Attackers wearing women’s burqas further ratcheted up the Taliban bid to disrupt Afghanistan’s presidential election, blasting the country’s election headquarters today with grenades and heavy machine-gun fire in the fourth high-profile attack in 10 days.
Five insurgents were killed after a six-hour standoff with Afghan security forces at the Independent Election Commission headquarters in Kabul, which oversees the critical April 5 vote. The militants slipped into a neighboring building to launch their attack, though they were unable to breach the fortified commission offices and no one inside the compound was injured.
With this string of attacks, the Taliban are achieving one central aim: instilling fear. Today's strike comes less than 24 hours after insurgents sent a suicide car bomber and four militants to attack a guesthouse used by a US-based aid group. An Afghan girl was killed, though more than 20 foreigners escaped and several were held hostage during a four-hour siege. And last Tuesday, two suicide bombers and three gunmen attacked another Kabul election office, killing five.
The spike in violence has increased fear among Afghans and foreigners. But for some, it has also prompted new defiance in the face of an insurgency that has only grown bolder as US and NATO forces prepare to withdraw later this year and President Hamid Karzai steps down after 12 years in power.
Officials are striving to conduct an election that rises above the dismal standard of the last presidential poll in 2009, in which widespread fraud and months of delay in reaching the final result left an unsavory taste. Security has been stepped up in Kabul and across the country, though insurgent attacks take place daily.
For Afghans and the Western donors who see better governance as a key to continued support, the stakes are high as Afghanistan negotiates its first democratic transition of power since the US military pushed the Taliban from power in late 2001.
The Taliban “are weak because they do such actions, but they are also strong because they can do it – and we are stuck in the middle,” said an election worker outside his ruined office, its ornate façade pockmarked with shrapnel and riddled with bullets from the Tuesday attack.
“We should work hard, it’s our country,” he said, after asking not to be named. “Our homeland is like our mother, and we would die for our mother. So let them come: 5, 10, 12, 1,200 attacks, I don’t care. They will die like dogs.”
As he spoke, staff wearing surgical masks kicked at the remains of the bombers and swept up broken glass and spent bullet casings. The attack was effective at disrupting the vote by destroying many registration documents for thousands of party poll observers.
Yesterday, a similar reckoning took place in the same area of town, where the Taliban attacked the office of the California-based Roots for Peace. The nongovernmental organization runs de-mining and other programs, and in its walled compound was a church, Reuters reported. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.
“For the Taliban, the main hope is violence,” says Fabrizio Foschini, an Afghanistan politics expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. “The only game-changer for them [is] unrest, protest, a prolonged state of institutional crisis which originates from a completely messed up election. Right now the blackest cloud is insecurity, and the possibility that big attacks really mar whatever achievements these elections could bring.”
That is a change from much of the previous year, when popular fears focused on fraud worries and concerns that some government scheme would postpone the vote, says Foschini. Instead, as the recent violence shows, the threat has come from the insurgency, in contrast to failed past efforts by the Taliban to disrupt elections.
“We can probably take the Taliban claim as realistic: There is the will to put a lot of effort that the insurgency can put up in targeting these high-profile areas,” says Foschini.
Already some foreign election monitors have pulled out for security reasons, including members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the National Democratic Institute – whose mission lost an observer in an attack on the fortified luxury Serena Hotel last week. And after today’s attack, the American University of Afghanistan instructed more than 60 foreign staff to leave the country. The two most recent attacks took place in upscale neighborhoods very close to the school’s campus.
Will election observers step up?
Election officers conceded that the Tuesday attack had been effective in disrupting their work. Already 20,000 people had registered as observers, for example, for hundreds of candidates in local races across Kabul Province.
Those numbers were ideally to top 30,000 next week. But the destruction of documents and rising level of fear mean only 10,000 are likely to show up on election day.
“How can we do the election?” asked a second election worker, after giving those figures. “If there are no observers it will not be a clear election. It will be full of fraud and [the results] not acceptable.”
He said “all normal people are afraid” because of the Taliban attacks. The same day the election office was hit, this worker said 100 family and friends came to his house, and 100 more the next day. He received hundreds more phone calls, asking if he was alright.
“We were waiting to die, and not for help,” said the election worker, about being trapped in the basement during the firefight. “I’m safe now, but all this [visits and calls by friends] has an impact on people.”
One candidate for local office, Jumagal Aryobi, was dismissive of the Taliban as he surveyed the wrecked election office. “This is the work of the enemy of Afghanistan, that does not want it to develop," he said. "It shows weakness."
Analysts say the Taliban may not be able to disrupt the voting process, and the refrain from many Afghans after the attacks is that they illustrate desperation. Still, the violence is being taken seriously.
The brazen attack last week on the Serena Hotel, in which nine were killed – including the NDI observer and well-known Afghan journalist Sardar Ahmad, his wife, and two young children – was a wake-up call.
“Life is not important for them,” said local police director Ruhollah Amin. “They hit the Serena near the presidential office, so if they can attack there, they can attack anywhere.”