Afghan election fears
Amid much tension, the Afghan authorities are desperately trying to build up security precautions in time for the upcoming general elections, reports Peter Willems from Kabul
Afghanistan's interim government and the United Nations are pressing forward to register voters to participate in the first democratic elections since the Taliban regime fell in late 2001.
With the presidential election coming up in October, the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has now registered nearly eight million out of 10 million eligible Afghan voters, 40 per cent being women. The JEMB has also been successful in reaching out and working in unstable areas, registering voters in all of the 34 provinces.
But security concerns, which prompted the delay of elections three times this year, remain.
Over the last year, more than 800 people have been killed as violence has surged. The Taliban, which has re- grouped and plans to derail the elections, are held responsible for most of the killings. Last month, at least four election workers were killed and 17 Afghans carrying voter registration cards were kidnapped and executed. "The JEMB has time and again expressed its concern about the security during the voter registration process and also during the election period itself," Said Mohamed Azam, JEMB's media relations officer, told Al- Ahram Weekly. "We have always called for provisions of better security where voters, candidates, voter registration and electoral officials feel safe and secure."
This month, steps were taken by the Afghan government and international forces to increase security for the upcoming presidential election and the parliamentary elections in April 2005.
President Hamid Karzai signed a decree to put pressure on militia commanders resisting the United Nations-sponsored Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration programme (DDR). The programme, which began last October, has aimed at disarming roughly 60,000 out of an estimated 100,000 militia fighters before the presidential elections. So far, only around 10,000 have been disarmed, mostly coming from the lack of cooperation of warlords now controlling numerous territories across the country. "Those who are not cooperating, those who are actively working against DDR, will be brought to justice," said the president's spokesman, Jawed Ludin.
But the government's weak Afghan National Army, made up of 8,300 soldiers, will have a difficult time confronting militia leaders if they refuse to give up their weapons. And according to Alexander Schmidt, crime prevention expert of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the re-building of Afghanistan's judicial system is still in its infancy. "The central government outside the capital is very weak, and there is no judicial system yet," said Schmidt.
To help broaden the government's control, last week Karzai removed three militia leaders from their jobs as army commanders and put them into security and local government positions. One was appointed as governor while two others became police chiefs, each one within their own provinces.
But analysts have expressed concern that the shift will have little effect on the warlords: they have received new titles and are still close to their fiefdoms.
Many militia leaders have been wielding their power to intimidate voters. Earlier this month, Karzai said that the armed militias were a greater threat to elections than Taliban fighters still active in Afghanistan. In a recent United Nations' report on the development of Afghanistan's political rights, it said that Ismail Khan, one of the most powerful warlords who rules the Herat province in the west, has crushed political opposition and controls the press and television in his area.
Attacks on innocent Afghans and fighting between Taliban fighters and US troops in the south have put limits on people participating in the electoral process. In the Zabul province, only 12 per cent of the people have been able to register to vote.
After months of delay, NATO decided this week to send more troops to help stabilise the country. Up until now, NATO's peacekeeping force totalled 6,500 soldiers, mostly stationed in Kabul, the capital.
The plan is to dispatch two battalions -- between 600 and 1000 troops in each battalion -- in September. The number of soldiers, however, has not met the promise made by NATO leaders last month to send an additional 3,500 troops. NATO officials, including Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, are now scrambling to find countries that are willing to commit troops to fill the gap.
The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research organisation, made up of international experts, recently released a report that criticised NATO for dragging its feet to help secure Afghanistan. "NATO's continued inability to provide significant forces will only further embolden President Karzai's opponents -- whether warlords, poppy- growers or terrorists," said the report. "The Taliban are far from defeated, poppy production has soared and regional warlords are still brazen in their abuse of citizens and in their dealing with the central government."
With more security forces on the way and President Karzai implementing changes to lessen the power of warlords, Afghanistan may be a more stable country when elections come around. But with violence still on the rise, continued fighting in the south and militia leaders holding on to their fiefdoms, more efforts to secure the country are needed. As Azam put it: "We hope all efforts are exercised by the relevant security authorities [to provide] a secure environment."