Monday, September 6, 2010

Taliban vow to disrupt Afghanistan election

Sun Sep 5, 2010 4:34pm EDT

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's Taliban said on Sunday they would attempt to disrupt elections this month and warned Afghans to boycott the vote, the first explicit threat against the poll by the hardline Islamists.

The threat came just a day after Afghan President Hamid Karzai said he would soon announce members of a peace council to pursue talks with the Taliban, another step in his plan for reconciliation with the insurgents.

The September 18 parliamentary election is seen as a litmus test of stability in Afghanistan before U.S. President Barack Obama conducts a war strategy review in December that will examine the pace and scale of U.S. troop withdrawals from July 2011.

Despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001.

"This (poll) is a foreign process for the sake of further occupation of Afghanistan and we are asking the Afghan nation to boycott it," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

"We are against it and will try with the best of our ability to block it. Our first targets will be the foreign forces and next the Afghan ones," he told Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Security is a major concern ahead of the vote, with four candidates killed already in recent weeks and dozens of campaign workers wounded, according to the United Nations and government officials. Some of the attacks have been blamed on the Taliban.

Another candidate was wounded, and 10 of his campaign workers killed, in an air strike on Friday, Karzai has said, although NATO and U.S. officials dispute his account.

Nader Nadery, chairman of the independent Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said the threat was worrying because it could lead to poor voter turnout in the ethnic Pashtun belt in the south, where the Taliban are strongest.

"The people know that when the Taliban warn, they deliver on those warnings, and that prevents people from engaging very actively," Nadery said.

The Taliban launched about 130 attacks against last year's poll. They failed to disrupt it in much of the country, but in the Pashtun south turnout was low, observers were kept away and fraud was rampant.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who came second behind Karzai last year, said he was worried about security.

"Not only has it not improved in the last few months, it has deteriorated," Abdullah told a news conference in Kabul.


According to Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC), 938 out of a planned 6,835 polling centers will not open on election day because of security fears.

The United Nations said in a statement on Sunday it agreed with that decision "to protect the security of voters, electoral workers and the secure and effective scrutiny of polling centers and voting procedures."

Graft and cronyism are also major concerns ahead of the vote after last year's fraud-marred presidential election, in which a third of votes for Karzai were thrown out as fake.

The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) said it was concerned some public officials were using their positions to help certain unidentified candidates and urged the government to protect the poll's impartiality and integrity.

Abdullah withdrew from a second round of voting in last year's presidential ballot after the ECC found evidence of widespread fraud and ballot stuffing.

This year, Abdullah said it had become "like a trend" for election officials to approach candidates and ask for money in return for votes.

"The (ECC) should take serious actions in this regard," Abdullah said. "I will urge the people of Afghanistan to report on this. It is your destiny that will be decided."

The ECC has been weakened this year, with only two of its three commissioners U.N.-appointed foreigners instead of the three foreigners it had last year.

The commission said on Sunday 76 candidates had been disqualified so far for a range of reasons, from improper registration to links with warlords and private militias.

About 2,500 candidates are running for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, in Afghanistan's second parliamentary vote since the Taliban were ousted.

The issue of corruption frequently strains ties between Karzai and his Western backers, and the vote is also seen as a test of Karzai's credibility.

Many in Washington believe rampant corruption significantly weakens the central government and hampers efforts to build up Afghanistan's security forces so that they can eventually take over from NATO-led forces, allowing foreign troops to leave.

Long queues have formed outside branches of Kabulbank, Afghanistan's top private lender, since it emerged last week that the bank's top two executives had been replaced amid media allegations of corruption.

Karzai's government has assured the bank's depositors, which include 250,000 state employees, that deposits have not been lost and that the directors resigned to meet new regulations.

(Additional reporting by Jonathon Burch and Tim Gaynor in Kabul; Editing by Paul Tait and Peter Graff)

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