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Blinded by Logistics

The Joint Electoral Management Body insists the election will go off smoothly, and rejects claims that the recent surge in violence is connected to the vote.
By Wahidullah Amani

The ballot boxes have been weighed and counted, the ballot sheets imported and distributed, and the ink bottles – 140,000 of them - are ready. Election officials are happy with the progress made on putting the technicalities in place, and confident that all will go well with the elections scheduled for September 18.

But this rosy picture contrasts with scenes of harrowing violence, as an increasingly aggressive insurgency targets candidates, election workers and ordinary Afghans in what analysts say is a desperate bid by the Taleban to disrupt the elections.

Inside the heavily fortified compound of the Joint Electoral Management Body, JEMB, all is bustle and good cheer. But those in charge of logistics have been stretched to the limit by the myriad details that need sorting out to make the poll work.

“The parliamentary elections are about five times the complexity and well in excess of 10 times the size of the presidential elections,” said Jim Grierson, head of the JEMB’s Support Department, a genial man with a noticeable Australian twang.

With close to 6,000 candidates registered for both the Wolesi Jirga, parliament’s lower house and the provincial councils, it is not hard to see why the task has been a daunting one. The ballot papers alone number 40 million, half of them printed in Britain and the rest in Austria.

Over 135,000 ballot boxes have been imported from Canada along with 140,000 bottles of ink, which stand ready to mark the index fingers of Afghan voters to stop them voting twice. Officials insist that say that this time, the stain will last long after the elections – eliminating the controversy that marred last October’s presidential vote in which the ink sometimes rubbed off.

There will be 26,000 polling stations across the country, with 140,000 “voting screens”, the booths inside which voters will cast their ballots.

Caravans of horses, camels, and the ever-photogenic donkeys stand ready to transport ballots and election kits to their final destinations in the more remote regions. Over 170 donkeys have been recruited so far, says Grierson with a smile, while the numbers of camels and horses needed has not yet been determined.

All of this has been accomplished in six months – half the time that the JEMB had to arrange last year’s presidential vote.

They did, however, have help - a small army of election workers imported for the occasion.

“With over 500 internationals working at tremendous cost, these should be the best-run elections in history,” said one international election official, who did not want to be named. Official figures put the price tag for the elections at 149 million US dollars, but some insiders say in private that this is a bit on the low side.

It has taken a small fleet of aircraft to ferry in the supplies, including 14 Antonov 124s, one of the largest aircraft ever built. “It’s a flying warehouse,” said Grierson.

Also on tap are eight Boeing 747s, an Ilyushin 76, and several helicopters. Russian aircraft are preferred “because they’re cheap”, laughed Grierson. The JEMB is leasing the aircraft for the duration.

With so much accomplished, it is understandable that the JEMB wants to laud its achievements.

But as they prepare to load up the donkeys with ballots and boxes, violence is on the rise throughout the country. Candidates are being targeted, election workers killed, and pro-government mullahs attacked, along with hundreds of police and civilians.

Many analysts and Afghan observers attribute the increase in violence to the Taleban’s desire to derail the poll.

“It is obvious that terrorists are attempting to disrupt the elections. Candidates and election workers are being killed or threatened, and their houses set on fire,” said Sebghatullah Sanjar, leader of the Afghanistan Republican Party and a candidate for the Wolesi Jirga.

The list of victims is grim. The upsurge can be said to have begun on June 1, when terrorists detonated a bomb in a mosque in Kandahar, killing 20 people. Since then, at least six candidates have been confirmed killed, as well as five election workers and dozens of police.

Ten pro-government mullahs have been attacked, leaving six of them dead. In the last few days of August, Mullah Amir Akhund was beheaded in Helmand province. Self-proclaimed Taleban spokesman Latif Hakimi took responsibility for the assassination, saying, “We killed him because he was a candidate in the elections.”

The mullah was not in fact standing, according to provincial officials, but was a supporter of a prominent candidate in Helmand.

On September 3, five men were kidnapped in Kandahar province, including one provincial council candidate. While the interior ministry will not confirm their deaths, Hakimi claims that the five were summarily tried by a Taleban court and executed.

A British lorry driver was kidnapped on August 31 on the Kandahar-Herat highway, and his body was found three days later, with the Taleban claiming responsibility.

A parliamentary candidate was killed on September 3 by a mine planted outside his home in Helmand. Violent demonstrations erupted in Khost, mullahs were stoned in Kapisa province, and bombs were found in Shahr-e-Naw Park, right in the centre of Kabul.

The JEMB, however, refuses to concede that such incidents have anything to do with the elections.

“The actual incident levels are markedly reduced [compared with last year],” said Grierson. “No-go areas have mostly been removed… the violence is seemingly not directed at elections. In fact, the only time any of our people were ever put in harm’s way, or actually harmed, they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

This upbeat assessment rings somewhat hollow in the face of warnings issued by security experts. The Afghanistan NGO Security Office, ANSO, a non-government organisation that provides security information to the international community, has issued a general warning stating that there have been credible threats of major violence before the polls.

According to press reports, the United Nations is advising its non-essential personnel to take a vacation over the election period.

But at the JEMB, the mood remains positive. They emphasise that the Afghan National Army and the National Police will provide most of the security for the elections, and say they are up to the job.

“Issues of security are paramount,” said Aleem Siddique, the JEMB’s international media relations officer. “We have planned meticulously for every eventuality, with well-thought out rehearsals… to enable us to take measures which we think are appropriate to ensure the integrity of the vote.”

Siddique said the scale of the violence was all a matter of perspective. “If you consider that we have 5,800 candidates in the field, the number of security incidents has been relatively small,” he said.

This attitude goes down badly with observers such as Habibullah Rafi, president of the Afghan Academy of Sciences, who is angry at what he sees as stonewalling by the JEMB on security issues.

“The JEMB just wants to show that they have everything under control,” he told IWPR. “This is not true. They should tell people the facts. It is dangerous, as if they say everything is normal, people won’t know how to protect themselves.”

According to Wolesi Jirga candidate Nasrat Shams, “The situation is getting worse every day. It’s much worse than last year, and it is definitely linked to the elections. I disagree 100 per cent with the JEMB.”

Even the interior ministry, whose police are to provide security for the elections, is voicing concern. Raz Mohammad Rasa, an interior ministry press officer, told IWPR that the increased violence was quite likely linked to the attacks.

“The enemy is trying to attack as much as possible. The elections are coming – they are trying to do their best to disrupt them,” he said.

Yet the JEMB’s Grierson is adamant that this is not the case. “If the anti-government, insurgent Taleban and al-Qaeda wanted to disrupt this operation, they could [do so] easily. Well, maybe not easily - the Coalition Forces and others, the military, have pretty much got them at bay.

“But if they wanted to disrupt the election they could really cause concern, and put the election in jeopardy.”

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.

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