KABUL — Contrary to initial reports, Afghanistan saw unusually high levels of violence during Saturday’s presidential vote, according to analysts and military officials, putting a dent in the prevailing narrative of a largely peaceful election.
“It was one of the most violent days in Afghanistan,” said U.S. Brig. Gen Dave Haight, who works with Afghan forces in some of the most violent areas of the country’s east. “It was not lost on the enemy that the election was a pivotal event.”
On election day itself, officials and observers hailed what seemed to be a low level of violence, with no attacks on major urban centers and only a scant number reported from elsewhere.
But as the days have ticked by and more information has become available from remote areas, a different picture has emerged.
Analysts say it’s still too early to say what effect the violence had on voting, particularly outside Afghanistan’s cities.
“While it’s accurate to say that the Taliban did not launch spectacular attacks in urban centers, as some analysts feared, the country as a whole remained exceptionally violent,” said Graeme Smith, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst in Afghanistan. “Incident data from election day is still trickling in from the districts, but levels of violence appear higher than during previous elections.”
Statistics are notoriously unreliable in Afghanistan, where much of the population lives in remote areas beyond the reach of the government, and news travels slowly. Dueling figures on election-day violence bear this out.
Security forces initially reported about 160 attacks across the country on election day, while the Taliban claimed to have launched over 1,000 strikes. More recently, the Defense Ministry has raised its original estimate of the number of attacks aimed at disrupting Saturday’s election to 690, and said soldiers had defused 200 bombs.
On Wednesday, Independent Election Commission Director Mohammad Yousuf Nuristani said there had been roughly 300 attacks aimed at election sites on Saturday, but downplayed the effect it had on the vote.
“Mostly, it was just to scare people away from voting,” he said. “Despite these threats, people came out to vote.”
Despite the numerous attacks, Afghan Army Maj. Gen. Muhammad Yaftali told reporters who were flown from Kabul to Gardez, in southeastern Paktia province that the election was a success because his forces were able to protect polling stations and prevent mass casualties. He leads the army’s 203rd Corps, as well as the border police and other Afghan national security forces in seven provinces in southeast Afghanistan, including some of the most violent like Wardak and Khost.
On election day, Yaftali said, his forces faced 347 attacks by Taliban and other insurgents, around 10 times the average of 30 to 40 incidents per day. The attacks ran the range from mortar and rocket fire to direct firefights.
Despite the high number of attacks, Yaftali said, only two civilians and two ANSF were killed, with another 34 people injured in the seven provinces where some five million Afghans live. None of the attacks, he said, affected election sites. Yaftali claimed the Afghan forces in his area killed 129 militants on election day and 56 more the following day. This also was higher than usual, according to Afghan and International Security Assistance Force officials.
Yaftali’s post-election bravado is not uncommon among Afghan security forces, who saw themselves as key to preventing the wave of attacks from disrupting the election.
“If any militants want to come across the border [from Pakistan], I will be happy because we will send them to paradise,” he said.
But for many Afghans caught in between the government and the Taliban, the military’s success at securing polling sites didn’t give them enough confidence that the Taliban wouldn’t follow through on their threats to punish voters.
A resident of the volatile Kunar province, who asked to be identified only as Awalkhan for his own security, told Stars and Stripes before the election the Taliban had been distributing letters at night warning residents not to vote. When contacted on Wednesday, Awalkhan said he and his family decided it was too much of a risk to try to vote.
“We heard the sound of rockets all day on election day,” he said.
Awalkhan’s fears underscore the challenge for the Afghan security forces and their international advisers as the Taliban insurgency retains influence in many areas. Haight, commander of the Training, Advise and Assist Command–Southeast for the NATO-led force, acknowledged that it is easier to defend against attacks that are expected, such as during national events like the election. It is much harder to sustain that level of defense.
That view was echoed by Haji Hazrat Janan, head of the provincial council in Wardak province. Turnout was low at many polling stations in the province, and there were many reports of election day violence, closed polling stations and possible fraud.
Afghan troops performed much better than during past elections, Janan told Stripes, but enduring security remains elusive.
“I think the Afghan security forces were active on election day and they played a bigger role than in the past,” he said. “But for places like Wardak, which are violent, they need to increase their number and focus more.”
Despite the large number of attacks, violence levels were still much lower than many feared, said Aziz Rafiee, director of the domestic election monitoring group, Afghan Civil Society Forum.
“The amount we were expecting was not what the Taliban carried out,” he said. “We were expecting every single (polling) site to be exposed to attack.”
What is still unclear is whether the lack of major election day attacks in Afghanistan’s largest cities was a failure by the Taliban to carry out their stated plans or if the insurgent group decided to wait for the Afghan National Security Forces to lower their posture.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Zahir Azimi said, despite the passage of election day, Afghan troops will remain deployed throughout the country until the vote count is finished and through a second round of voting, it that proves necessary. “We are still at the top security alert level.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report