Saturday, October 9, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s first direct ballot to choose a president opened today, bidding to take this country of tribal chieftains and medieval ways on an improbable but long-awaited engagement with Western-style democracy.

The polling stations first opened, oddly enough, in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan. This happened simply because Pakistan is half an hour ahead of Afghanistan.

Moqadasa Sidiqi, a 19-year-old woman living as a refugee in Pakistan, cast the first vote in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan as the polls opened at 7 a.m., Reuters news agency reported.

A student, Miss Sidiqi fled Kabul, the Afghan capital, with her family in 1992.

There are about 740,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Yesterday, as the voting neared, scattered violence was reported in Afghanistan, a strategic Central Asian nation of 28.5 million people.

Despite fears of widespread violence by remnants of the ousted Taliban, millions of Afghans were expected to line up today outside polling stations separately designated for men and women.

“Americans feel inspired when they see the courage shown by Afghan voters,” said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aaronson, co-leader of a bipartisan American observer delegation that met some of the 18 candidates on the presidential ballot.

“It’s an important moment for the Afghan people, but also for the U.S.”

President Hamid Karzai, the country’s interim ruler for nearly three years, is clearly the favorite to win the election.

Even though he is criticized for presiding over a corrupt administration and failing to rein in provincial warlords, there is a belief Mr. Karzai is best qualified to bring peace and economic recovery to a nation blighted by more than two decades of war and a succession of brutal regimes.

But Mr. Karzai still runs the risk of not polling a majority of the vote, necessitating a runoff next month. Much will depend though on how many of his fellow Pashtun tribespeople show up at polling stations in the south and east, where Taliban terror is at its worst.

In case polling is very low in the Pashtun provinces, the remaining national vote could get fragmented among the many candidates and result in a final round between Mr. Karzai and his closest challenger, former education minister Yunus Qanooni, if he finishes second, as expected.

But if all goes well, analysts expect Mr. Karzai to sweep the polls.

More than 100,000 Afghan and foreign security forces were on high alert yesterday, according to the Associated Press.

There were no major attacks, but security forces thwarted a planned massive truck bombing in the southern city of Kandahar. A top Afghan official said the bomb could have killed hundreds of people and disrupted the electoral process in the southern region.

Sporadic violence was reported, prompting the human rights agency Amnesty International to warn that this indicated a “climate of fear and insecurity” gripping Afghanistan.

“Lawlessness is rife: Most Afghans have no access to justice because the judiciary is largely ignorant of national law. Armed groups in effect rule most of the country,” it said.

Until now, Taliban fighters have failed to undertake the feared high-impact operation that could put the election process in jeopardy.

They could revise tactics and may try to take high-value foreign hostages. The U.S. Embassy said yesterday it had received “a credible threat” against American journalists.

“Anti-government forces are planning to implement a policy of kidnapping foreigners as a political tool,” the embassy said.

“They plan to kidnap U.S. journalists by luring them to meet with kidnapping operatives under the guise of providing videotapes on the activities of anti-government forces,” said Mohammed Yusuf Pashtun, governor of the southern Kandahar province.

“They are convinced this is their last chance. … If the nation unites over the elections, then it is the end of the Taliban.”

Ordinary Afghans place great hopes on the elections, which they see as a turning point that would result in the disarming of warlords and an increase in international support for economic reconstruction.

“God willing, after tomorrow things will improve,” said Abdul Wahid, a young grocery store owner who said he would vote for Mr. Karzai. “People know the difference now between constantly fighting and leading a normal life.”

“We don’t want any more destruction, we want development,” said truck driver Mohammed Serajuddin.

“So we’ll vote, we are not afraid.”

However, much will depend on whether Mr. Karzai, indecisive and even opportunistic in dealing with warlords until now, becomes more confident and assertive once the election legitimizes his rule.

His opponents remain skeptical. “We were hoping he would change with this election,” said Humayoun Shah Assefy, a presidential candidate and the brother-in-law of former King Zahir Shah. “But apparently he’s again planning a coalition administration with warlords as ministers and governors.”

The role of the United States therefore would be critical in determining whether the militias continue to call the shots in the provinces, or whether there is a durable peace.

But defanging the warlords also runs the risk of civil strife, and needs careful planning.

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