Undeterred by Taliban threats, Afghans showing up to get voter cards
January 5, 2009
PAKTIKA PROVINCE, Afghanistan — A sweeping voter registration drive is under way across Afghanistan for the presidential election to be held later this year, a test of the country’s tottering government.
U.S. troops have focused combat operations in recent weeks on disrupting insurgent activity near registration sites, though American forces have generally kept a careful distance from the sites themselves.
"We don’t want to make it look like an American event," said Capt. John Madia, an information operations officer who has worked with Afghan election officials in Paktika province.
Registration began in some areas in October and is scheduled to be completed in February. The election itself is expected to be held in the second half of 2009.
President Hamid Karzai, who was elected to a five-year term in 2004, has indicated he will likely seek re-election. Karzai has faced growing criticism at home and abroad over rampant corruption, but so far no credible opponent has emerged.
The Taliban has threatened to attack registration sites, but U.S. officials say they haven’t received any reports of significant security incidents. Still, officers in Paktika — where registration began in late December — say the Taliban has launched a concerted voter intimidation campaign.
"It’s more in the way of ‘night letters’ or verbal threats where the Taliban will come and tell a village elder to keep his people away," said Maj. Rob Smith, executive officer with 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.
Smith and other military officials said turnout for voter registration was significantly lower in areas where security has generally been a problem.
U.S. units also have picked up reports of isolated physical assaults against villagers who register. But Capt. Jeffrey Farmer, a company commander based in western Paktika, said he sees the intimidation campaign as a positive sign.
"It shows that the enemy is upset by what’s happening, which is great," he said. "I think it’s a sign that they’re worried they might be losing control of this area."
Officials say turnout in areas that have completed registration has been strong, though there have been allegations of inflated numbers in some areas. In Paktia province, along the Pakistani border, official tallies show women out-registering men on a roughly 2-to-1 ratio, despite cultural norms that generally forbid women from leaving their homes. Similar concerns have also been raised in Logar province.
Reports have surfaced of men registering long lists of women simply by providing names to election officials. That has led opposition politicians to say registration numbers have been inflated either to boost the election’s credibility or to pave the way for actual voter fraud when the polls are held.
The Afghan Independent Elections Commission, which is overseeing the registration drive, has promised to investigate.
The United Nations is acting in an advisory role in the election but has no direct oversight. Foreign donors contributed more than $359 million to pay for the 2004 presidential vote and parliamentary polls held the following year.
Meanwhile, staffing the hundreds of often hard-to-reach registration sites has been challenging. Smith said IEC representatives failed to arrive at three sites in western Paktika. Two were closed while a third was being run by Afghan soldiers.
Afghan Army Lt. Mohammed Qassim, who was overseeing a registration site in Kushmand, near an American base, said he and his men were not happy with the role.
"The Army should be here to provide security, not make ID cards," he said, gesturing at a folding table holding a digital camera and a printer. "Also, we have no lights here and no fuel for the generators."
Qassim said he also disagreed with the practice of allowing men to register women without the women actually being present. About a third of the 100 or so names being registered each day were women, he said.
But several men who were standing in line to register said it would be improper to bring women.
"If there was a separate place for women, maybe it would not be a problem," said Mohammed Anwar, a farmer from a nearby village. "But it would be impossible to bring them here."