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Afghan Violence May Skew Election Results

Elections are scheduled for the fall, but some fear backlash from those citizens unable to vote due to poor security.

[KABUL]-- Concerns are growing that it will be impossible to hold free and fair presidential elections in Afghanistan this year.

If the vote does go ahead in the autumn as scheduled, some politicians believe it could provoke a violent backlash from whole swathes of the population who will be unable to take part because of poor security.

In particular, they fear Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, will oppose any skewed result that leads to victory for a minority candidate from a relatively safe northern area.

Nematullah Ghaffari is an MP from Helmand, which has been the scene of intense fighting between insurgents and British soldiers since 2006. It is now generally regarded as one of the most dangerous places in the country.

He said the Taliban controlled much of the southwestern province, ruling through a combination of intimidation and respect.

“The election in Helmand and other provinces like it will have lots of problems. Some of the people might vote in the capital of Helmand and the district centers, but the majority of people will not vote and there are a number of reasons for that,” Mr. Ghaffari said.

“During the first election people were happy and optimistic, but they can see nothing good has come from this government and now they don’t care. Also, in that election there were not many threats from the Taliban and now there are.”

Up to 30,000 extra American soldiers are due to arrive in Afghanistan over the coming months, almost double the number presently in the country. Most will be sent to the south and east, where the insurgency is deeply entrenched and taking on increasingly sophisticated forms.

A key task of the troops will be to provide security for the presidential and provincial council elections that have been rearranged from the spring to the autumn. Parliamentary elections are due in 2010.

One way Washington and London try to justify the war is by saying it has helped establish a democracy, so any cancellation of the polls would be an embarrassment.

However, even in Kabul people do not feel safe. Mothers worry that their daughters will be kidnapped going to school; rockets land inside the city, and this week a suicide attack killed an American soldier and four others in a heavily guarded part of town.

Elsewhere, the country is a permanent war zone as air strikes, house raids, roadside bombings, ambushes and pitched battles cause chaos. Thousands of families have fled their homes in such provinces as Kandahar and Helmand.

“If the election takes place and people are unable to vote they will not believe this is the right government,” Mr. Ghaffari said.

“In the south lots of people are tired of fighting too. But they will not accept the orders of the government if the new president is from the north. Then they will join the Taliban and the government will no longer have any control in those areas.”

Afghanistan’s presidents are traditionally Pashtuns, members of the country’s largest ethnic group who live mainly in the south and east. But with most Pashtun-dominated regions now wracked by violence, some feel minority candidates will have an unfair advantage.

Hawa Alam Nuristani was shot three times in the leg when she campaigned for a seat in parliament back in 2005. She still won, though, and now represents Nuristan, a remote north-eastern province that borders Pakistan and is an insurgent stronghold.

“If the election happens the situation will get worse,” she said in an interview with The National. “The enemies will become more powerful and the suicide attacks, kidnappings and killings will increase.