Thursday, August 20, 2009
By Jerome Starkey
Hordes of Taliban gunman are fighting just outside the city, but people in Lashkar Gah are defying insurgent threats by promising to vote in tomorrow's election.
The Taliban have vowed to attack the polling stations and warned that anyone who votes will have their ink-stained fingers cut off.
But the merchants and students in Helmand's capital are determined to have a say in who rules Afghanistan.
"Taliban threats are nothing new," said turban seller Zarma Khan, 65. "These things happen all the time in Afghanistan. People will vote, because the election is a good thing."
Interest here, at the sharp end of the insurgency, is in stark contrast to widespread apathy in Kabul.
Voter turnout in the south, where the Taliban are strongest, could decide the result. President Hamid Karzai swept to power in 2004 with 80 per cent of the Pashtun vote, but his supporters fear many of those people will be too scared to go to the polls a second time.
"Most people here are Pashtun," Mr Khan added. "They will vote for Karzai because he is a hard-working Muslim man. He is very experienced."
It is rare praise for a president whose government is among the most corrupt in the world. Huge parts of Helmand have been destroyed by fighting and the number of foreign troops here has gone from a few hundred in 2002 to more than 12,000.
"The situation's not good," said Haji Abdul Samad, 40, another Karzai supporter. "We can't even go outside the city because there's no security, but we have to vote. Helmand is our homeland, it's like our mother."
British troops suffered their bloodiest month just a few miles north of Lashkar Gah. The insurgents fighting outside the city routinely stash their weapons and travel into town unhindered. Yet, in many ways, Helmand remains a Karzai heartland. "He's our elder," said shopkeeper Haji Lala, 45.
Karzai is a Pashtun. Much of the province is populated by his Popalzai tribe. He has powerful allies, including drug traffickers and human rights abusers.
His brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, said some Taliban commanders had agreed local ceasefires to let people vote. But rocket attacks yesterday, and a suicide attack in Kabul which killed a Nato soldier, were proof the insurgents are still trying to undermine the polls.
Shazhada Khan moved into Lashkar Gah because of fighting in his village. "People support the Taliban because they are hungry and the Taliban give them money," he said. But he refused to vote for Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, because "his face is no good".
Supporters for Dr Abdullah and the third-ranked candidate, Ramazan Bashar Dost, are hard to find.
Karzai's agents have been accused of buying up voter registration cards in parts of the province where security will stop people voting, to stuff ballot boxes elsewhere. But the fraud we encountered was different. "I'm too young, but I really want to vote," said 16-year-old Mohammed Yousuf. "I said I was 18 and got a registration card."
Despite Karzai's support in Lashkar Gah, people won't predict a victory, lest guessing the future is against Islam. "If the elections aren't rigged, then only God knows who will win," said government clerk Hekmatullah, 35. "But if it's rigged, then the winner knows already."