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PANJSHIR PROVINCE, Afghanistan — There are almost no foreign soldiers on the streets of Panjshir province, no massive bombings or ambushes that plague much of Afghanistan.

Still, the war is nearby. Taliban insurgents are active in areas surrounding Panjshir, a fiercely independent province of ethnic Tajiks who overwhelmingly supported opposition candidate Abdullah Abdullah in recent presidential elections.

Abdullah handed victory to President Hamid Karzai last week when he withdrew from election runoffs saying the process was tainted. Frustrated and disillusioned, his supporters looked to their man for a sign that they should take to the streets.

It was not forthcoming.

Abdullah said Tuesday his followers were champing at the bit to protest, but the country was too unstable to sustain that kind of political unrest.

“I received calls from different parts of the country. People were ready to take action. I was against that,” Abdullah said in an interview. “The trust in the system is so weakened that there are all sorts of possibilities, someone taking violent action … We shouldn’t be in a state to have to call for not even [having] peaceful demonstrations. But this is the state we are in.”

Abdullah worried that insurgents could easily agitate a peaceful protest to violence.

“There’s an insurgency, a lot of mistrust in the (government) institutions. Anything can happen. The reason for the fragility is mainly because the government is not respected.”

Panjshir Gov. Haji Bahlol Baheej agreed a protest could be risky and open his area to Taliban influence.

“If we show any reaction against the (Karzai) government, like a protest … it will be a good opportunity for the Taliban and al-Qaida to recruit because people are very disappointed now,” he said. “In America and in developed countries, if there is a demonstration or a protest, it can be peaceful. But here, I can tell you, if there is a protest, they will not do it in a peaceful way.”

Children run freely in the small towns and village bazaars of this province about 100 miles northeast of Kabul. Explosions that rattle windows come from blasting rock for construction, not bombs.

The only signs of war in this province are burned-out ruins of old Russian tanks and murals of the late beloved mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Since 2001, Panjshir has been loyal to the government, focused more on reconstruction than politics. But the election controversy has rattled the sense that Panjshir is immune to the war raging around it.

“It wasn’t a legitimate election,” said Abdul Wakeel, a 62-year-old teacher at the Massoud madrassa, or Islamic studies school, in the town of Parakh.

“It was stolen,” Wakeel said. “If they keep doing these things, people will join the Taliban.”

A day before Abdullah dropped out of the race, the government declared a swine flu emergency in Panjshir and other parts of the country. It closed for three weeks schools, universities and mosques — natural gathering places in Afghan communities. Officials insist that was done for legitimate health reasons, not politics. A western official at the public health ministry said more than 700 cases of swine flu have been confirmed and more than 20,000 are suspected, while at least eight people have died of the disease.

“I don’t think the government gave three weeks off because of swine flu,” said Abdul Khabir, 33, a teacher at Bazarak High School in the provincial capital. “It was about the elections. If they are here at school and at university, they might organize demonstrations or protests.”

Abdullah, a medical doctor by training, agreed. “It’s like a joke,” he said. “During the communist regime, I was a student of medicine and they used to say, funeral announcements were the only truth coming from the government. Are we going to that?”

Disappointment and dashed hopes for democracy were not the sole province of Abdullah supporters.

“A coup d’état against the votes of Afghans has happened,” said outspoken independent lawmaker Shukria Barakzai. She and others believe that U.S. influence forced a second round to the Aug. 20 vote. Karzai did not agree to a runoff until international pressure came to bear and a fraud investigation led to a reduction in Karzai’s share of the vote to under 50 percent. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., met publicly with Karzai to talk him into a runoff.

The way Karzai won another term — declared president for another five years by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission following Abdullah’s withdrawal — is “the best outcome for the U.S. administration,” said Haroon Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

“[Karzai] himself is not sure he’s the legitimate winner,” Mir said. “He’s elected with a vote that is not clear because of fraud. When (British Prime Minister Gordon) Brown and (President Barack) Obama talk about fighting corruption, now Karzai can’t fight back.”

Barakzai agrees.

“They are interfering in everything,” she said of the U.S. administration. “Who should be our leaders? [The United States is] choosing for us. Is there a need for troops? They are not asking us. … I want a strong Afghanistan with good economic growth, not a place where everyone wants to clean their own mess. Not a weapons laboratory.”

Panjshir residents said last week they were resigned to a president they don’t believe has a mandate and a foreign influence they don’t support.

“I really feel angry, but I can’t do anything,” said 18-year-old Shafiqullah Makhtab.

“When the Russians were here, Panjshir people stood up and fought them,” he added, proudly. “One day, Panjshir people will stand up and fight the Americans, too.”


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