War in Afghanistan

Ballots, not bullets, to test Taleban's power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 October, 2004, 12:00am

Nearly three years after being ousted from power, the Taleban are without widespread popular support in Afghanistan.

But they still have enough firepower to try to sabotage tomorrow's trail-blazing presidential election.

What makes the Taleban menace particularly worrisome is the fact that radical Islamic fighters are mainly active in the south, the homeland of the country's majority Pashtun tribe, to which popular interim President Hamid Karzai belongs.

It is here the guerillas have kept up a steady drumbeat of violence, warning voters against turning out, killing election workers, attacking local tribal leaders who support the polls and raising fears of a bloodbath on election day.

'We have intelligence reports that insurgents are trying to infiltrate the city in big numbers,' said Kandahar Governor Mohammed Yusuf Pashtun.

'They are convinced this is their last chance. If the nation unites over the elections, then it is the end of the Taleban.'

Despite the threat from the Taleban, the voter-registration drive in the south was fairly successful, even though the number of women registered - 30 per cent - fell below the national average of 41 per cent.

Now the worry is that if large numbers of voters fail to turn out due to the security threat, especially in the countryside, then the first elected president of Afghanistan may appear to lack political legitimacy. It would be unclear how much support the elected leader commanded among the majority Pashtuns.

'People want these elections to be free and fair, but the circumstances don't permit that,' said Ahmad Shah Noorzai, southern head of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

'It's a good step forward, but the people in this region are afraid to go and vote. The government is not strong enough to provide security.'

But people in the southern Pashtun hub of Kandahar are emphatic they will vote.

'Nobody likes the Taleban - we can't forget their atrocities,' truck driver Mohammed Sirajuddin said. 'We don't want any more destruction. We want development. So we will vote. We are not afraid.'

Many blame Islamabad for the Taleban's continued threat.

When the US attacked Afghanistan in 2001, Taleban fighters fled to Pakistan and have returned to launch missions inside Afghanistan. According to US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf recently assured Kabul and Washington that 'he would do everything he can to improve security for the Afghan elections'.

But the Pashtuns are not convinced. 'Pakistan publicly extends a hand of friendship to Mr Karzai but quietly aids the Taleban,' NGO worker Abdul Samad said. 'They don't want Afghanistan to become stable and strong.'

Nobody is certain how many Taleban fighters are active in Afghanistan and seeking to sabotage the polls. Mr Karzai said 'the number is limited - not more than 100 such people'. Other officials indicate there are many more.

Whatever the number, polling day will be a test for the Taleban's continuing power of destruction, especially in the south.