Aerial show of force fails to reassure nervous Afghan voters

Posted in Broader Middle East | 04-Oct-04 | Author: Justin Huggler| Source: The Independent

An Afghan woman (L) watches as officials write her details as she registers at a voter registration centre in a mosque in Kabul.

The Kabul air show went on all day. First, about 7am, came the fighter jets. Then, at lunchtime, helicopters flew low, tight figures of eight, rattling windows.

"It is a demonstration," said one Afghan. He was right. With less than a week to go until Afghanistan's first democratic elections, the US and its allies are making great show of their air power.

Journalists were invited to the airport yesterday to look over some fighter jets. The British have been broadcasting the presence of their Harriers, here to provide protection for the poll.

But as some of Kabul's more sceptical observers note, nobody has explained how a jet provides election security. If someone is stuffing ballot boxes, the Harriers can hardly respond by rocketing the polling station.

The security is more about the fear of Taliban attacks than of voting irregularities. As Saturday's poll nears, fear has gripped Kabul. The streets are emptier than usual, taxis refuse to go to the more crowded areas, and many foreign NGO workers have fled. Beside the posters for the candidates, rival messages from the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have appeared, telling Afghans to stay away from polling stations. The international forces warn of as many as 2,000 militants crossing from Pakistan to mount attacks on the election.

Air power has won some respect in Afghanistan, where it dislodged the Taliban, but it remains unclear what it can do about the sort of attacks being talked about. A suicide bomb vest was found by security forces. There are fears of car bombings.The international forces in Afghanistan do not want to be seen as a heavy presence at polling stations, But, say critics, that has left many with ineffective security.

The problem is greatest in rural areas. Many Afghans have been complaining that warlords are threatening them, and trying to direct their votes.

Security in some rural areas will be handed over to the forces commanded by the same warlords. Harriers will not be able to do anything to reassure voters there.