Bullet-ridden Afghan districts may drive away voters

Last Updated 04 April 2014, 16:50 IST

In the south and east, the Taliban’s threat is more real than the government’s promise.

One of the few polling centres in the Charkh part of Logar province of Afghanistan is the government’s district headquarters, a building so devastated by rocket attacks and Taliban gunfire that it looks more like a bomb shelter than an administrative office.

As the body count for security forces has risen over the past few days in this embattled district, a stretch of dusty farmland surrounded by mountains, it has become clear that no one here is going to vote Saturday, either for president or for provincial council delegates.

So far, that has not stopped security officials from proclaiming the district open for voting: It is not among the roughly 10 per cent of 7,500 total national sites shut down as too dangerous to protect. The Charkh district centre has been pumped full of security forces to keep the vote a nominal possibility, but residents know that within a day or two after the elections, the guards will be gone and the Taliban will remain.“The government has no meaning here,” said Khalilullah Kamal, the district governor, who was shot twice in the stomach a few months back while speaking in a mosque. “If there is no expectation that we will arrest people who break the law, then how do we expect the people to come and vote?”

Security is the cornerstone of the Afghan government’s promise to deliver a free and fair election, and this time around, the entire operation rests on the country’s security forces. They are facing a Taliban campaign of violent disruption that has repeatedly struck at Western and government targets, including Wednesday, when a suicide bomber killed six police officers at the gate of the interior ministry in Kabul, the capital.

Despite that, many early reports have been favourable. Afghan and Western officials alike believe that more people will vote Saturday than in the Western-secured 2009 elections. The violence in Kabul still grabs headlines, but officials say that elsewhere, attacks are down since the last election. And generally, Afghans in Kabul and other major population centres have been enthusiastically engaged in the campaign.But the reality in some rural and contested parts of Afghanistan is far different. In Charkh and similar districts in pockets of the south and east, the Taliban’s threat is more real than the government’s promise. Their allotted ballots will not add to any Kabul administration’s credibility, and worse, there is fear that the government’s presence will be completely driven out after Western troops are gone.

For now, Afghan forces are struggling to keep these districts on the electoral map. Officials say that security in major population centres has improved to the point that some districts where no real voting was possible in 2009, particularly around the southern city of Kandahar, are more likely to count this time. The Afghan army has deployed an extra 60,000 soldiers across the country in recent weeks, focusing heavily on the areas that sit on the bubble of insecure and just secure enough.That technically includes Charkh. But the truth is that the insurgents have held sway here for years, including when US forces were present. Then, the dirt road leading into the district was riddled with explosives, the villages armed with machine guns, the residents determined to expel foreigners from their midst. When Afghan forces took over, the assumption was that the district would quickly fall to the Taliban. But the security forces proved resilient, willing to go after the insurgents or at least hold their ground.

Still, before a recent surge of operations that began two weeks before the election, the road was deadly, laced with bombs. Large mud compounds flank the street, offering ample cover for Taliban fighters. When soldiers venture into the communities to find the shooters, they find women and unarmed farmers instead.

The administrative building, a pink three-story structure constructed by the Americans in 2006, sits at the centre of the main road’s path through the district - itself a link in a major thoroughfare of insurgent traffic across a broader region of the country’s east. Every surface within the battered maze of Hesco barriers and concrete walls used to secure the building has been gouged by repeated fire, leaving the impression that the entire compound is suffering a lethal bout of chickenpox.The Afghan soldiers and police officers here try not to walk around too much, but that is little protection - just last week, two men were killed when a grenade was fired into the fortified government building. Another two were killed the next day while on an increasingly rare operation outside of the district centre.

The polling site is in the lobby on the main floor, and metal containers used for storage have been riddled by sniper shots. The third floor, once an elegant room with a view of Logar’s snow-capped mountains, is now a firing position stacked with sandbags and covered in bullet holes.

“It was like a river of rockets,” said a soldier deployed to the district for the elections, describing an attack on the base one recent night. “You couldn’t even count them all.”More than 550 security personnel, soldiers and policemen have been operating in Charkh over the past few weeks, trying to shore up security enough for civilians to get out and vote if they choose to. Along the main road, army Humvees appear every hundred meters, watching for insurgents trying to bury bombs. The forces have set up positions in mosques also designated as polling places and are even constructing outposts to gain a better vantage over the highway.

Taliban control

After the elections, however, their numbers here will dwindle to about 150, the majority from the army. Even the most optimistic security officials acknowledge that the road will again become impassable. “When the operations slow down, the Taliban will resume control,” said Lt Col Gul Zaman, the battalion commander responsible for the operation in Charkh.

Residents say they feel besieged - both by the Taliban, who rule with an iron fist, and the government, which has shown a heavy hand in the past few weeks as it hassles drivers in an effort to ferret out suicide bombers. “The villagers are fed up with the government and the Taliban,” said Mohammad Nafi, a teacher, as he was searched for the fifth time in an hour. 

“I don’t think a single person will come out and vote.” His friend, Mohammad Isa, put it more bluntly: “We will be very, very happy to see the Afghan forces leave this area.”

Other villagers who are more enthusiastic about the government acknowledge that there is nothing it can do about Taliban control. Abdul Malik, a tribal elder in the district, said that no matter how much security the government provided, it meant nothing if officials could not govern.

“The Taliban has a district centre,” Malik said, sitting in a circle of military commanders he had come to visit Wednesday morning. “We have a government district centre, too, but nobody cares about it, and they definitely don’t want to be seen there. So they go to the Taliban district centre instead.”

(Published 04 April 2014, 16:50 IST)

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