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Afghanistan: Voters Intent On Registering, Despite Fears Of Violence

Afghan women registering to vote in October 2004 presidential election Officials in Kabul say tens of thousands of Afghans have been registering to vote in September's parliamentary elections, despite a major upsurge in attacks by Taliban guerrillas in some parts of the country. Those attacks have targeted election workers, UN offices, and voter-registration stations. RFE/RL takes a closer look at how ordinary Afghans are reacting to the violence.

Prague, 29 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Emerging from a voter-registration point near his home in Afghanistan's southeastern Khost Province, 18-year-old Akbar Jan expressed a view held by many ordinary Afghans about September's parliamentary elections.

"I have registered and I've got my voting card," he said. "I want to vote for a representative [in the parliament] who will serve the people of Afghanistan."

In the nearby provincial capital of Khost, a young resident named Rakeb told RFE/RL that he registered even though he is concerned that Taliban guerrillas could attack the polling stations on election day. "For now, the situation is calm and there is security in this town," he said. "But it looks like people are worried and fearful that the situation could deteriorate into violence and disorder. But it is true that up to now, things are secure here."

That is not the case in other parts of southern Afghanistan -- or even across Khost Province.

Afghan authorities say they discovered 400 kilograms of explosives, rockets, and remote-control devices this week in what they describe as a secret bomb factory at a madrassah in Khost Province.

In neighboring Paktika Province, gunmen attacked a UN-run election center on 25 June just hours before registration across Afghanistan officially began. Although nobody was hurt in the skirmish, the attack delayed the opening of the registration center and confirmed the fears of many Afghans that militants are prepared to target election centers.

In another neighboring province, Paktia, 17 freshly laid land mines have been defused along the main road to the east of Gardez since registration began.

Militants on 27 June ambushed a police convoy in eastern Laghman Province, killing three officers and injuring the provincial police chief.

A remote-controlled bomb also exploded under a police vehicle in central Uruzgan Province on 28 June, killing two officers and injuring three others.

During the past month, two candidates and a man traveling with UN electoral workers also have been killed in militant attacks.

Adrian Edwards is the chief spokesman for Jean Arnault, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan. Edwards says Arnault has remained concerned about security since issuing a warning on 24 June to the UN Security Council in New York.

"The country's south has been most affected by recent problems. But there are difficulties in other areas, too. Mr. Arnault said the international effort to thwart these destabilization efforts could not be limited to combat operations, but should include attacking the financing, safe havens and networks that support committing these crimes," Edwards said.

Arnault also referred to complaints from Kabul that Pakistan is turning a blind eye to cross-border infiltrations by militants trying to derail the September vote.

"Close cooperation between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan and the international forces succeeded in creating a safe environment for last year's presidential election. Mr. Arnault called on all sides to renew and heighten this cooperation to ensure a safe environment for the upcoming parliamentary and provincial council elections," Edwards said.
"If the security situation remains the same, no foreigners or any Afghans will come forward to invest their money in our country and we won't have any economy in the future. This will be a major setback in the reconstruction of our country." - shopowner

In the southern province of Kandahar, where U.S.-led coalition forces last week killed at least 77 Taliban militants in a fierce battle, residents also express concerns that the war against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters is escalating rather than coming to an end.

Among them is Bibi Gul, a 55-year-old woman who shops at a bazaar near the mosque where a suicide bomber recently killed 20 people. "We love Americans. They are rebuilding our roads and our houses," she said. "They are helping us. We don't want them to leave our country because, if they do, we will lose the little security we have."

Rahmatullah is the owner of a small textile shop in the same bazaar who recently returned from Saudi Arabia. He says the escalation of violence in Afghanistan during the past three months is a threat to more than the parliamentary elections.

"If the security situation remains the same, no foreigners or any Afghans will come forward to invest their money in our country and we won't have any economy in the future. This will be a major setback in the reconstruction of our country," Rahmatullah said.

Bronwyn Curran, spokeswoman for the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body, says most of the 10.8 million voters who registered for last October's presidential election will be able to use the same registration card. Those who need to visit the registration centers ahead of September's ballot are Afghans who were too young to take part in the presidential vote or who have since moved to a different province.

"Already, tens of thousands of Afghans have poured into our registration centers to either add their names to the list of voters from last year or to correct the province listed on their voter registration card. This is key because the province on your voter registration card determines where you vote and which ballot paper you receive," Curran said.

Some people in northern Afghanistan appear more confident about security ahead of the parliamentary vote than those in the south. Among them is Nilofar, a woman from the city of Baghlan. "Last year, we voted and there were no problems for us," she said. "People were afraid and they said that bad things would happen. But nothing bad happened. This time we are going to vote again and nothing bad will happen."

Shafika, a young ethnic Hazara woman from a village to the east of Baghlan, agrees. "No, no. I am not afraid," she said. "If we are afraid to vote, then who will chose our representatives and who will govern our country?"

In Kabul, voters who took part in last October's presidential election say they hope electoral officials have learned a lesson from a scandal over faulty ink used to mark voters' thumbs to ensure they do not cast more than one ballot.

Several Kabul residents told RFE/RL that if the ink can be easily rubbed off the thumbs of voters again in September, there will be serious doubts about the credibility of the ballot.

(RFE/RL Kabul bureau director Amin Mudaqiq and Afghan correspondents Amir Baheer in Khost and Gulghoty Safi in Mazar-e Sharif contributed to this report; translations from Dari and Pashto by Sultan Sarwar in Prague.)