Violence unsettling Afghan vote

Less than a third of Afghan voters are registered ahead of September's ballot as attacks target election workers.

The men came at midnight, throwing stones and pounding on the front gate of Sahera Sharif's home. Then they left a warning: If Ms. Sharif didn't stop working as an election registrar for the United Nations, she would be killed.

If intimidation was the goal, these men succeeded - temporarily. The next day, Sharif resigned her post. But instead of accepting the resignation, the UN and the state government offered Sharif and her family armed guards. Today, she and her husband and three children live under constant military protection.

"Elections are a brand new process in Afghanistan, and it's very common for a new process to have opposition," says Sharif, who is also a professor at Khost University and a women's rights activist. Now that she is better protected, Sharif says she feels comfortable enough to continue. "I have started my struggle, and I will not stop it."

Sahera Sharif's story might seem extreme, even for the conservative southeastern province of Khost, where Sharif lives. But the rise of threats and attacks against election workers are a troubling sign that the Afghan government and its Western allies may be unable to provide enough security to ensure the success of September's elections. Iraq faces similar daunting challenges to prepare for polls just four months later in January.

"It's clear to all that this is not an ideal time to hold a free and fair election," says Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghan Rehabilitation and Evaluation Unit, a nonprofit think tank in Kabul. "Until we engage the key issues of people's lives - warlordism, the drug economy, rule of law, and security - we're not going to have a fair process."

As of this week, the nationwide voter registration numbers are just under 3 million, out of an expected voting population of 10.5 million. The easy parts have already been done. Now the work moves into far-flung districts like Musa Khel, where the Taliban are active and where government authority is more concept than reality. In Tapia village, a band of women relatives of the chief election officer are busy dragging their neighbors into their home and registering them to vote. A solid 85 women are registered, compared with 215 men. More typical for the Khost region is the neighboring village of Warwali, where there are no facilities to register women, and no plans for them either.

It's not that people are against democracy, or even against US-backed President Hamid Karzai. In fact, many people would love to see the central government act more forcefully against factional leaders and warlords, many of whom are blamed for destroying the country in the last decade of civil war.

But with the choice of supporting a national government that can't protect them or submitting to local gunmen who can cause them harm, some Afghans find it safest to give support to both sides.

"People are being cautious, because it's unclear who is going to win," says Wilder.

In the past few months, there has been an increase in attacks against aid workers, particularly against those involved in elections. This spring, in the eastern province of Nooristan, two British security consultants with Global Risk and an Afghan employee were gunned down while arranging security for upcoming voter registration campaigns. Last week, five aid workers with Médecins Sans Frontières were shot in their car in the northwestern province of Badghis. The growing perception of insecurity could make it more difficult to persuade election officials and ordinary voters alike to risk their lives in an uncertain election process.

Adding to the uncertainty are the recent increase in "night letters," containing threats against anyone who works for the government, for US forces, for the United Nations, and especially for the election process.

One recent letter in the central province of Wardak made direct threats against women election workers for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA).

"Those women's centers set up with the support of UNAMA are providing a facility for sexual relationships for [members of] UNAMA," the night letter written in broken Pashtu read. "They [the women in the centers] should stop their activities; otherwise they should be ready for death."

Khost provincial election chief, Pir Syed Shah, says that these night letters will have little effect on people. "It's very common that, if there are supporters for something, there will also be opponents," he says. "Our enemies are not asleep. There are leaflets all the time, but we have hundreds of staff workers, and not one of them has left their jobs because of these threats."

Gen. Mohammad Nawab, deputy military commander for Khost province, has also received similar night letters in Khost and surrounding districts. But he says the Afghan voters and election workers won't be affected by them.

"People are not afraid of these things," says General Nawab. "The enemy is not able to fight us or the Americans directly, so they do these things, or they might put a land mine on the road. I'm sure that we'll have 90 percent security for the elections and registration will be done very well; 10 percent maybe you'll find land mines and people shooting rockets."

At their home in Khost, which has 24-hour armed guards, Sahera Sharif and her family try to adjust to their new lives. Sahera's husband, Mohammad Sharif - also a university professor - says he is proud of his wife for continuing her work. He worries about her, however, particularly in a society where traditions of propriety and Islamic behavior have been destroyed by war and manipulated by radical Islamists such as the Taliban.

But Sahera remains optimistic. "Inshallah [God willing], we can make a difference."

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