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KABUL, Afghanistan — Sitting in his pleasant office in Kabul, Italian Lt. Gen. Mauro Del Vecchio says the first of many challenges he expects to face as commander of NATO’s Afghanistan mission is happening now.

Thousands of candidates are seeking hundreds of seats in the first-ever parliamentary elections Sunday in a country wracked by more than two decades of war, low literacy rates, rampant drug smuggling and few democratic traditions.

“It is a difficult moment in the life of Afghanistan,” Del Vecchio said. “Surely there are many people that don’t want a democratic process. But Mullah Omar and all of the Taliban don’t have the possibility to interrupt the democratic process.”

Back at Bagram Air Base, U.S. Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya, commander of Combined Joint Task Force 76, described some of his efforts to provide secure elections: killing insurgents in their staging areas ahead of time.

“So now, the closer we get to the election, he doesn’t have that capability anymore,” Kamiya said.

Off a dusty path just 10 miles from Bagram, at a school that’s supposed to be one of Sunday’s polling places — but so remote that Sgt. Jeremy Allen had to use grid points on a map to find it — Allen and his men are surrounded by a dozen little boys.

The soldiers, from the 164th Military Police Company out of Alaska, get out their Polaroid cameras and shoot pictures, and everyone gathers to admire the images as they magically appear. Sent on this mission to find the polling place, Allen’s job is done, but he stays as long as his film holds out.

“I enjoy interacting with the children, trying to lift their spirits up a little bit,” the sergeant says.

Abdul Samad, the engineer on the school project — one of 23 funded by South Korea, he says — also gets his picture taken, next to an American female military officer and female reporter whose presence as workers outside the home Samad admits he finds “unnatural.”

Will he vote, he’s asked. Yes, Samad says, speaking through the MPs’ Afghan translator.

“I have seen lots of change in the country since the coalition came. … If America supports us honestly, we should have a good system.”

With more than 12,000 NATO troops in the International Security Assistance Force and some 20,000 U.S.-led coalition troops working in peacekeeping, combat, reconstruction and other ways to bring stability, Afghanistan is facing its next big test Sunday.

About 12 million Afghans have registered to vote at polling places — mostly mosques and schools — throughout the country in the United Nations-backed elections. But their task is more difficult than last year’s presidential election. The field holds some 5,000 candidates for 249 seats in parliament and for a spot on one of 34 local councils with varying numbers of members.

Some of the candidates are problematic. Afghan election officials have disqualified 45 candidates — 21 of them for having links to armed militias. Concerns remain that other warlords responsible in the past for rape, pillaging and bloodshed will win seats in the legislature. One candidate is a former Taliban minister who oversaw the infamous religious police.

One of the disqualified candidates swiftly promised to disrupt the elections.

“My supporters will protest and will sabotage the election process,” Qumandan Didar said, according to a story on the Al Jazeera Web site. “I have no weapons. I have completely disarmed and have no links to armed groups. But I still have thousands of supporters,” he said.

Preliminary election results are due Oct. 10, and final results expected Oct. 22. That, too, will be a dicey time, in part because of provisions that allow candidates who did not get enough votes to be seated, to move up in the event of the winner’s death.

“It will be a very delicate, sensitive moment,” said Del Vecchio, who, along with U.S. commanders, says his troops during the election are to remain in the background, with Afghan police and Afghan army troops at the front.

Free ads give wide exposure to candidates

Of the roughly 5,800 candidates in Afghanistan’s upcoming elections, 2,889 have so far been authorized to run free campaign advertisements on radio and television, officials said Wednesday.

According to the Joint Electoral Management Body’s Media Commission, the move “has given an unprecedented opportunity to the people of Afghanistan to hear a wide range of opinions both geographically and substantively on radio and television.”

The commission also tracks how the incipient Afghan media — largely banned under Taliban rule — has been covering the historic election process.

“The journalism in this campaign has not violated code of conduct rules against hate speech, incitement to violence or any other serious concerns of the Media Commission,” an interim report released Wednesday read.

“On the other hand, covering 5,800 candidates has been a challenge that has severely tested the media.”

The Afghan media is being re-established after an extended period of media repression. In the years before 2001, television was abolished, pictures were banned from newspapers and any kind of music and even sports was kept off the radio.

Since that time, approximately 300 publications have been established, and five 24-hour television stations and more than 30 new private radio stations have been established.

— Stars and Stripes

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