Afghan voting marred by violence that killed 26 and closed polling places

About 11 percent fewer polling places opened than Afghanistan estimated it needed. Provinces expected to vote for President Hamid Karzai had the most problems. Could it tip the election?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    A woman walks out of the cardboard voting booth after casting her ballot in the Afghan election in Mazar e Sharif in northern Afghanistan on Thursday.
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Insurgents launched 135 attacks and killed 26 people across all regions of Afghanistan during Thursday's presidential elections.

An election day, with its images of proud voters showing any ink-stained finger, can provide fragile democracies with a confidence boost. The violence here, however, drained much of that energy from the day.

But expectations had been so low for this election that Afghan officials still called it a win. Some analysts considered it a draw.

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"Insecurity clearly had an impact on voter turnout," says Andrew Wilder, an Afghanistan expert at the Tufts International Center in Medford, Mass. "That said, it wasn't stopped [and] there were no devastating attacks on election day that [turned] it into a victory for the Taliban." Wilder says that, by the standards of past Afghan elections, security was better than expected.

But there was still violence across the country as the Taliban tried to make good on its process to disrupt the vote.

Southeastern Afghanistan had the most incidents with 10 suicide attacks, 10 mine blasts and three other attacks according to data provided by the ministry of defense.

Official Afghan reporting on the violence today tended to be much lower than independent tallies. For instance, the BBC reported that Laskhar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, was hit by 20 rockets and a local journalist in Kandahar said nine rockets struck that city today. Yet the defense ministry said there were only five attacks across an Afghan region that includes Laskhar Gah and Kandahar.

Even official data showed that the west and north – regions that for years have been calmer than the rest of Afghanistan – saw significant insurgent attacks.

Chain of command

"They acted like they had a chain of command, connected to each other in different areas of Afghanistan," says Waliullaw Rahmani, head of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, of insurgent efforts to disrupt the election. But he also said Thursday showed that "the Taliban and insurgents still are not strong enough to stop the current process in Afghanistan."

Security officials said the day would have gone much worse if not for their efforts. Security forces foiled 12 attacks in Herat and six more in Kandahar province, said Amrullah Saleh, the head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, at a press conference.

In Kabul, the police killed three suicide attackers near a police station on Thursday, and also three suicide attackers were killed in the city on Wednesday. Two police suffered injuries in return for those six kills, he said. "This is an amazing ratio: two police injured in return for eliminating six... this is unprecedented. You cannot expect better anywhere else in the world," said Mr. Saleh.

He went on to claim that officials had evidence – not furnished to the media – that religious schools in Pakistan near the border had shut down and encouraged students to launch attacks inside Afghanistan to disrupt the elections.

Turnout

In the days ahead, election observers will be trying to determine whether the violence disenfranchised enough voters to tip the outcome of the election or if there are signs of widespread fraud.

It appears that violence prevented a number of polling places from opening across the country. Since transport is very difficult in Afghanistan – during campaigning, candidates had to pay to bus potential voters to events if they lived further than a donkey's ride away – a closed polling center means most of the people it was meant to serve wouldn't have found an alternative way to vote.

On Wednesday, the elections commission said the ideal number of polling places for Afghanistan would be 6,969 but due to security and logistical problems it expected to fall short by 450 stations. On Thursday, the Ministry of Interior said just 6,192 stations had opened, 11 percent fewer than the election's commission said Afghanistan needed on Wednesday.

The closures estimated on Wednesday appeared to be concentrated in heavily ethnic-Pashtun provinces like Helmand and Wardak, and in provinces like Badghis that have large Pashtun minorities. Those are areas that analysts expect would vote for President Hamid Karzai. The higher turn out reported in the north would favor his closest competitor former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Election results aren't expected for several days.

It's too early to judge if the elections were a relative success or failure, cautions Mr. Wilder, who sees the security questions as secondary to the fraud finger pointing likely to come. "Election day is not really when we should expect the most problems." He points out that most of the fraud that marred the 2005 presidential election occurred after the polls had closed. "In 2005, parliamentary election day went really smoothly but the real delegitimization of the election happened during the counting process."

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