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With just 11 days left before a crucial presidential election in Afghanistan, an attack on an election commission office in Kabul laid bare the security challenge facing Afghan officials in organizing national polls that the Taliban has vowed to derail.
Several gunmen and suicide bombers stormed a regional elections office on Tuesday afternoon and engaged in a protracted gunfight with Afghan security personnel, Reuters reports. Although no casualties were immediately reported, the attack was brazen in both in its choice of location – next to the home of a presidential candidate, Ashraf Ghani – and its timing, staged less than a week after another strike killed nine in an upscale Kabul hotel.
And it brought to the fore, once again, the question of whether Afghanistan is adequately prepared to stage free and transparent elections in a safe environment.
The April 5 election is supposed to pave the way for Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power. Hamid Karzai, the president for more than 12 years, is barred from running for another term; three candidates are competing to succeed him. Afghans will also elect provincial council members on the same day.
Touted by United Nations and US officials as “Afghan-led, Afghan-managed and Afghan-owned," the elections are taking place amid a dramatically decreased international security presence across the country as US troops prepare for complete pullout in late 2014.
Afghan officials have claimed repeatedly that security can be "guaranteed" at most of Afghanistan's 6,845 polling stations, according to the Associated Press. But last week, an interior ministry spokesman told Central Asia Online, an online news site, that more than 2,000 stations remained under “medium” or “high” security threat.
Another interior minister spokesman told Voice of America last week that the government is confident in the readiness of 400,000 soldiers and policemen that will be deployed ahead of the vote. The spokesman added that only four districts across Afghanistan face serious security threats, and that the government was taking measures to address the threats to polling.
Today's attack underscored the vulnerability of election offices: about 20 election officials were trapped inside the building when the gunmen burst in after two blasts cleared their way, a staffer told the Associated Press. Several officials huddled in the bathroom as gunmen exchanged fire with government troops.
Also in jeopardy is the prospect of robust poll monitoring by international organizations, seen as essential to prevent a rerun of the discredited 2009 vote, when 20 percent of the ballots had to be thrown out.
Reuters reports that some groups have already started pulling their staff out of Afghanistan in response to last week’s bombing in Kabul’s Serena hotel, which is frequented by foreign nationals working in the capital. At least one of those killed in the attack was an elections observer for the US-based National Democratic Institute, which has since removed the rest of its observers from the country.
The Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), another organization assisting with poll monitoring, may also be in the process of pulling out, with some reports that its observers have already been moved from Afghanistan to Turkey. After last week's attack, "The European Union's international monitoring mission will be the only major one to remain in Afghanistan," according to Reuters.