Karzai urges Afghans to vote in parliamentary election despite threats from Taliban

By Heidi Vogt, AP
Friday, September 17, 2010

Karzai urges Afghans to vote, ignore Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged citizens to vote in Saturday’s parliamentary election despite a Taliban threat warning people not to leave their homes and violence on the eve of the ballot.

The head of a voting center in the south was killed Friday evening when his vehicle struck a roadside bomb — one of at least 22 people who have been killed in election-related violence, observers said. In addition, one candidate and 18 election workers have been kidnapped in the run-up to the vote that will test the government’s ability to hold legitimate elections after last year’s disastrous presidential vote.

“Tomorrow’s election is very important,” Karzai told reporters. “I hope that all our people in all corners of the country, in any village will go to the polling centers and to vote for their favorite candidate.”

The international coalition supporting Afghanistan with 140,000 troops and billions of dollars will be watching to see if the election will be safe and fair and not a repeat of the fraud-marred presidential vote in August 2009 that nearly undermined Karzai’s credibility with his international backers.

About 2,500 candidates are vying for 249 parliamentary seats allocated among the 34 provinces according to population.

Results of the voting for the relatively weak legislature are unlikely to affect Karzai’s administration. However, the elections will be an indicator of the strength of the insurgency as NATO and Afghan forces work to secure polling stations in volatile areas.

Taliban threats — some announced to reporters, some whispered in mosques, some written on leaflets left around town — have increased in the days leading up to the vote, even as the insurgent group has reportedly quietly backed candidates in some provinces.

The U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told reporters in Islamabad on Friday that he knows the election — taking place amid a robust insurgency — will not be perfect.

“You’ll want to look at how much the Taliban are able to disrupt” the ballot, Holbrooke said.

But NATO’s senior civilian representative, Mark Sedwill, said the Taliban face a dilemma.

“They talk about the purpose of their insurgency being to get rid of international forces from the country,” Sedwill said. “Well, these elections are not about the international forces. These elections are about the Afghans themselves.”

In the eastern province of Khost, police said mosques were blanketed with leaflets overnight promising a violent vote.

“The people of Khost should not go to the voting centers. If anyone goes, we will punish them,” the notes said, according to provincial police Chief Abdul Hakim Isaqzai.

The same message was written on leaflets the Taliban were passing out in Kandahar.

Asked what message he wanted to give to the Taliban, Karzai replied: “Those Taliban, who are sons of Afghanistan, are Muslim. They should serve their country and participate, and build their country and build stability.”

With a raging insurgency, hardly anyone is predicting a fully free and fair vote.

“This is probably one of the worst places and the worst times to have an election anywhere in the world. We have to put it into perspective,” said Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan.

“We don’t expect a fair and transparent election. What we expect is an acceptable election,” said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul-based think tank.

The hope is that Afghans and the international community will be able to proclaim it an improvement over the August 2009 presidential vote, when a U.N.-backed watchdog group found rampant fraud in Karzai’s re-election.

The streets were relatively empty as is typical for a Friday, which is not a working day in Afghanistan, but authorities were braced for violence.

Afghan security forces patrolled the mountains and hills that circle Kabul to prevent insurgents from setting up rocket-firing points, Deputy Police Chief Khalilullah Dastyar said. Police used bomb-sniffing dogs while searching every car heading along main roads into the city.

The head of a voting center was killed and five members of the Afghan security forces were wounded Friday evening when their car hit a roadside bomb in Musa Qala district of Helmand province in the south, according to Gulam Farooq Parwani, deputy corps commander of the Afghan National Army.

In Herat province in western Afghanistan, two civilians were killed and another was wounded when a vehicle being used by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission hit a roadside bomb in Adraskan district. The election workers inside in the vehicle were not wounded, said IEC chief Anal Rahman Rodwal.

Munir Mohammad Mangal, deputy interior minister, said one election candidate was kidnapped Friday in eastern Laghman province.

NATO said in a statement that coalition forces freed three Afghans in Ghazni province who were kidnapped on Thursday by the Taliban. One of the men — a local policeman — was told by his captors he would be killed one day before the elections, and his body would be left in front of a local polling station, the military alliance said.

On Thursday, 18 election workers were kidnapped from a house in Badghis province, said provincial government spokesman Sharafuddin Majidi.

In the eastern province of Ghazni, a Taliban operative told The Associated Press that the group had warned residents they would be targeted if they left their homes or opened shops anytime Saturday or Sunday.

Also in the east, NATO said Friday that coalition forces detained two insurgents in Khost province, including one who was “actively” planning attacks during the elections. In the south, NATO reported that two coalition service members died Friday following insurgent attacks. The service members’ nationalities was not disclosed.

In the continued bloodshed, a horse-pulled cart hit a roadside bomb, killing at least four occupants in Balkh province in the north, said Munir Ahmad Farhad, the province’s governor. It was unclear whether the blast was linked to the election.

One Italian coalition member was killed and another wounded by gunfire in the western Herat province, either while still aboard a helicopter or just after disembarking, the Italian Defense Ministry said.

Associated Press Writer Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

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