As Afghan Vote Nears, Taliban Intimidation Rises

Posted in Afghanistan | 13-Aug-09 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: New York Times

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The Taliban have escalated a campaign of threats and intimidation ahead of the presidential election next Thursday, warning voters in mosques and through leaflets and radio announcements not to vote, or face “strong punishment.”

One Taliban commander stood up in a mosque in the southern province of Zabul and warned people that the Taliban would cut off any finger stained with the indelible ink that marks voters, a witness said.

Until now, the insurgents have refrained from specific violence against the election process and have kept the government and international forces guessing about their real intentions.

But the intimidation campaign, which has just started in the last week or so, is an indication that the Taliban are switching gears and are intent on keeping people away from the polls to demonstrate their influence.

A successful election is critical to the efforts of the Afghan government, as well as of the Obama administration and its allies, to demonstrate that after seven years of war, progress is being made toward securing peace and stability in Afghanistan.

The Taliban campaign threatens to further erode the credibility of the election, which is already rife with problems like duplicate voter registration, raising questions of fraud. Here in the south, where the insurgency is strongest, the effort could also further alienate ethnic Pashtuns from the government if they feel their voices have not been heard in the balloting.

One Taliban announcement posted on the wall of a Kandahar mosque was typical of the threats. “You must not participate in the election because we will be targeting these polling stations,” it said. “And if anyone participates in this election we will give them strong punishment.”

The leaflet, which bears the stamp of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the name the Taliban used for Afghanistan before it was ousted from power, declared the election “fake and not Afghan,” because the country was “under occupation of infidels.”

Other leaflets have been distributed in bazaars in Kandahar and other towns in southern Afghanistan.

Muhammad Nazir, from the Panjwai district, just 10 miles west of Kandahar city, said Taliban militants were driving motorbikes through the streets handing out leaflets. Taliban supporters were issuing warnings in mosques and on illicit radio stations set up in some districts.

“Every day we hear the Taliban leaving threats in every mosque urging the people not to participate in the election or otherwise they will face danger,” said Haji Ahmad Shah Achakzai, a member of Parliament from Spinbaldak, a town on the southern border with Pakistan.

He said the Taliban had the upper hand in rural areas and it would be impossible to hold balloting there. The government controls only the district centers, and the rest is “Taliban land,” he said.

Mahmood Mirza, 35, a villager from the Kajaki district in the adjoining province of Helmand, said the Taliban had rigged up a radio station and were broadcasting to a radius of three to four miles from their base, warning people not to take part in the election or to support a government that they said was destroying their houses and bombing their people.

The Taliban say they have prepared 200 suicide bombers to attack polling stations on election day, Mr. Mirza said. “Now people are scared and won’t take part in elections,” he said. “I myself will not vote and will not leave my home on the day of elections.”

Muhammad Hassan, a villager from Zabul Province, said recently after prayers in a mosque on the outskirts of the provincial capital that a Taliban commander had stood up and told the congregation not to take part in the election, calling it an American exercise.

He warned that those who voted would be recognized by the ink marking their fingers. “We will know those who cast a vote from the ink, and his finger will be cut off,” Mr. Hassan quoted the commander as saying.

President Hamid Karzai spoke blithely of the Taliban threats in a speech in Kabul on Tuesday. “The election will pass peacefully,” he said. “The enemies of Afghanistan will try to create some chaos; you don’t bother about it,” he told his audience, adding that it was vital for Afghans to vote.

His main rival in the election, Abdullah Abdullah, held a campaign rally in Kandahar on Wednesday, making him one of the only candidates to visit the city, which is considered a high security risk. Mr. Karzai opened his campaign here in a tightly controlled event at a government guesthouse last month. Under tense security, Mr. Abdullah was met with cheers when he told a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered under a tent that he would bring peace to the region.

Yet a member of the Taliban, Hafiz Dawood, 22, from the Arghandab district, just north of Kandahar, confirmed that the Taliban was determined to prevent the election from taking place.

Contacted by telephone, he said the government would not be able to hold voting in rural areas, but only in the heavily guarded district centers. “Ballot boxes will only be placed in the buildings of district centers but they cannot put a single box for elections in the villages,” he said.

If Afghan government or international troops try to take ballot boxes to the villages they will face resistance from the Taliban, he said.

“In all villages and towns our fighters are patrolling, and if these occupying forces move toward the villages, we will greet them with bombs and bullets,” he said.

The election is only “in the interest of these infidels” who are occupying this land, he said. Those running as candidates in the presidential and provincial elections are “foreign agents” and the “loudspeakers” of the infidel forces. “They are not Afghans; they are absolutely working for the interests of the foreigners,” he said.

He said many Taliban fighters had obtained voter registration cards on the orders of the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, but they did not plan to vote. They had obtained the cards just so they could pass through international and Afghan security force checkpoints, he said.

Carlotta Gall reported from Kandahar, and Ruhullah Khapalwak from Kabul, Afghanistan. Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar.