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Security Lockdown In Kabul As Election Day Nears

The Everest Pizza Restaurant is among dozens of restaurants catering to Westerners in Kabul that has closed until after the elections.
I've been in Afghanistan for more than two weeks now, and with every passing day I've noticed security measures in the Afghan capital being ratcheted up in anticipation of the April 5 presidential election.

The Taliban has threatened to use violence to disrupt the vote across the country. Kabul, in particular, has already been rocked by a string of deadly attacks -- on the Interior Ministry, on a hotel frequented by foreign guests, on a guest house used by foreign aid workers, and on two election offices -- all in the past two weeks.

Earlier this week, nearly all schools, universities, and colleges were declared closed. Students, who had just recently returned from a long winter break, were told that classes were dismissed until after the vote.

Nearly all restaurants and cafes frequented by foreigners have been shuttered. Even before their temporary closure, many of these restaurants had initiated a strict policy barring Afghan guests.

Today I paid a visit to Mustafa Shujayee, manager of the Shandiz restaurant in the affluent Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where many foreign embassies are located.

Shujayee told me that his restaurant was one of the few that has chosen to remain open, but he said he hadn't had a single foreign guest all week.
The Shandiz restaurant is one of the few restaurants that cater to Westerners still open in Kabul.
The Shandiz restaurant is one of the few restaurants that cater to Westerners still open in Kabul.

"The security at the restaurant is very good, but nobody is brave enough to come here," Shujayee said. "In the past, business here was booming. But not anymore."

Shujayee said he still sometimes delivers lunch and dinner orders to several guest houses, which themselves have been issued notices to be on high alert, with extra security dispatched. Foreigners have been told to either stay in their guest houses and hotels or to remain in the compounds of their respective foreign embassies.

Others have been ordered to leave the country, with many opting for Dubai, New Delhi, Istanbul, and Dushanbe.

Even before this week, foreigners in Kabul were taking extra security precautions. I'd noticed that many, in an attempt to keep a low profile, left extremely early for work -- sometimes as early as 5 a.m. -- when fewer cars were on the streets. They would then come back from work late, all in an attempt to remain invisible.

The eight presidential candidates, meanwhile, spooked by the threat of violence, canceled all their appearances in televised debates this week, including one scheduled to be hosted by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on April 1. They cited security concerns as their main reasons for the last-minute cancellations.

The exception was a debate held by Tolo TV, the biggest private television channel in Afghanistan. But that debate turned into a one-on-one interview, since the only candidate to show up at the studio was one of the front-runners, Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister. The other front-runners -- former Foreign Ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rasul -- said they were unavailable.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of extra Afghan soldiers and police have been stationed across Kabul, where scores of new roadblocks and security checkpoints have been set up in the past few days. Fearing the number of security personnel might not be enough, the government has also drafted police cadets still in the academy to help out.
Security personnel at checkpoints are stopping more vehicles, which they are checking more frequently and more thoroughly. People are also asked for their identification in busy areas. Afghan security forces are generally lax about such procedures.

Afghan journalists, meanwhile, have been told to make only essential trips outside. It is the same with foreign journalists and photographers, who have been given security guards and told to only make quick trips, and only if such trips are absolutely necessary.

The security crank-up comes as the election campaign enters a two-day "silence period" on April 3. No campaigning is allowed during this period, and many government offices will be closed. The two days of quiet before the election are officially to ensure that voters have time to deliberate about their vote, but many say security concerns played a more important role.

-- Frud Bezhan