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Afghanistan: Security Concerns Keep International Monitors Away From Polls

[For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated webpage "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05." --> ]

Concerns about security in Afghanistan are keeping international monitors away from the polling stations in the 9 October Afghan presidential election. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a bare-bones team of about 40 experts in the country. Like most of the other 350 international election experts in Afghanistan this week, the OSCE is concentrating on eight regional centers where the ballots will be counted. That leaves the task of monitoring the ballot boxes to some 4,000 independent Afghan observers and 50,000 Afghans who have applied to work as monitoring agents for the different candidates.

Kabul, 6 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Robert Barry, the head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) election-support team in Afghanistan, makes no apologies about what critics say is an inadequate number of international monitors for the 9 October presidential election.

Barry said it will be impossible for every aspect of Afghanistan's rigid election laws to be followed in a country that is making its first experiment in democracy. He says the goal of the OSCE mission is to understand, in broad terms, how the Afghan presidential election is conducted.

"We are here to analyze the situation and to make recommendations for the future. In that sense, it is not a typical election observation mission," Barry said. "What we are preparing to do is to draw lessons from this election about how improvements could be made -- in election administration, in security issues, in issues of voter information and so forth -- so that the next election, the parliamentary election [in 2005], will be able to take some of the benefit from our expertise as well as the other international organizations that are working here."

For that reason, Barry said, the OSCE will not file the kind of detailed report on ballot box activity that it normally prepares about the elections it monitors in other countries:

"We are not here to issue a sound byte about the election. We are not going to say that it is free and fair -- or free, fair and flawed, or whatever," Barry said. "But we will be making recommendations, which we hope will be useful, in the form of a dialogue with the election authorities and the government here. So our aim, as is stated in the title of the mission, is election support. Not election observation, per se."

In fact, no international group has enough monitors in Afghanistan to provide a definitive assessment of ballot box activity across the country.

The largest number of international monitors is from a Southeast Asian group called NAMFREL, which will send about 50 experts to remote polling stations.

Smaller teams also are being sent out by the European Union, the Japanese government, groups affiliated with the two main U.S. political parties, diplomatic missions and non-governmental organizations. Altogether, the international monitors number about 400.

That means about 4,000 Afghan monitors will be doing most of the independent monitoring at the ballot boxes during the election.

Grant Kippen, the Afghanistan director of a Washington-based nongovernmental organization called the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, said his group is helping to train Afghans who will monitor the election.

Kippen agrees with Barry's assessment that the first national election in Afghanistan is an educational process for international observers as well as Afghans themselves.

"Elections are one aspect of a democracy and there are many other facets to it," Kippen said. "There's the whole democratic strengthening side of things -- making sure that the institutions that support the process have the capacity themselves. We're talking not just in terms of election officials, but government institutions as well. We don't have a parliament [in Afghanistan] yet. We've got parliamentary elections that are scheduled for next year as well as provincial and district council elections that take place. So we've yet to go through the entire electoral cycle here. This is the first step in that process."

Kippen said the election monitoring could benefit from the work of some 50,000 Afghans who have applied for accreditation as agents for the 18 different presidential candidates. That would be enough to have, on average, two candidate agents at each of the 21,500 polling stations.

"Under the electoral law -- not just here in Afghanistan but in a lot of countries -- the candidates themselves have the right to have their agents in the polling stations on election day," Kippen said. "And, actually, in the counting centers as well. The candidate agents have the opportunity, if they see an infraction taking place, to actually approach the polling station official and indicate that they've observed something that is outside of the law. And hopefully, the polling station official will take corrective action."

The National Democratic Institute already has trained more than 8,500 of the candidate agents and expects before the election to finish training another 2,000.

Kippen said he hopes the agents trained by his group will pass along what they've learned to others in their political parties.

But there are concerns among both Afghans and international experts that the presence of untrained candidate agents at polling stations could intimidate voters -- particularly in regions where warlords and their private militias hold sway.

Barry of the OSCE acknowledges that those fears could be well founded. "There has been a sudden number of candidate agents who have been registered recently. We're very interested in what role these candidate agents will play on election day," he said. "And we are in touch with everybody else who shares that same concern."

Barry said he is particularly concerned about Afghan candidate agents who have not been trained about what constitutes illegal behavior near the ballot boxes:

"Campaigning or exerting pressure in the polling station on election day is a very clear violation of the election law," Barry said. "In most cases, political party agents -- candidate agents -- have a very legitimate role to play in a polling station. But they are always also trained and they keep an eye on each other. If somebody is going over the limit in some direction or another, there is a complaint. And that complaint should be, and often is, dealt with decisively."

Meanwhile, the National Democratic Institute also has been training employees of the largest independent Afghan monitoring group -- the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA).

That group will send about 2,300 Afghan monitors to watch ballot box activity across the country -- more than half of all the independent monitors.

FEFA was formed earlier this year by the members of 13 Afghan non-government organizations. It aims to report on events at polling stations in all 34 Afghan provinces -- enough to monitor 30 percent of the vote.

The group's chairman, Mohammad Saeed Niazi, said FEFA will provide enough scrutiny to give an accurate assessment of the voting process. But he laments the absence of an adequate number of international monitors, saying their presence would increase the legitimacy of the vote.

FEFA plans to issue a preliminary report on the 9 October ballot 24 hours after the polls close. A more detailed FEFA report is expected a week later and a final version is due in November.