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

Tensions Rise in Kabul Ahead of Vote

Violence has surged in recent weeks with attacks on civilians and election infrastructure.
By James Orr
  • Kabul enveloped in haze. (Photo: James Orr)
    Kabul enveloped in haze. (Photo: James Orr)

Morning in the sprawling city of Kabul begins much as it does in any other south Asian metropolis.

Battered yellow taxis begin to fill the dusty streets as shopkeepers make their way through the dawn. Vendors wheel out wooden carts piled chest-high with oranges, and children – their mouths masked against the choking fumes – scamper across cracked pavements on their way to school.

Nearby, in the centre of a crumbling concrete roundabout, a pack of wild dogs stretch out their limbs in the early sun.

Yet despite the sense of everyday routine in Afghanistan’s long-suffering capital, the machinery of war is ever-present.

Toyota pickup trucks filled with balaclava-wearing soldiers from the Afghan National Army (ANA) speed through potholed suburbs, while vast, menacing armour-plated American vehicles roar across busy intersections.

Towering cement-blast walls, scattered police checkpoints and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov, the weapon of choice, are all added into the mix.

A spate of recent and deadly suicide attacks against civilian targets has done little to soothe residents’ nerves.

“The scale and the frequency of the attacks over the past few weeks have taken a lot of people by surprise,” said Marcus Tudehope, 28, an Australian project manager whose research firm, ATR Consulting, has evacuated staff to Kathmandu, Nepal.

“A lot of international workers have left and there's a good deal of uncertainty over what kind of situation we'll see in the coming months.”

The cause of the heightened anxiety and the spike in violence is Afghanistan's much-anticipated presidential and provincial elections on April 5.

The incumbent, the increasingly erratic and prickly Hamed Karzai, is barred from seeking a third term by the Afghan constitution. With a change of president, many other positions of power will be up for grabs.

Kabul’s political elite, some members of which have been accused of diverting vast sums of international aid dollars to foreign bank accounts, fear the potential for change. Former warlords who fought in the long mujahedin battle against the Soviets during the 1980s also feel under threat as traditional allegiances change.

“There’s an urgent need to replace the current inefficient and incompetent government with leaders who can not only bring peace, but who also have a working plan for economic recovery,” said 29-year-old Farhad Ahmadzai, an office manager. “We Afghans want stability, and we deserve prosperity.”

The run-up to the election has seen the usual behind-the-scenes coalition building among different ethnic groups, with Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras all forming alliances.

But the Taleban have promised yet more bloodshed in an effort to spoil the ballot. To them, a successful outcome means no election at all and their militants now lie in wait, determined to torpedo the vote. On August 20, 2009, the day the last presidential election was held, the number of insurgent attacks increased tenfold.

Over the last fortnight, Kabul has already been hit hard, with numerous attacks against both civilian targets and the capital’s electoral infrastructure. On March 25, a suicide bomber detonated his vest, killing two people, as part of a coordinated attack on the headquarters of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the body responsible for coordinating the vote.

Four days later, Taleban fighters disguised in burkas took over a neighbouring compound to fire rocket-propelled grenades at another IEC office in a four hour-long siege. No one bar the gunmen was killed.

“Resorting to violence to intimidate citizens from exercising their democratic rights is an admission that you have lost the ability to win over people through political persuasion,” Nicholas Haysom, acting head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), said in a recent statement. “The Mission... reiterates that electoral institutions and their staff should not be the targets of deliberate attacks.”

International workers have also been targeted in the recent upsurge in attacks.

So far this year, 18 foreign civilian staff have been killed in the capital, including 13 during an attack on a restaurant in January. Another international was killed in an assassination in broad daylight on March 11, and four died in the recent storming of the luxury Serena Hotel on March 20.

In the case of the Serena assault, the Afghan victims included women and children.

AFP journalist Ahmad Sardar, his wife, and two of their three children all died in the onslaught. Their third child, a two-year-old boy, survived but remains in hospital with gunshot wounds to the head.

In offices across Kabul, Afghans and foreign nationals alike remain on edge, with frequent emails bearing news of “urgent threat warnings”.

An IED has detonated near a military convoy in the city's outskirts, reports one; there is ongoing small arms fire at a police checkpoint, says another.

Few places seem safe from the Taleban, but after more than 30 years of conflict Afghans themselves remain stoic – a trait which invaders have discovered to their cost.

“To attack us for the sake of intimidating others won’t work any more,” said Abdul Jawad 34, who runs his own translating business in the capital. “The Taleban would have us believe that democracy is merely a legacy of Western interference, but we know better. We won’t be deceived, and we will vote.”

James Orr is an IWPR editor based in Kabul.

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