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The Election Security Challenge
As the landmark October 9 election approaches, Afghanistan’s national police force is preparing to face its toughest challenge yet.
The ministry of interior will be the lead organisation responsible for security on the day of the presidential vote, with 46,000 police officers deployed across the country.
They will be working with the country’s other security forces – the Afghan National Army, ANA, and National Intelligence Directorate – and will work closely with the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF -composed of NATO-led peacekeepers - as well as the US-led Coalition.
The threat of violence during the poll is clear.
“The Taleban have specifically said they are going to target to disrupt the elections,” said spokesman Lt Commander Ken MacKillop of the NATO-led peacekeeping force.
The police must provide security at 5,000 polling centres across the country. With several polling stations at each centre, there will be a total of 25,000 of the former set up for the election. Each is capable of handling 600 voters – more than enough to accommodate Afghanistan’s estimated 10.5 million registered voters.
Lutfullah Mashal, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said he is confident the police are up to the task.
"There is no organized terrorist force, just disorganized [foreign] groups who enter through borders or domestic warlords who create problems,” he said.
But analyst Ustad Habibullah Rafi, a member of the Afghanistan Academy of Science notes that "government authorities are proudly saying everything is secure when the Taleban and al Qaeda continue attacks in the west, south and south western areas of Afghanistan in an organized way.
"The biggest problem in Afghanistan is the existence of weapons - weapons have not been collected,” he said.
"If the weapons are not collected, whatever security exists will not be enough,” Rafi said. “Some small incident can interrupt the election process."
During voter registration, police succeeded in securing most registration centres, but in July a bomb exploded in a mosque in Ghazni being used as a registration centre, killing six people, including two UN workers.
John McComber, security manager of the Joint Election Management Body, said, “The police role during the election will mirror that during registration, although additional responsibilities will be added”.
Police will provide close protection at polling centres and for UN and government electoral staff members, as well as voters themselves.
In general terms, polling stations will operate by the same rules and procedures as registration. No weapons will be allowed close to polling centres and searches will be made both of men and women in their respective voting centres. Female police will search women voters.
McComber said security will be more evident at polling centres than it was during the voter registration effort and that officers will manage the crowds expected to turn out for the election.
The security plan is based around that issue of controlling people as they enter the polling centre.
There will be a security perimeter around the centre, McComber said, “What we can't have is, for example, 100 people around a table” at a polling station.”
Polling centre security will be administered and controlled by civilian election staff and enforced by officers of the Afghan National Police, ANP.
"The role of the Afghan Army and international military is . . . to provide area security,” said McComber, and ”to make the area safe so that inside the area, we can operate polling centres and so that people can come and vote.”
Asked to give more details, he said, "Creating a safe environment is a combination of many activities. They include presence close to polling centres, ready to come to the assistance of police.
“They [security forces] will be manning check points. They will be doing patrols to prevent the presence of those enemies of Afghanistan that would try to interfere with the electoral process.”
Gen. Muhammad Azeemi, spokesman of the national defence ministry, confirmed the army’s key role in security on polling day.
"We have 13,000 soldiers and officers and this number will rise to 16,000 by the time of the election," he said.
The security operation will run from a joint command centre called the joint electoral coordination centre. This will include representatives from all of the organisations working together.
"In many ways the activity of military forces will not be changed from what we see now. It will just be a more closely coordinated activity over the electoral period,” said McComber.
He added that the relationship between ANA and international forces will vary. He said there will be a mix of different relationships between ANA and ISAF and the Coalition, depending upon the situation and where the troops are deployed.
“In some areas, we will see joint international military working alongside ANA,” he said. “In others you might see a candac [joint battalion] with an international military training team as part of it.
“In some areas now, the candac operate on their own, because of the quality of the training,” he said.
“Of course, the international military will always provide necessary support to candac with equipment that they have, such as helicopters and aircraft.”
In the event of a security incident, reinforcements will be available according to the nature of the incident, McComber said. “Perhaps police [will be deployed], perhaps ANA, perhaps international military, perhaps all together, depending on the incident,” he said.
McComber added that deployment of police and military forces will be based "on the information we have about the potential action of the enemies of Afghanistan. That will drive the positioning and numbers of forces and their density.
“We have a good plan to put what we need where we need it. And every level has support – a series of supporting levels behind it,” McComber said. “Whatever action the enemy takes, we will have the capability to prevent intimidation and provide additional support quickly to that area.”
ISAF spokesman MacKillop was more cautious in his assessment.
“Security can’t be 100 per cent,” he said. All the effort is now going into making it “as good as it can be”.
Operations and exercises will be ongoing through to election day to help ensure that all the forces are trained and equipped for the challenge.
Abdul Baseer is a staff journalist with IWPR in Kabul.
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