Afghan voter registration closes with millions signed up
August 16, 2004
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Voter registration for Afghanistan’s historic presidential elections closed Sunday with U.S. and Afghan officials hailing the effort as a success, despite continuing violence throughout the country.
More than 9 million people registered to cast their ballots in the Oct. 9 polls, the first nationwide elections since the Taliban were ousted nearly three years ago.
“The surge in registration that has taken place throughout the country has to be a very vivid demonstration of the Afghan people’s determination to make democracy work,” said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in a news conference in the capital Kabul last week.
United Nations officials estimate that 90 percent of eligible voters are now registered, with 41 percent of those women.
The elections have been pushed back twice largely due to security concerns and delays in the registration process, particularly in the southern regions. Militants have killed at least 12 registrars in the process and villages have been peppered with “night letters” threatening to kill anyone participating in the elections.
To help curb the violence, the U.S. forces launched Operation Lightning Resolve to shore up the last push in registration efforts. U.S. units have been providing security for U.N. registration teams in areas still considered Taliban safe havens. Despite almost daily firefights, ambushes and roadside bomb attacks, those efforts appear to have paid off.
“Two months ago, the general consensus was that voter registration could not go on in [southern Afghanistan], it’s too dangerous,” Col. Richard Pedersen told about 200 tribal elders and provincial officials gathered in Kandahar last week.
Regardless, he said, “we have registered about 1 million people in the five southern provinces, where they said it couldn’t be done.”
Pedersen, who commands the U.S. task force charged with overseeing southern Afghanistan, encouraged the leaders to follow a new initiative offered by Kandahar’s governor, Yousaf Pashtun, to begin developing regional plans across southern Afghanistan’s five provinces.
“I encourage you all to become teammates and follow the team captain here,” said Pedersen with a nod toward Pashtun.
Laying out the plan, Pashtun appeared to reach out to Taliban followers who might be ready to join ranks with the central government, while at the same time underscoring that the Taliban’s influence will wane with the coming elections.
“We know that not all Taliban are terrorists. Conversely, not all terrorists are Taliban,” said Pashtun. “We also know that merely holding a democratic election will not destroy either the Taliban or terrorists. However, the success of the upcoming elections will destroy their hopes of influence in our region.”
That’s fine, said many in attendance, but repeatedly they said Taliban raids and pervasive lack of security undermine any progress.
“The real problem is security,” said one tribal elder from Uruzgan province.
When a government official was sent to the elder’s region to help find drinking water and irrigation sources, the Taliban killed him, he said.
“You are talking about all these plans and all these projects, but you don’t have a plan to fix the security,” he said.
“Security is a problem,” said Pashtun. “But at the same time we cannot wait for 100 percent security before we start any projects. One of the reasons for lack of security is lack of development,” he said.
It was this kind of dialog that military officials were hoping to see come of the gathering.
“We’re now at a point where we have to start looking past the elections,” said Capt. Todd Schmidt, an aide to Pedersen. “We need to get people talking about their future. Help them build a vision.”
Even as officials were returning from the daylong gathering Friday, two U.N. election officials were killed in Uruzgan province when their convoy was attacked by Taliban insurgents.