- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2018

QALAYE FATOOH, Afghanistan — Every morning, the muddy, ramshackle home of Abdullah Sarwar, perched on the highest hill in Qalaye Fatooh, is one of the first to be hit by the sun.

From this hill in a slum near Kabul, he can see the shiny, tall buildings and new roads of the capital, constructed from the international aid that has flowed in the post-Taliban era. But here, locals say they have seen little of that progress or attention.

That’s why, when voters go to the polls Saturday to choose from more than 2,500 candidates vying for seats in the 249-member parliament — a vote that is the first Afghan-organized and -run parliamentary election since the toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 — many voters across Afghanistan will ignore it. Political, logistical and security concerns have already delayed the parliamentary vote by nearly three years.

“I refused to register for this election,” said Mr. Sarwar, who sits in his small worn-out wooden booth, where he repairs shoes to pay his rent and feed his family of nine. “In fact, none of my family registered.

“I went to the polls in the past, but who cared about us? No one,” he said. “These [candidates] will not either.”

The apathy is bad news for the Kabul government — and for the U.S.-led military mission that props it up. Saturday’s vote is widely seen as a harbinger of the presidential election in the spring and a sign of whether Afghanistan can manage a peaceful transfer of power to an effective new government while facing down a terrorist insurgency.

The toll from this campaign is already grim: A stunning ambush Thursday at a meeting in Kandahar to discuss polling security arrangements took the life of powerful regional police chief Abdul Raziq, and at least 10 parliamentary candidates have been killed and two kidnapped during the campaign. U.S. Afghanistan commander Gen. Scott Miller, whom a Taliban spokesman said was the intended target of the Kandahar attack, was in the meeting room but was not injured in the volley of gunfire.

Afghan officials announced after the attack, which also killed the region’s top intelligence official and severely wounded the provincial governor, that voting in Kandahar would be delayed a week even as the rest of the country goes to the polls Saturday.

“People who are trying to help in holding this [election] process successfully by providing security should be targeted, and no stone should be left unturned for [its] prevention and failure,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement this week.

David Sedney, a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense for the region from 2009 to 2013, said this weekend marks a “pretty ambitious national election” with big consequences for the government of U.S.-backed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The question is how effective can [Mr. Ghani] be in pulling off the elections and how legitimate will the results be,” said Mr. Sedney, now a senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I expect more attacks,” by the Taliban on election day, said Mr. Sedney, adding that a possible “Tet-like offensive” on a number of voting districts across Afghanistan could be enough to shatter the fragile public confidence in the central government.

Tough conditions

Qalaye Fatooh is a poor village a few miles from the capital that began to develop six years ago after Afghans from across the country took refuge there, fleeing both the Taliban and the high rents of central Kabul. It currently has up to 2,000 families, although no one is quite sure of the current population.

Here, most people live in houses made of mud that provide the barest shelter from the sun, wind and snow. Most lack access to regular electricity or running water. Many, like Mr. Sarwar, are not even 100 percent certain of their last names.

Employment is irregular, and most residents are barely literate and are self-employed in businesses that serve the community, such as vendors or barbers.

Jobs, or any way out of the desperate poverty that marks this district, are the overriding concerns. Residents also complain about the insecurity that marks much of the country, with violence steadily worsening over the past few years.

In the first six months of the year, almost 1,700 civilians have been killed in terrorist attacks by the Taliban and other groups, the highest toll in a six-month period since the United Nations began keeping records a decade ago.

Now, militants have vowed to disrupt the elections and have already made good on threats to target voter registration centers and campaign rallies across the country.

Mr. Sarwar said he longs for the peace he had growing up in his hometown in Logar province, to the south. But things heated up there as the Taliban took over his village last year, and he left for Qalaye Fatooh to protect his family.

Even so, he feels the Taliban’s presence in Qalaye Fatooh, he said, as they come to the village and its surrounding areas to shop or see family and friends.

Fear and uncertainty

That presence, along with the threat of violence and terrorism, has kept campaigning in Qalaye Fatooh far less visible than in Kabul or other cities in Afghanistan. Many voters acknowledge that they are too afraid to go to the polls.

“My husband told me that the Taliban will kill us if we attach election stickers to our national IDs,” said Bibi Saeeda, 47, of Qalaye Fatooh, a mother of eight. The stickers are needed to show eligibility to vote, which she said most of her relatives and neighbors are avoiding. “We are surrounded by Taliban-affiliated militants: They are aware of each step we take. For our own safety, we have to go along with them.”

Seven members of Ms. Saeeda’s family are eligible to vote, but only two — her husband and eldest son — will do so. The situation has dismayed Mahbooba, Ms. Saeeda’s daughter who just turned 18. She was looking forward to voting in her first election.

“I was so excited about being 18 and having the right to vote,” she said, echoing other young Afghans. “I was very keen to stand behind that ballot box and cast my ballot.”

So far, Qalaye Fatooh has been spared violence as voting day nears, but residents remember vividly when military convoys were targeted by the Taliban’s suicide bombers on the road that connects the city to Kabul several times over the past years.

The Ghani government said it plans to deploy 50,000 armed forces and put thousands more on alert across the country on election day to ensure a peaceful vote.

While many remain deeply skeptical over that promise, some say they will brave the threat of violence to cast their ballots.

“I will happily go to the polls,” said Abdullah Haidari, 25, who distributes carpet-weaving materials to the locals and voted in the 2014 election. “Despite the Taliban presence, I believe nothing will happen, inshallah. For a better future and peaceful life, I am determined to cast my ballot again.”

“I want to vote for the one who aims to serve the country,” said Noor Ahmad Ahadi, 24, a first-time voter who is barely literate, standing in his small barbershop in this district decorated with posters of Afghan models.

“Now candidates come to us offering [up to $133] for our votes, but I know those who ask our votes in exchange for money will never serve us,” he said. “So I will vote for the one who comes up with a plan and ensures me that it can work for our better future.”

But Mr. Sarwar argues that it’s all for nothing. Candidates’ attention lingers only so far as to get votes. He is incensed as he points to a host of election posters with campaign slogans that have been pasted onto his booth.

“It’s nothing more than deceit,” he said.

Carlo Muñoz reported from Washington. Staff writer Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

• Carlo Muñoz can be reached at cmunoz@washingtontimes.com.

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