Thursday, August 20, 2009

Afghans defy the Taliban rockets to vote for ‘peace and security’

A Voter in Helmand today

By Jerome Starkey

Hundreds of people defied Taliban threats and rocket attacks to vote in Afghanistan's most dangerous province today.

One boy was killed and two more were seriously injured when a volley of Taliban rockets screamed into Lashkar Gah just 20 minutes after polling opened. One landed 10 metres outside a football field where the local governor and President Hamid Karzai's local campaign manager were voting.

But with an astonishing bravery, most voters brushed aside the attacks in the capital of Helmand province. “Afghans are not women, they are brave,” said 80-year-old Faiz Mohammed. “They will come and vote.”

But Lashkar Gah's women proved their mettle as well. “I'm voting for my future and for the future of my children,” said Haja, a mother of nine, as the sound of Nato air strikes rolled across the polling station. “I want a better government, peace and security.”

Officials said turnout was far lower than Afghanistan's first presidential elections, in 2004. But across the city a steady trickle of voters braved the Taliban bombardment to vote.

Outside the city, one polling station was closed after a Taliban assault. “Fighting is still going on,” said a government source. He asked not to be named because Mr Karzai's government has ordered a news blackout on all reporting of Taliban attacks, invoking “emergency powers” that diplomats fear could be used more widely if there is post-election violence.

Rachel Reid, an Afghanistan-based Human Rights Watch researcher, attacked the move as censorship.

One girl, proudly showing off her ink-stained finger to show she had voted, admitted she was just 15. “I desperately wanted to vote,” said Shugafa. “I voted for Karzai because all my family is voting for him.” The Taliban had threatened to cut off any fingers bearing the voting ink.

Across the province fewer than half of Helmand's polling stations opened. Taliban threats forced 115 sites to stay closed, and just 107 polling sites opened in pockets of the province controlled by Nato and the Afghan government, the head of Helmand's Independent Election Commission told the Standard.

“We're prepared for up to 350,000 people to vote,” said Abdul Hadi, an engineer. “But only god knows how many people will come.” Despite more than 12,000 foreign troops, officials predict a maximum turnout of only 40 per cent. The election is a watershed in Western-led efforts to build a peaceful democracy, but a low turnout may threaten the legitimacy of the result.

President Karzai is desperate for votes in Pashtun heartlands, such as Helmand and Kandahar, but many of his key constituencies are areas where the insurgency is strongest.

Governor Gulab Mangal said there were three Helmand districts where there are no polling sites at all, including Washir, next to Britain's main base, Camp Bastion, and Bagran in the far north of the province.

Security there is much worse than at Lashkar Gah, but insurgents have done their best to disrupt voting here as well. Taliban checkpoints a few miles outside the city have blocked roads to stop people travelling to vote.

Locals in Marja are allowed to leave the district only with special Taliban travel permits, signed by the local commander. “I've been waiting to come back for two days,” said Rahmatullah, 43, as he reached a bridge on the city outskirts yesterday that links Lashkar Gah with no-man's land. “But I didn't have a permit.” The carpenter had driven to the poppy-growing district on Monday, 25 miles outside the city, to celebrate his daughter's wedding.

“The Taliban told everyone, all the traffic, all the cars, You are not allowed to leave Marja',” he said. “They said, If you go to Lashkar Gah, you will vote in the elections. We won't let you'.”

His permit is worrying proof of the Taliban's shadow government. The white slip of paper was printed with heraldry proclaiming “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Helmand Province, Marja District.”

A roadside bomb exploded next to a convoy of EU observers and journalists driving past Helmand governor Gulab Mangal's heavily guarded compound in Lashkar Gah. There was a muffled bang and a cloud of dust flew up. No one was hurt.

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