From The Sunday Times August 23, 2009
Taliban attacks leave poll soaked in Afghan blood
The death of a youth cut down by an insurgent rocket on his way to vote defines polling day for Jon Swain in Kabul.
Click to view image: 'photo 1'
Afghan policemen carry the bodies of two gunmen killed after a shootout in Kabul
Click to view image: 'photo 2'
Afhgans in line to vote
ONE searing image of many to come out of Afghanistan on its historic presidential election day last Thursday sticks in the mind: that of a tousle-haired youth called Hamidullah balancing on the back of his brother’s bicycle on the way to a polling station.
Only 15, he had registered to vote in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, albeit illegally, for the first time in his life and he was eager to be the first to arrive at the polls.
He was 200ft from the football field where election staff had set up tents and cardboard polling booths when a Taliban rocket exploded, slicing half his face away. European Union observers passing in a fleet of armoured Land Cruisers ignored him and his wounded 18-year-old brother, Najubullah, and raced on.
Eventually, medics heaved his lifeless body into the back of an ambulance, leaving only his sandals strewn across the road and his black patterned skullcap next to a pool of blood.
Hamidullah lost his life trying to vote. Had he voted, his age would have been an insignificant fraud in an election that included the registration of thousands of phantom women voters by husbands or village elders, the widespread sale of voter registration cards and the coercion of voters by regional chiefs working for President Hamid Karzai or his primary rival Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister.
The big Afghan and western message in the run-up was that, for all its many shortcomings — Afghanistan is a deeply corrupt feudal society at war with itself — the poll would produce a historic leap forward for its precarious democracy.
The message had convinced Hamidullah and millions of Afghans to defy Taliban intimidation to vote for who should lead the country for the next five years: Karzai or a rival.
In many places the Taliban’s intimidation tactics succeeded and the turnout was low, well below the 70% of the first presidential election in 2004. In no significant province was it lower than in Helmand.
Making Helmand safe to vote had been Britain’s military priority this summer, the bloodiest since 2001. The aim of the five-week operation Panther’s Claw, involving 3,000 British troops, was to push the Taliban from the north of Lashkar Gah.
Ten British soldiers died in the campaign. Lieutenant-Colonel Gus Fair, commander of the Light Dragoons battle group, wrote in his diary afterwards that, as a result, people who had been subject to the rule of the Taliban could now live without the fear of them “visiting in the middle of the night”.
With some optimism he added that they now had “the freedom to vote ... the chance to look forward to enjoy some of the rights and privileges that we are lucky enough to take for granted”.
In Babaji district, where the British claimed they had brought 80,000 villagers under government control during daylight hours at least, only 150 people cast their vote. “There were supposed to be three polling stations but they were closed,” said Sardar Mohammed, 54, who lives in the district.
The Taliban carried out its threat to chop off the indelible-ink-stained fingers of at least two luckless voters in the south. They shut the roads in and out of Lashkar Gah and banned people from moving without Taliban “permission slips”.
Western governments and the United Nations believe the election was a good day for the people of Afghanistan and a bad day for the Taliban because, while they succeeded in depressing the vote, they failed to project their message that the elections were un-Islamic, un-Afghan and a colonial invention. Rachel Reid, of Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan, disagreed. “This was one of the most violent days witnessed in Afghanistan in the past eight years,” she said.
Statements by the Afghan government and western officials that it was a “good day” and a “success” did not ring true for many Afghans in the south, east and centre of the country, where Taliban intimidation was worst.
This weekend the jury is out on what the election has achieved for the Afghan people. While they wait patiently for an official announcement of preliminary results on Tuesday, they remain uncertain and troubled about their future.
Karzai, from the Pashtun south, and Abdullah both claimed outright victory until western powers and the UN urged their silence. But Abdullah has hinted that Karzai cannot possibly defeat him without resorting to massive fraud, and his followers will believe him.
If the results are perceived to lack credibility, some fear violence on the streets. “If the results are not accepted, there is a real risk of violence that even Abdullah could not control,” said Haroun Mir, executive director of the Afghan Centre for Research and Policy Studies.
America, Britain and troop-contributing Nato countries have a huge stake in the overall success of the election. A peaceful and legitimate outcome is vital to make their sacrifices bearable for a public wondering whether Afghanistan is worth the continuing massive investment in money and soldiers’ lives.
Most people expect a Karzai victory. If he does not get 50%, however, he will have to fight a second round in October.
Afghans also voted because they are desperate for a change, for security, jobs and an honest government. To win, Karzai brought back or enlisted the support of murderous militia chiefs and regional warlords. Anywhere else in the world they would be condemned as war criminals.
As the horse trading goes on, Afghanistan’s leaders would do well to remember the lifeless body of the boy on the bicycle. He died wanting his vote to make a difference to him, his family and his country. Will they hear him?
Additional reporting: Jerome Starkey and Lashkar Gah
|Liveleak on Facebook|