A massive blast in a residential area of Kabul killed at least 16 people, officials said Tuesday, following yet another Taliban attack that came as the insurgents and Washington try to finalize a withdrawal deal. Photo: AFP / STR

The threat of bloody attacks on campaign rallies and ballot centers has cast a dark shadow over the election due to be staged in Afghanistan on September 28.

The poll, which will be the fourth presidential election since 2001, has been delayed for six months. There was uncertainty over when it would be held because of negotiations between the United States and the Taliban about a phased withdrawal of US troops. Those peace talks reached a ninth round in Doha at the beginning of September.

Most people and a number of presidential candidates had hoped that a successful peace agreement between the Taliban and the US government could have led to the election being rescheduled and the start of an intra-Afghan dialogue. The Taliban had refused to enter talks with President Ashraf Ghani, claiming that he was a US ‘stooge’.

Doubt around the election, coupled with the treats from the Taliban to target poll rallies, made the 18 presidential candidates reluctant to organize large campaign gatherings.

Shahab Hakimi, one of the 18 presidential candidates, said during the commencement of his campaign on August 9 that “there will not be any fair election as long as there is no peace”. Hakimi said what we need the most is peace, then we can have a free and fair election where people will elect their president.

Other candidates also indicated that they wanted peace rather than an election. However, President Ghani kept emphasizing the election, saying once that the next government would be able to negotiate peace with the Taliban.

But on September 7, US President Donald Trump made a shock announcement via Twitter that the talks with the Taliban and secret plans for a meeting with their representatives at Camp David had been canceled. He explained later that he was upset at the Taliban refused to cease its attacks while the push for a partial withdrawal of US troops went on.

With the peace talks breaking down, the Afghan government showed its determination by announcing that it would go ahead with a poll on September 28.

Flustered by the cancelation of a meeting with President Donald Trump and suspension of peace talks, the Taliban shifted their focus to disrupting the upcoming election and terrorizing people to try to prevent them from voting.

Taliban negotiators attend recent talks in Qatar. Photo: Karim Jaafar / AFP

Election ‘illegitimate’

A month earlier, the Taliban put a statement on its website, saying the election would have “no legitimacy because the country is under occupation.” It said the election was “a ploy to deceive the ordinary people of Afghanistan” and claimed that the “ final decision-making power is with the foreigners who said they are running the process”.

Their statement came just hours after US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad had reported “excellent progress” in his talks with the Taliban, noting that just a few remaining points needed to be finalized in a further round of talks in Qatar with the insurgents.

But the Taliban has insisted that people should stay away from election-related events, so they avoid being harmed. Security fears had increased after a bomb and gun attack on July 28, which killed at least 20 people at the Kabul office of one vice-presidential candidate. That led to another candidate cancelling a rally planned for Monday near the capital, local media reported.

The Taliban voiced both concern and a threat by saying that to “prevent losses... from being sustained by our fellow countrymen, [people] must stay away from election gatherings and rallies that could become potential targets.”

And last week the Taliban issued a second statement on their website on September 18 warning teachers, students and other educational staff in both urban and rural areas not to participate in the upcoming poll – so they could avoid attacks targeting the polling stations.

The statement warned: “Do not allow election organizers to turn your schools and institutions into polling stations and campaigning venue, and teachers and students should not work as electoral staff.

“We do not intend to cause harm to civilians and neither do we want financial losses for civilians, teachers, and students.”

It also asked the people of Afghanistan to personally disrupt the election.

According to local media, dozens of schools have been closed by the Taliban in areas around the country.

‘Right to vote’

The government issued a statement in response to the Taliban threats, saying it was organizing and funding the election process. It said the people of Afghanistan had a legitimate right to elect a new president, and that national security forces would take every measure to nullify threats posed by the Taliban.

On July 28, late on the day the election campaign officially began, a car-bomb was detonated outside the compound of Amrullah Saleh, a former intelligence chief who is running on President Ashraf Ghani’s state-builders’ ticket. His office in Kabul was reduced to rubble and Saleh, 48, narrowly avoided being shot by gunmen who then invaded the five-story building.

At least 35 people were killed in the attack, which Amrulhah Saleh publicly blamed on the Taliban, although no terrorist group claimed responsibility.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, left, is seen with Amrullah Saleh, candidate to be first vice-president, center, and Sarwar Danish, right, at the Independent Electoral Commission office in Kabul on January 20, 2019. Photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

A second attack on President Ghani’s State-builders was staged on September 17. A suicide bomber detonated explosives at the entrance of an election campaign rally held inside a police training center in Parwan province. The attack killed at least 26 civilians and injured more than 42 people. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying the campaign rally was a “military target.”

Then on Friday, rockets landed near an election rally organized by a presidential candidate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in Paktiya province. This resulted in the disruption of the campaign in that area, but the number of casualties is not known yet.

2,000 polling sites ‘unsafe’

Former Taliban member Mula Abdul Salam Zaeif, who has joined the peace process and lives in Kabul, gave an interview to Kabul News TV, in which he claimed that the upcoming election will not be legitimate or fair. “The Afghan people have 50% control over the election process and the other 50% rests with the US Government,” he said.

He said the Taliban control most of the country – around 50-60% – and they don’t support the election, while the remaining 40-50% was government-controlled. There was a lot of corruption in the latter area, so how could it be free and fair, he said. The September 28 election would be a poll that everyone would be ashamed of, he claimed.

Meanwhile, the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) said in the 2014 presidential election people voted in 6,775 polling stations. However, this time only 4,942 polling stations will be opened.

The reduced number of polling stations could create problems, it said, as more polling center closure were expected due to insecurity.

The Independent Election Commission said that due to security threats about a quarter (26%) of polling stations would remain closed. The IEC’s spokesperson said they sent a list of more than 7,000 polling stations to security chiefs but they only approved 4,942 based on their capacity to provide security.

Hawa Alam Nuristani, head of the Independent Election Commission, said that 7,385 polling stations were registered in 34 provinces, but at least 2,000 of these would remain closed when ballots are cast next Saturday.

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