NY TimesIn Bullet-Ridden Afghan Districts, Free Vote Seems an Empty Promise
By AZAM AHMEDAPRIL 2, 2014
CHARKH, Afghanistan — One of the few polling centers in this part of Logar Province 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 on 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 percent of 7,500 total national sites shut down as too dangerous to protect. The Charkh district center 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 two times 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 on 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 favorable. Afghan and Western officials alike believe that more people will vote on 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 centers 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 real 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 centers 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 American 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 center 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.
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