Prague, 8 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Attacks on election and foreign-aid workers are raising concerns about security in Afghanistan ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for September.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a report today that Afghanistan urgently needs support from the United States and other leading countries to protect the integrity of the vote.
Independent organizations like the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit and the International Crisis Group also have said the credibility of September's ballot could be compromised if the threat of violence discourages enough people from registering to vote.
Some observers in Kabul have suggested the vote may be postponed beyond September. But Afghan Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai insisted last week that the election will go ahead on schedule.
Karzai said: "We must have elections. We will have elections. Afghanistan is keen to have elections. We cannot do without elections. We want to have democracy. We want our people to vote and choose their government."
In fact, the presidential election originally had been scheduled to take place this month. But Karzai announced in March that the date was being pushed back to September.
The chief spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), Manoel de Almeida e Silva, told RFE/RL that nobody involved in the electoral process expects another delay. He said election workers are determined to push forward with registration during the next three months. He also noted that about one-third of eligible Afghan voters have been registered so far and that participation by women in rural areas is better than initially expected.
"A very impressive aspect of this registration is that 33 percent of those registered are women."
"We have over 3 million people registered," de Almeida e Silva said. "And a very impressive aspect of this registration is that 33 percent of those registered are women. This contradicts what was the expectation of many people -- that once we moved from urban centers to the provinces and to the [rural] districts that the [percentage] of women registering would be reduced. What is happening is quite the opposite."
De Almeida e Silva said international news organizations have wrongly reported that the target of the registration campaign is to enroll 10.5 million voters. He explained that figure was merely an initial estimate of the total number of Afghans old enough to vote.
"There is no target [for registration]. That is wrong," de Almeida e Silva said. "There is an estimated number of Afghans who could be eligible to register. That estimated number, indeed, was 10.5 million [at the start of this process]. But since then, the [Afghan] Central Statistics Office, which provides the electoral process with the estimate, has revised downwards their estimate of Afghans who are above 18 years of age. Eighteen years is the age that one can register to vote. And now, [that estimate] is closer to nine or 9.5 million. So that would be the estimated maximum number of Afghan men and women who would be eligible to register."
The voter-registration campaign has been divided into two phases. The first phase was largely completed last month. It focused on enrolling voters in Afghanistan's eight largest urban areas. The UNAMA spokesman explained that the second phase, which began on 1 May, involves the expansion of registration into all Afghan provinces.
"As of today, if all went according to plans, the last two provinces that did not have registration sites, [Nuristan Province in the east and Paktika Province in the southeast,] now have them," de Almeida e Silva said. "If that indeed happened, all provinces now have registration sites. However, more registration sites are needed because it is not only the provincial capitals that need to have registration sites."
De Almeida e Silva said 50,000 people are now being registered each day at some 900 locations across the country.
"The process needs to expand, and it is expanding exponentially, taking into consideration the many difficulties for registration to take place in this country, which were always made public," he said. "There are difficulties regarding security. There are difficulties regarding logistics. And there are cultural patterns that we have to deal with. For example, in order to register women, you must have registration sites for men and registration sites for women. And registration sites for women must be staffed by other women."
The UNAMA spokesman said another complication is the difficulty of trying to get election workers into rural districts and parts of the south and southeast where U.S.-led coalition forces continue to battle the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
"There is a difficulty regarding access in some areas. We have four helicopters and one plane dedicated to the electoral process. But we also use donkeys, we use horses and we also have people on foot in order to expand the registration sites beyond just the provincial capitals," de Almeida e Silva said. "Of course the major complication, the major difficulty, is security. There are areas in the country -- in particular the south, the southeast and the east -- where security is not at the level that enables you to move freely or to open registration sites just anywhere. That requires a very complex security arrangement that involves forces of the police from the Ministry of the Interior, and forces from the Ministry of Defense, as well as the International Security Assistance Force and coalition forces."
De Almeida e Silva said the series of recent attacks on aid workers and UN election workers has, indeed, raised concerns about security.
"What the media are talking about as an increase [in violence] is because there was a very dramatic development a few days ago when five staff from one NGO, Medecins Sans Frontieres [Doctors Without Borders], were killed" in the northwestern Afghanistan's Badghis Province, de Almeida e Silva said. He added that, on 6 June, "there was an attack, an ambush, on one of our convoys with electoral staff on the Gardez-Khost road [in the southeast]. That is of great, great concern to us. These vehicles were clearly marked UN vehicles and they were escorted by police. And yet they were attacked. Thankfully, there were no victims. Nobody was even injured."
De Almeida e Silva said that electoral workers are most concerned that the violence, rather than forcing the postponement of the September vote, could discredit the process by bringing about what he called "unbalanced" registration results.
"The risk that we have is to have an unbalanced registration result where Afghans in other parts of the country will have freer movement and will be able to register in greater numbers while the same opportunity will be limited, due to security conditions, in areas of the south and southeast."
"Most of the security problems are in the south, the southeast and part of the east," he said. "The risk that we have is to have an unbalanced registration result where Afghans in other parts of the country will have freer movement and will be able to register in greater numbers while the same opportunity will be limited, due to security conditions, in areas of the south and southeast, in particular. That is a matter of extreme concern for the joint electoral management body and for us who support this process."
The UNAMA spokesman confirmed that security forces have been posted at the home of one Afghan woman in Khost who is a member of a UN election registration team. He said those troops were deployed after the woman received death threats from suspected Taliban fighters. He also confirmed that there has been an increase in the number of threatening leaflets posted overnight on the walls of village compounds in some parts of the country.
"Those who do not want a transition in Afghanistan into stability, into stronger [institutions] -- those that we call 'spoilers' of the process -- have circulated 'night letters,' as they are known here in Afghanistan," de Almeida e Silva said. These night letters indicate that "they would attack the electoral process, those working with the electoral process, or even those who supported the process by means of registration. The way to address that is to take them seriously, but also to take into consideration that the vast, vast, vast majority of Afghans want exactly the opposite. They want elections because they want changes, because they want stability. And they want to leave in the past all this violence."
Meanwhile, concerns are beginning to emerge about alleged fraud in the registration process. A Reuters correspondent in the southern province of Kandahar reported today that schoolchildren as young as 13 are being registered as if they are 18 years old. One school's principal, Haji Mohammad Younus, admitted knowing about fraudulent registrations. But Younus justified the practice by saying that girls, in particular, need to vote -- even if they are too young.
De Almeida e Silva said the UN will complete a review of the registration drive by the end of June to determine whether the process has been "free and fair."