Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 178

On September 18, Afghanistan completed the last stage of the Bonn Agreements. Parliamentary elections held that Sunday were hailed as a success. The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) has announced the official start of the next phase — counting the votes in the parliamentary and provincial elections. JEMB operations director Peter Erben reported that counting in Herat, Kunduz, and Bamian provinces started early on the morning of September 20, and would get underway in other provinces later the same day. Eighty percent of the ballot boxes have been transported to official counting centers located across the country. Erben said the count should be finished in 16 days, before the start of the holy month of Ramadan (Anis, September 20).

The high point of the elections was the fact that they occurred against all odds. In the preceding months, speculation was rife that if the elections were actually held, the process would be bloody, because the Taliban insurgency had threatened to disrupt it. Why, then, did the election go as smoothly as it did?

Early on election day, Afghan citizens headed to one of the 22,000 polling stations to cast their votes. For a country mired in violence, much of it election-related, participating in the elections was an act of individual courage. The Taliban and their allies had threatened all kinds of violence, including chemical attacks. Although there were casualties, some of them election related, the balloting was largely peaceful. When the casualties were far lower than feared, there was a sigh of relief from every side. According to the government, 10 suspected terrorists were arrested in Kabul alone. Several rocket attacks took place in Kabul, Khost, Balkh, Nangarhar, Kunar, and Ghazni provinces, but there were no casualties (Islah, September 19).

There has been no major violence against voters, although the guerrillas carried out more than two dozen isolated attacks across the troubled south and east in, killing at least 14 people. There was an early scare in Kabul when two rockets hit a UN compound near an election center, shortly after polls opened, wounding an Afghan worker. Rockets and mortars killed at least five civilians, two of them children, and a mine blast killed a French soldier in Spin Boldak, the first French casualty in the war in Afghanistan.

Anticipating election violence, the UN agencies had tried to withdraw their non-essential personnel from the country. Most of them were flown to neighboring Pakistan, a short 30-minute flight away. But the UN-Afghan election commission said that the voting in the first legislative elections since 1969 was remarkably peaceful.

The Afghan government hailed the balloting as a victory over the insurgents. “It went very well, beyond our expectations. After all their boasting, it is a big failure for the Taliban,” Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal said (Pajhwok News Agency, September 19).

Although the government spokesmen call election day a failure for the Taliban, there are other explanations for the relative low level of violence. The Taliban are most active along the border with Pakistan, the so-called Pashtun belt. They did carry out some operations, but were not successful in halting or seriously disrupting the elections. There are perhaps three reasons for the lack of serious attacks on polling stations.

First, the presence of foreign armed forces, including the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force and the U.S.-led coalition forces, worked as deterrent to the Taliban forces. The Afghan forces, about 30,000 troops and 50,000 police, were also on alert. Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali concluded that the firm measures implemented by the security forces contributed to the peaceful election (Cheragh, September 20).

Second, the Taliban are fighting a war of attrition. Only rarely do they engage in face-to-face combat with the Afghan and coalition forces, they much prefer to wage a guerilla war. In a situation where the local and foreign forces were on full alert, it is hard to imagine that the Taliban would carry out any major operation. Besides, their operations are said to be directed against the U.S. and coalition forces. Thus, they were not likely to attack the local population intentionally, not because they have any respect for human lives but because doing so might further erode their dwindling support among Pashtuns.

Third, and perhaps most important, some of the Taliban’s cohorts and allies participated in the election process. There were candidates from the Taliban or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan, two groups with deep links to Pakistan’s Intelligence Service (ISI). The speculation is that with the ISI’s backing, Hekmatyar is pursuing “a two-pronged strategy: mounting terrorist strikes against Kabul, while also planting a foot firmly within the emerging democratic structure.” Hizb-i-Islami’s “democratic incarnation” is led by none other than Hekmatyar’s son-in-law and close confident, Humayun Jarir, who was a candidate from Kabul (Indian Express, September 19). It is suspected that as many as 20% of the candidates were from Hizb-i-Islami (Asia Times Online, September 19).

Then, of course there are the former Taliban leaders who apparently have laid down their arms as part of the reconciliation process. They could also have been encouraged from abroad to join the electoral process. Notable among them are former foreign minister Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil and Mawlawi Qalamuddin, former head of the dreaded Vice and Virtue Ministry, which tormented men and women who were suspected of violating the Taliban codes of conduct. All in all, it would seem absurd for the Taliban to disrupt the elections.