High voter turnout in the heart of Taliban territory
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Defying Taliban threats and scattered attacks, voters in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province — the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban — turned out in large numbers to cast ballots in Thursday’s presidential election, local officials said.
An estimated 60 percent of the province’s 800,000 registered voters cast ballots, with turnout heaviest within the provincial capital and in Spin Boldak, a district on the border with Pakistan, according to Toryalai Ghaznavi, a representative of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.
The Taliban had vowed to disrupt the vote by attacking or blocking access to polling stations, and carrying out reprisal attacks against voters, but only a relative handful of incidents occurred, security officials said.
“Everything was OK; there were no major problems,” said Brig. Gen. Abdul Bashir Salehzai, commander of the 1st Brigade, 205th “Hero” Corps. “[The Taliban] tried their best, but they couldn’t do anything because we were well prepared.”
The officials described the voter turnout as a clear rejection of the Taliban insurgency.
“I went to see a number of polling places,” said Bashir, his index finger stained with purple ink from casting his own ballot. “People were voting. There was no fear.”
Brig. Gen. Jonathan Vance, commander of Canada-led Task Force Kandahar said that an estimated 50 Taliban fighters attacked a Canadian base in Zhari district, about 12 miles west of the provincial capital. Canadian soldiers and Afghan army troops battled the insurgents for about two hours, until the insurgents were beaten back. There were no Canadian or Afghan government casualties, he said.
“I think all of us who were involved in security in the lead-up to the election today were indeed encouraged by the events of today,” he said. “As anticipated, the insurgency did attempt to disrupt the election. They were unsuccessful across the board.”
Another security official, Gen. Mirwais Noorzai, chief of police for Kandahar province, said that one woman was killed and two children were injured when a mortar round fired by insurgents south of the city landed in their family compound. A separate rocket attack killed a teenage boy in the city, he said. Vance said that the Taliban fired seven rockets into the city and its environs throughout the day.
Three border police officers died Wednesday night in Spin Boldak district, when a bomb struck their vehicle, said Noorzai. Another police officer was wounded by a grenade attack in Kandahar city, and in the village of Pashmul, in Panjwayi district west of the provincial capital, two police officers were wounded in a shootout with the Taliban, Noorzai said.
At least 15 roadside bombs were found planted inside the city of Kandahar, presumably by insurgents, but these were discovered by Afghan forces and neutralized by Canadian combat engineers assigned to the provincial reconstruction team, said Bashir, the army brigade commander.
In Maiwand district, in western Kandahar province, three Taliban fighters were killed when a bomb they were trying to plant alongside a road blew up prematurely, Noorzai said.
However, there were no reports of attacks on polling stations or of reprisal attacks on voters. A rumor had circulated that two people had been hanged by the Taliban for taking part in the vote, but it was unfounded, the officials said.
About 20 Taliban fighters were killed in clashes with Afghan army and police units around the province, including several in the Arghandab valley north of Kandahar, who were killed by NATO helicopters after launching rockets, Bashir said.
In Kandahar city and Spin Boldak district, where turnout was heaviest, even women came out in large numbers to vote, said Ghaznavi. But he said that turnout was low and that few women voted in districts such as Maiwand, Zhari and Panjwayi, where clashes between Taliban fighters and international troops frequently occur.
Polling stations in two districts in northern Kandahar province did not open at all because of the threats of violence, Ghaznavi said.