Gardez makes true of its name – ‘dusty’. The capital of the South-eastern province of Paktia’s skyline, with the two characteristic cony hills and the Bala Hissar, the fort, on a third hill under which Buddhist remains are suspected are barely visible in the dust that is driven by the afternoon wind over the plateau 2300 meters above sea level. Particularly so the large compound close to the airfield that is still lined with the heavy weapons of militias and army units that were ‘cantoned’ at the start of the DDR program in 2003 – kilometres of artillery pieces, rocket launchers and armoured vehicles of Warsaw pact origin slowly rotting in the dry air.
The regional office of the Independent Election Commission shares it with the small team of the three remaining EU election observers (one just had to leave for medical reasons) and its support staff, as well as with the electoral component of UNDP. While the latter ones are accommodated in shacks, the observers live in bare containers almost made invisible behind large piles of sandbags – office and bedroom in one. Additionally, they have a big open tent through which the wind is blowing and providing the idea of a cool breeze. At least, they have the fastest internet connection in town.
Colourful Afghan trucks are coming in and unload election material. Tomorrow, says the local head of the IEC, the first loads will be brought to the districts. From there they are distributed to the 1097 (or so – figures oscillate a lot here) polling stations in the South-Eastern region with the four provinces of Paktia, Paktika, Khost – P2K in US Army English – and Ghazni.
But the region is dangerous. In many districts, the government just controls the central small town (or even the local police station only) and a connecting road to the Gardez. More than 20 (ten in Paktika, seven in Khost and at least five in Ghazni) are fully out of control. The same goes for – unofficially – 336 (a third) of the polling stations (PS). Officially, only 33 in Paktia (28 alone in Zurmat district), 21 in Paktika, 12 in Khost and 33 in Ghazni will remain closed on E-Day – for security and recruitment problems which are obviously linked to each other. But that figure will be significantly higher in reality. In Khost alone, 71 of 176 PS are probably affected. Mid-week, enough electoral staff was recruited for 33 of the 306 Paktika PS only; a day later, it had miraculously increased to 70. Only 35 per cent of the PS in that province could be verified by security forces (including the international ones). This adds a question mark behind the official Afghan government figure of only 11 to 14 ‘black’ districts country-wide that are fully insurgent-controlled.
There was a beheading carried out by insurgents in Janikhel district (Khost) a few days ago. In Terezai district (also Khost), insurgents were announcing over loudspeakers that they would cut off the fingers of voters – to be identified by the indelible ink (see AAN Election Blog No. 6). On Taleban nightletters, polling sites are called ‘siasi posts’ (political check-posts) and therefore declared legitimate targets. IEDs are abundant, even going off in Paktika’s centre Sharana. And there is a lot of criminal activity going on in not long ago peaceful districts like Ahmadabad, barely 40 minutes by car outside Gardez.
The only two provincial council candidates in Zurmat district have given up after threats. One was abducted by insurgents, later freed but forced to leave the country. The only Surikhel Dzadran provincial council candidate – the subtribe to which insurgency leader Jalaluddin Haqqani belongs – supports Dr Abdullah – but cannot go to his area. Woman candidates can campaign only very low key, i.e. through small meetings in private houses. Only one in Paktia dared to use the offer of the local TV station to be on air.
The running candidates, in particular the ones in rural areas, have to ‘fly with both hands’ as one Afghan put it – keeping up relations with both the government and the insurgents.
Many of the Afghan election personnel are too afraid even to tell their families where they work. Voter education and so-called outreach must remain virtually underground under these circumstances. The international personnel have no way to check whether posters meant to educate the voters about election procedures are really displayed in the villages and have to rely on hear-say. (Even in Kabul, many of them are torn and in the Gardez not many are visible.)
For that reason, some of the election material will be transferred airborne – ‘jingle trucks’ dangling from ISAF transport helicopters.
Election posters are only visible in the centre. They make the few signboards and traffic signs at junctions unreadable. A portrait of Ramazan Bashardost – who a while ago to the amazement of the Gardezis walked the town’s bazaar – is prominently displayed at the column at the central roundabout, beneath rows of Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah posters (I even saw a man with a bucket-full of glue putting them on walls), the ones of the incumbent and here and there of Amin Arsala. Also, local leftist (former PDPA) candidate Habib Mangal, back from years in Moscow, is prominently present – very chic with a silver-black turban of his tribe. Together with whole array of those of Provincial Council candidates this reflects a picture of pluralism that might be larger than in reality. Apparently, the party agents of the two major challengers of President Karzai have a difficult time to get a foot on the ground. Karzai, Abdullah, Ghani and Mangal seem to be the only ones who run local campaign offices.
In the setting sun, a caravan of cars carrying Afghan flags paces out of Gardez towards Kabul: a Karzai campaign dash team reportedly led by former Tribal Affairs Minister Amanullah Dzadran. Late in the evening – strange enough for this time of year – the wind carries a bit of rain. But the few drops will hardly rob Gardez of its name.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020