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Archive for Sunday, August 16, 2009

Vote a test for Afghanistan’s tenuous south

August 16, 2009

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Afghan men use mobile phone cameras to take pictures of presidential candidate and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai during an election campaign stop Saturday in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Afghans will head to the polls on Aug. 20 to elect the new president.

Afghan men use mobile phone cameras to take pictures of presidential candidate and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai during an election campaign stop Saturday in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Afghans will head to the polls on Aug. 20 to elect the new president.

— Five years ago, Eitadullah Khan — then 25 — voted for the first time in his life. He even campaigned for Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

This time around, he says he’s not even going to vote, let alone for Karzai.

“Now I see his weak corrupt government gave a chance for the Taliban to be strong,” Khan said. “I am not going to vote. Who should I give my vote to? There is too much corruption. None of them are any good.”

A good turnout in southern Afghanistan in Thursday’s presidential election is crucial for it to be considered legitimate.

It’s also seen as critical to the victory of Karzai, who is relying on the votes of his fellow ethnic Pashtuns in the area. And a well-attended election would be a boon for President Barack Obama, who is trying to sell a revamped Afghan policy that is likely to see more U.S. troops committed to the fight against the Taliban.

The problem is, nobody is sure how many people in the south will vote at all. Residents are fed up with what they see as corruption and incompetence in Karzai’s government, and a growing number are turning toward the Taliban. It is also uncertain how safe it will be to vote, with the Taliban threatening people who try to get to the voting booths.

Khan, a businessman from Musa Qala in Helmand province, says the Taliban are strong in the region because the billions of dollars in international aid that have come into Afghanistan in recent years have not helped ordinary Afghans. Afghanistan is considered one of the most corrupt governments in the world, ranked better than only Haiti, Iraq, Myanmar and Somalia by Transparency International.

“The money just comes from the hands of the international community into the pocket of the government,” he said. “Now I would say 95 percent of the people support the Taliban.”

Tugging on his earlobes and rubbing his nose, Khan said that the Taliban have threatened to cut off the noses and ears of those who vote. Fingers stained with ink — the sign of having cast a vote — will also be lopped off, the warning says.

Residents said the Taliban have been moving through the cities and the villages of southern Afghanistan distributing shabnamas, or night letters, a traditional means of clandestine messaging, warning people to stay away from the polls. The AP acquired a copy of one night letter with the seal of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan berating Karzai’s government as loyal to the United States and threatening those who voted.

The government’s hold in the south is tenuous, making it difficult to guarantee safety. In each of southern Afghanistan’s five provinces, several districts are fully under Taliban control.

The regional police chief, Gen. Ghulam Ali Wahadat, balks at suggestions that his men can’t protect the 626 polling stations spread across the five southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Nimroz, Uruzgan and Zabul. He said thousands of men are being deployed to guard the stations.

“We will protect them,” he said.

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