved to the [administrative] centres of districts,” said Jamshid, 20, a resident of Chemtal district. “The security situation has deteriorated badly in many provinces and districts since the last presidential election [in August 2009], and the situation is now very poor.”
Jamshid added that in Baghlan province and in some parts of Balkh province, the Taleban had ordered mobile phone services to stop between 6pm and 6am, and that these orders are being followed by the networks themselves.
“When large companies obey the Taleban’s commands and shut down their phone services, then how are people to go to the polling stations?” he asked.
The authorities accept there are security problems, but claim that they will still be able to bring the situation under control.
Amanullah Habibi, head of the Balkh provincial office of the national electoral commission, said security threats were not a major issue.
“There might be some mild threats which aren’t big problems,” he said. “We have already provided a list of voting sites to the security agencies and they will soon tell us how many of the sites they will be able to secure.”
The government has already decided not to open 900 intended polling stations across the country due to security concerns.
Afzal Hadid, the head of Balkh provincial council, said he did not believe the authorities would be able to maintain order.
“They repeatedly hold security meetings in the capital and in the Afghan provinces, but the security situation does not improve – it’s even getting worse,” he said.
Hadid added that in some districts of Balkh, anyone who supported the government was at risk.
“People complain a lot about the lack of security and we have shared their concerns with the security offices – but the results are not clear,” he said.
Residents of another generally peaceful northern province, Herat, are also reporting problems ahead of the election.
Candidates in the region say they need to go around the countryside to lobby for support, but have been unable to do so in some districts because of threats and interference.
Mohammad Ibrahim Kushki, a candidate in Herat, said that he has not been able to campaign in his main constituency, his home district of Kushk, because of the presence of Taleban there.
“The Taleban have posted declarations on the walls of many villages… warning people that the election is totally prohibited and no one should participate,” he said.
Others say that the problem is not limited to outlying districts.
Mohammad Halim Taraki, who is standing for election in the city of Herat, says he has already been targeted by the insurgents. Unknown assailants set off a bomb in front of his campaign office on July 9, killing one person and injuring two others.
“I believe it was the work of those who are in opposition to the government,” he said. “They want to sow intimidation and get candidates planning to run for election to change their minds.”
And the brother of Abdul Hadi Jamshidi, a candidate running for parliament in Herat province was killed last week when gunman offered fire on a crowd who had gathered to hear a campaign speech.
In districts including Chisht-e Sharif, Oba, Shindand, Gulran, Ghoryan and Pashtun Zarghun, armed groups have been actively trying to disrupt participation in the elections.
Awalurahman Rudwal, the head of the Herat office of the election commission, told IWPR that there were grave concerns about armed groups operating in several districts.
“We have notified the security agencies of all the areas under opposition control so that they can resolve these problems,” he said. “They have promised to design a proper plan to secure all those areas.”
Colonel Abdurrauf Ahmadi, spokesman for the Western Police Zone of Afghanistan, said he was aware of the insurgent presence, but claimed only small groups were involved.
“At several meetings, the security authorities have discussed a plan to cleanse these regions of unauthorised armed groups,” he said.
Ahmadi said the security forces would launch an operation against the insurgents ahead of the election.
But Samiullah Salahshor, a Taleban commander in Herat province, told IWPR in a telephone interview that his men were expanding their control across the region.
“In the areas we control, there is no way the election can happen, and no one will be able to campaign,” he said, adding that anyone found electioneering would be detained and punished severely by the Taleban.
Masud Hasanzada, a reporter and political analyst, said the parliamentary election was likely to be less safe than last year’s presidential election, and argued that this would contribute to widespread fraud.
Those behind the violence, he argued, “want to remove their opponents from the scene through intimidation, so that they can exploit the situation for their own ends on election day”.
Bahman Boman and Shahpoor Saber are IWPR reporters in Balkh and Heart.