Security tightens in Kandahar province ahead of Afghan election
DAMAN DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Afghan police and NATO troops have tightened security in southern Kandahar province ahead of Thursday’s presidential election.
With the Taliban threatening to prevent access to the polls, Afghan police in this dusty, barren district on the southern and eastern fringes of the provincial capital have deployed teams of officers to 23 sites where villagers can cast their ballots.
Lt. Col. Mohammad Rasool, chief of police for Daman district, says his men are ready to take on any threats.
“We don’t have any reports of anything specific,” he said. “But we know that they are getting ready to do something. My guys are ready for them. That’s why we are patrolling day and night.”
An estimated 15 million Afghans are eligible to vote, and nearly 7,000 polling sites have been set up, according to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.
About 800,000 people are registered to vote in Kandahar province, said Noor Mohammad Noor, a commission spokesman. More than 250 polling stations are expected to be open, according to NATO forces.
Kandahar is the birthplace of the Taliban, and NATO and Taliban forces have clashed for years here.
Senior military officers with international forces have set up high-tech operations centers where they will monitor security on election day alongside their counterparts from the Afghan army, police and national security directorate.
A regional operations center will oversee security across southern Afghanistan, while another will monitor security within Kandahar province. NATO and Afghan officials held a two-day joint communications exercise earlier this week to ensure that communications links with security forces in outlying areas are functioning properly.
“The pieces are coming together,” said Col. Daniel Hampton, commander of Afghan Regional Security Integrated Command-South, which oversees all police and army advisory teams in southern Afghanistan.
Although international troops are assisting, Afghan police and army forces are leading efforts to provide security for the elections, NATO officers say. Foreign troops are under strict orders to stay away from voting centers unless their help is requested by Afghan forces.
“On the day, if they ask for help, we will definitely be there. But we are not running the show,” said Lt. Col. Mike Patrick, chief of operations for Canada-led Task Force Kandahar, which operates in the provincial capital and several adjacent districts.
The marked presence of NATO troops near polling sites could lead Afghan voters to believe that international forces are running election security, an impression that NATO commanders are seeking to avoid.
“We would give a false impression if we were out there,” Hampton said.
But with only days left before the vote — the second presidential election since the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001 — U.S. advisory teams are patrolling with Afghan police around the clock to make sure that voting sites are safe.
Local police in Daman district moved out Saturday night to guard polling centers, said Capt. Joseph Hardigree, chief of Team Duke, which mentors police in the district. Hardigree’s team accompanied Rasool as he visited police posted to several locations. The patrolling lasted until dawn Monday.
“We have an area of about 6,000 square miles to cover,” said Hardigree, 26, of Madison County, Ga. “We can’t go everywhere, so we try to hit the places where we’ll make the most impact, and then have the ANP (Afghan National Police) continue their regular presence patrols.
“Over the next couple of days, we’re going to try and get out and see all of the polling sites,” he said.
A few hours later, about 100 tribal elders gathered at the Daman government center applauded as District Leader Siraj Ahmad urged them to support the elections and assist the district police.
Ahmad said about 35,000 people are registered to vote in the district. But how many of those will turn out is unclear. Ahmad said the Taliban had distributed “night letters” in several villages, warning people not to participate.