Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Insurgents Cast Shadow Over Poll

Many voters are likely to stay away from the polls for fear of Taleban revenge.
By Shapoor Saber

Abdul Wahab, 45, abandoned his hopes of voting in the August 20 elections last Friday, when a group of armed men came to the mosque in his native village of Siyawooshan, in Gozara district of Herat province.

“They said that they would cut the finger off anyone who participates in the election,” he told IWPR.

Voters will be asked to dip their index finger in a bottle of indelible ink in order to obtain a ballot paper. The ink is supposed to remain for several days, providing the opposition with an easy way of identifying those who defy their orders.

“The opposition has been threatening to disrupt the election for months,” said Abdul Wahab. “We didn’t pay too much attention. We thought we could go into the city to vote but this is the first time they have made this kind of threat.”

Herat has recently experienced a surge in the presence of armed opposition groups in several districts in the eastern part of the province: Gozara, Pashtun Zarghun, Injil and Karukh.

With the elections for president and the provincial councils just days away, residents are afraid that the insurgents will deprive them of their right to vote.

Recently, Mohammad Yusuf Nooristani, governor of Herat, told the media that more than 20 polling centres in eastern Herat province were under direct threat by the armed opposition.

“I would like to participate,” said Gozara resident Ghulam Mahboob. “But the gunmen have power. They can do whatever they want.”

The opposition has been able to choke off the campaign in the areas under their control, say residents. Ahmad Shah, 45, a farmer, told IWPR that he knew almost nothing about the elections.

“Nobody has come out here to campaign,” he said. “There aren’t any posters, and I don’t even know who is running.”

Ahmad Shah is pessimistic that the vote will change things.

“First of all, I am sure that nobody will put a ballot box here in my village. And even if there is one, nobody will vote. Secondly, I am sure that whoever becomes the president, the situation will get worse instead of better. Whatever America wants will happen. So why are they bothering us?”

But Noorkhan Nekzad, spokesman for the Herat police, told IWPR that the threat had been exaggerated.

“We have undertaken major efforts to ensure security for the elections,” he said. “The vote will be held in a safe and secure atmosphere. The candidates for president and the provincial councils can go to all districts with no problem.”

Some potential voters say they have little faith in the election process, and are reluctant to risk their lives for what they see as little more than an elaborate show.

“Everybody knows that the president of Afghanistan has already been selected,” said Mohammad Aslam, a tribal elder in Gozara. “But we are being threatened by the opposition. We do not know what is happening. For more than 30 years we have been burning in the flames of war. Our lives have been destroyed.”

In neighbouring Farah province, the situation is much the same. In four districts – Khak Safed, Balabaluk, Pushtrod and Bakwaa – the opposition has warned the local population to stay away from the “infidel” elections.

“Armed Taleban come to our village every day and tell people not to participate in the upcoming elections,” said Abdul Salaam, a resident of Khak Safed. “Yesterday four vehicles full of them came to the mosque and told everybody that if they went to vote, the Taleban would cut off their ink-stained finger. They would also fine them 50,000 afghani (1,000 US dollars) so there is no way we are going to vote.”

In Farah, the Taleban have openly established what they call a counter-election commission. Mullah Obaidullah, who heads the Pushtrod branch, told IWPR that his men would stop people from voting all over the province.

“This is an American process,” he said. “Whoever participates is considered an infidel. If anybody tries to vote, we will kill them.”

Mullah Obaidullah said that the Taleban would disrupt the elections in several ways: first, by threatening people and attacking polling stations; second, by kidnapping staff of the Independent Election Commission and election monitors.

“We will punish those who occupy high positions in this process,” he said.

Ruhullah Amin, governor of Farah, dismissed the Taleban’s claims.

“These threats by the enemy are nonsense,” he told IWPR. “In the next few days we will begin a major operation, so that we can clear out the insecure districts. Security will be very good on election day, and everybody will be able to vote.”

But people are worried about the days following the poll. The security forces will leave, and the Taleban will return, they say. Those whose fingers bear the telltale ink mark could face repercussions.

“In our village everyone knows everyone else,” said Mohammad Ibrahim, a resident of Khak Safed. “They will report to the Taleban and the ink will not wear off for several days. I am not going to vote.”

In Herat’s Gozara district, a local strongman, Ghulam Yahya Akbari, has recently softened his opposition to the elections – provided that voters cast their ballot for Abdullah Abdullah, one of the leading presidential contenders and the only one who seems able to give incumbent president Hamed Karzai a run for his money.

A few posters are now going up around Siyawooshan village – all for Abdullah – and one villager told IWPR that the commander’s men have begun to campaign, in a fashion.

“Armed gunmen have begun telling people to vote for Abdullah,” said the villager, who was afraid to give his name.

The pasting up of posters closely followed a campaign visit to Herat by Abdullah in which he referred to Yahya by name, calling him “an honest mujahed”.

In the city of Farah, the situation is even more bizarre: a Taleban commander is out on the campaign trail – for his old friend and brother-in-arms, Mullah Salaam Rockety.

Rockety, who earned his name by his skill with a rocket launcher during the Soviet invasion, was a high-level member of the Taleban government. He has since laid down his arms and become a parliamentarian. Rockety is now running for president, and Sufi Sadaat, a local Taleban commander in Gulistan district, has decided to help him out.

“Rockety was one of the big mujahedin, and still is,” said Sadaat. “I am campaigning for him so that he can win.”

Sadaat’s idea of a campaign speech might need a little brushing up, however.

“I tell people they have to go and vote for Rockety,” he said. “If they do not, I will punish them.”

Shapoor Saber, Farooq Faizi and Ahmad Shah Fetrat are IWPR trainees in Herat.