Afghan election: Taliban not the only culprits of campaign violence

Ahead of Saturday's Afghanistan election, the Taliban has been blamed for most of the violence directed at candidates. However, some of it stems from intercandidate rivalries.

Fayaz Kabli/Reuters
Afghan policemen stand guard at a checkpoint ahead of parliamentary elections in Kabul September 17. Afghans go to the polls on Saturday in a parliamentary election where poor security and fraud will be among the major issues.

Daud Niazi, a candidate in Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections on Saturday, was returning from a campaign event in his native Laghman Province when a group of gunmen suddenly appeared by the roadside. They forced his campaign caravan to a halt, robbed the passengers, and then ordered the vehicles to get moving.

As the convoy pulled away, the gunmen opened fire, shattering windshields, killing Mr. Niazi’s cousin, and leaving others wounded. The incident was the latest in a series of attacks against candidates. Many of the attacks are attributed to the Taliban.

But it wasn’t insurgents that were behind this grisly attack, it was a rival candidate, according to government officials. Afghanistan’s contentious campaign season, which came to a close this week ahead of Saturday’s polls, was marked as much by intercandidate violence and complex rivalries as it was by Taliban intimidation.

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“There are some candidates that have ties to militias or warlords, who use guns to try to influence the elections,” says Hassan Haqiyar, an Afghan political analyst and author. “If you don’t have guns or money, it is hard to compete.”

More than 2,500 candidates are running from Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, with more than 600 in Kabul alone. However, poor security threatens the legitimacy of the vote in many areas. Authorities have closed about 1 in 8 polling centers because of security concerns, and it is likely that many more centers will remain out of operation in the south and east on polling day.

The Taliban vowed to disrupt the elections and have launched a campaign of intimidation in recent months, targeting election workers and campaigners. Some have been killed and others kidnapped and released, after pledging to quit their job.

The insurgents are likely to be behind the majority of preelection violence. But election watchdogs say that dozens of attacks that were originally attributed to the insurgents appear to actually be cases of intercandidate feuding.

In the central province of Ghor, rival candidates opened fire on one another in August, sparking an hours-long gun battle. A number of other incidents of violence in the province were initially reported as insurgent-related, but provincial officials now say that they suspect that candidates themselves might be involved.

In the northern province of Baghlan, gunmen recently fired on the campaign convoy of a candidate known simply as Narmgoy. Witnesses said that the culprit, which left the Narmgoy’s team unharmed, was the son of Shukria Isakhel, a rival candidate.

Ms. Isakhel admitted that her son was behind the incident but claimed that she did not order it. Her supporters say the attack was in reaction to Mr. Narmgoy’s campaign team’s distribution of cards with slanderous accusations against her, even suggesting sexual impropriety on her part.

In another part of Baghlan, a recent armed clash between supporters of candidate Obaidullah Ramin, the former agriculture minister and close ally of President Hamid Karzai and of candidate Ghulam Haidari, prompted the latter to withdraw from the race. “There are too many warlords and powerful people who don’t allow others to run,” he said.

In the northern province of Takhar, foreign forces may have become ensnared in a complex rivalry between candidates and local power brokers. Candidate Abdul Wahed Khorasani and some supporters were driving one morning early this month when a pair of American jets screamed towards them. They dropped a bomb that exploded near the vehicles, and then returned a few more times to drop more explosives. A dozen campaign workers were killed or wounded, including a number of Mr. Khorasani’s family members.

A US investigation determined that they killed Muhammad Amin, a commander of the insurgent group International Movement of Uzbekistan. But dozens of government officials, local leaders, and witnesses insist that only campaign workers were killed. One victim, Amanullah, had connections to a local Uzbek strongman and may have been confused with the insurgent commander.

Khorasani and some government officials insist that his election rivals, some of whom are backed by rival power brokers, passed on the faulty intelligence to the foreign forces.

“This was an attack on my campaign,” said Khorasani. “Before the attack my campaign was vibrant and committed, but afterwards it lost its life and color.”

Authorities say that some rivalries are strictly due to the elections, but others stretch back decades. In some cases individuals have enmity dating from the anti-Soviet insurgency, when they may have been on opposite sides or in different insurgent groups, and in other cases from the civil war of the '90s.

In many instances local strongmen maintain militias and are able to intimidate rivals. “There is no rule of law, while guns and money are easy to come by,” says Mr. Haqiyar, the political analyst.

In the eastern province of Laghman, government officials and an election watchdog believe that a strongman (and current parliamentarian) known as Muhammad Qarar was behind the attack on candidate Niazi’s caravan. Despite repeated attempts, Mr. Qarar was not available for comment.

Qarar has ties to a militia, officials and locals say, which has been used to intimidate other candidates in his drive for reelection. In response, Niazi and other supporters formed a jirga, or meeting, of tribal elders and other notables in the area.

“We had decided that if the government doesn’t do anything [about Qarar], we will raise a [tribal army],” says Niazi, the candidate. The participants also resolved to burn the houses of those who attacked them, following tribal custom. But gunmen started firing near this meeting as well, causing the gathering to disperse.

Qarar’s men then began to make threatening phone calls to Niazi’s campaign staff. Eventually his campaign manager even resigned. But Niazi is not cowed. “We’ve had a tragedy in our campaign,” he says. “Some people don’t want to work for us anymore out of fear, but no matter what happens I will never quit.”

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