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Afghans Head to the Polls Despite Threat of Taliban Violence


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Afghans Head to the Polls Despite Threat of Taliban Violence

https://www.wsj.com/articles/afghans-head-to-the-polls-despite-threat-of-taliban-violence-11569649093?mod=hp_lead_pos8

KABUL—Despite threats of attacks by Taliban insurgents, Afghans came forward slowly early Saturday to vote in the country’s fourth presidential election since a U.S.-led invasion toppled the hard-line Islamist movement from power 18 years ago.

The polling station at the Khwaja Ali Mouafaq Herawi mosque in central Kabul, one of 5,373 posts in schools and mosques across the country, was empty of when the gate opened for voters at 7 a.m. local time. Many of the election workers, mostly schoolteachers hired temporarily from their full-time jobs, hadn’t shown up yet.

Some 15 minutes later, the first voter walked in, eager to vote before he went to work at a nongovernmental organization in the Afghan capital. After grousing about the absence of election workers to help him and other voters, 28-year-old Hashmatullah, who goes only by one name, declared himself pleased.

“I’m happy to be voting today,” he said. “I’m voting to contribute to democracy.”

But it was far from certain how much the fear of Taliban violence and disillusionment with the central government would sap the willingness of the country’s 9.7 million registered voters to cast ballots in a wartime election that was shaping up as a contest between the incumbent president,

Ashraf Ghani,

and

Abdullah Abdullah,

his partner in the current national unity government.

At the root of most of the uncertainty is the threat of suicide bombings by the Taliban, who are fighting to expel the U.S. and other foreign forces from the country and to establish their especially austere and rigid brand of Islam among its estimated 34 million people.

Poll Numbers

Afghan authorities are taking steps to shore up the electoral system before the vote.

Staff working at

polling centers

Biometric devices to verify identity of voters

Domestic observers and candidate agents

Security forces to secure the poll

Deployed army soldiers and intelligence units

The insurgency, now almost a quarter-century old, now controls more territory in the country than at any time since the U.S. invasion in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Since campaigning began two months ago, more than 170 civilians have been killed and at least 300 injured in election-related violence.

The dead include 26 people who were killed by a suicide bombing at a Ghani campaign rally in Parwan province on Sept. 17. Mr. Ghani wasn’t hurt.

On Thursday, the Taliban repeated its vow to disrupt the vote, ordering its fighters to “use everything at their disposal” to sabotage what it called a sham, foreign-inspired process. “Stay away from polling stations on election day,” they warned.

About 75,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been deployed to guard polling stations in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Even so, roughly 2,000 stations won’t open because they couldn’t be adequately protected, according to Afghan officials. U.S. military personnel will be prepared to aid Afghan forces if needed, Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for the U.S.-led international military coalition in Afghanistan, said earlier this week.

Since the first post-2001 presidential election, only two presidents have ruled Afghanistan. The first,

Hamid Karzai,

held office until 2014. He was succeeded by Mr. Ghani, a former World Bank economist and co-author of “Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World.”

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The total cost of the polling is $149 million, most of which—$90 million—is being funded by the government for the first time. But the presidency isn’t the only thing at stake in Saturday’s election.

Women line up to vote at a polling station in Herat on Saturday.


Photo:

hoshang hashimi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Since the first post-invasion presidential vote in 2004, elections have been touted as a way for the central government to establish its legitimacy and for the U.S. to showcase progress in its nearly $1 trillion project to establish democratic institutions in Afghanistan.

The current national unity government was cobbled together by then-U.S. Secretary of State

John Kerry

following the disputed 2014 election after allegations of vote fraud by both sides threatened to spiral into factional violence.

As with that election and others in the past, the specter of significant fraud looms over this vote, with Mr. Ghani’s opponents accusing him in the run-up of misusing state assets in his campaign.

Another election marred by widespread fraud will show America’s ally is again unable to deliver, further weaken the credibility of the Afghan state in the eyes of the public and hand a talking point to the insurgents, Western officials and Afghan election experts said.

At a recent campaign rally, Mr. Ghani appeared to acknowledge that far more was at issue in Saturday’s vote than who will occupy the presidential palace in central Kabul—a citadel known as the Arg—declaring that the Afghan people “will defend their free and fair votes. I know Afghans will protect democracy.”

But concerns about fraud persist as do other voting irregularities. Reports of vote-buying in the run-up to Saturday’s vote were widespread, prompting a scolding during Friday prayers from the imam of a mosque in Kabul’s Wazir Akhbar Khan district.

In his sermon, Ayaz Niazi accused the candidates of corrupting poor and hungry Afghans with offers of $100, $50 or $10 for their votes and exploiting the country’s ethnic divisions for political gain. “They aren’t drawn to you out of affection,” he said. “They support you because they’re forced to.”

Mr. Ghani spoke with U.S. Secretary of State

Mike Pompeo

about the elections by phone late Thursday. The Afghan leader later tweeted that he was pleased to receive the call and discuss ensuring “security for a big turnout” with Mr. Pompeo.

The State Department’s summary of conversation was barbed, underscoring how Afghanistan’s ties with the U.S., its biggest foreign donor and most important strategic ally, have frayed since the collapse of the U.S.-Taliban talks.

The potential for vote fraud appeared to be foremost in Mr. Pompeo’s mind, with the statement saying that he underscored Washington’s expectation that “the conduct of candidates and government institutions holding the Afghanistan election should be beyond reproach to ensure the legitimacy of the outcome.”

Besides the threat of Taliban violence and skepticism about the electoral process, another factor that could dampen voter turnout is the lackluster election campaign.

Most of Mr. Ghani’s opponents expected the election to be postponed for a third time and an interim government to be established to make way for progress in efforts to reach a negotiated settlement of the nearly 18-year Afghan war, starting with the U.S.-Taliban negotiations in the Gulf state of Qatar.

Mr. Ghani, eager to seize control of efforts to reach a negotiated settlement of the war, welcomed President Trump’s decision on Sept. 7 to kill an all-but-completed U.S.-Taliban deal to withdraw American and other foreign forces from Afghanistan in exchange for a commitment to police the country against transnational terrorism and to stop the Qatar talks.

His opponents, however, were caught off guard. While there are 18 names on Saturday’s ballot, none have conducted any serious campaigning except for 70-year-old Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah, 59, in addition to three or four other candidates.

Preliminary results are set to be announced on Oct. 17 and final results are to follow three weeks later, on Nov. 7, according to the official electoral calendar. If no candidate garners the necessary 50% of the vote, the two top vote-getters will face each other in a runoff on Nov. 23.

Official timeline aside, the campaigns of Messrs. Ghani and Abdullah are likely to claim victory shortly after polling stations close, citing their private campaign polls conducted in Kabul.

Write to Craig Nelson at craig.nelson@wsj.com

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