The scenery was a bit like in those Westerns where the population has got wind that the really bad guys would ride into town soon. The sun was scorching down almost vertically, the wind drove plumes of dust and waste plastic bags down the main road while a single motorbike with two young chaps curved in from a side lane, defying a ban on all motorized vehicles imposed by the Taleban. Otherwise, the road was empty and the metal shutters were lowered in front of most of the shops. Sharana, centre of Paktika province in the South-East of Afghanistan, on an early Tuesday afternoon before a national holiday where usually a lot of shoppers are around.
The Taleban also had ordered a lockdown of the market over the elections, spread by mouth-to-mouth propaganda, propaganda teams systematically visiting village mosques nearby and computerized nightletters posted in the last two consecutive nights. Combined with threats of mines and masked men on motorbikes waiting at important access roads telling people better not to proceed.
Only a few people kept open their shops although there were no customers. One of them – let’s call him Nazar Muhammad – told us very frankly why: ‘If it were only for the Taleban. The government also is threatening us. We were told that the shops of those who did not open would be sealed.’ After an IED exploded a few weeks ago at the side of this very road – let’s not forget that this is downtown Sharana, 150 meters from the entrance of the governor’s compound – the intelligence was going around and warned shopkeepers that they were held responsible if something happened in front of this row of shops. Nazar Muhammad also complained about police harassment at the ‘fifteen checkpoints’ you have to cross when you want to come into town. Finally, he continued on the elections without having been asked: ‘This President cannot do anything for me. He is not worth risking my finger.’ This combined with this typical Pashtun gesture of grabbing the last digit of the finger meaning ‘almost nothing’ in fact.
‘If the Afghans cannot even come to buy their beloved naswar [the local snuff] how could they go and vote?’ another Afghan in Sharana said.
Reportedly, the scenery was similar in Khost, to the Northeast, today. The bazaar was empty after Taleban threats distributed in the middle of this town – one even was posted at the front-gate of the local hospital – and via the Taleban radio, Voice of Sharia.
Also today, rockets hit the capital Kabul again, one reportedly smashing the kitchen of President Karzai’s palace. In another, more serious incident, a suicide bomber hit a vehicle carrying Afghan UN staff members killing one and injuring a third one seriously. In northern Badakhshan and Eastern Kunar, convoys carrying election material were attacked. All this shows that the Taleban are slowly stepping up their pressure in the run-up to the elections on Thursday.
Meanwhile, in Sharana the governor in his little Green Zone with its neat rose-gardens, a series of police checkposts around it and a little backdoor as direct access to the US airstrip (all governors in the Southeast move with ISAF assets and by air only, the one in Paktia being the only one who dares to use the road to Kabul sometimes) painted a rosy picture of the situation: no major security risks, election material delivered everywhere, lots of polling centres, tribal gatherings supporting the elections and an expected turn-out of 80-85 per cent. Everything else was Taleban propaganda and had to be laughed off.
The shut-down bazaar, the passers-by who said they could not talk freely because they were ‘only day labourers’, the member of the administration who says that ‘the police is not as ready as it is on paper’, the local Election Complaints Commission members who wanted to meet only behind locked doors (and said nothing because they had not received a single complaint because no one is visiting them), the tribal elders who do not dare to come into town anymore because the Taleban have intimidated them with ‘tactical killings’ and internationals working in the region saying there is not a single candidate’ agent of Dr Abdullah registered in Paktika (the governor says here are 700) speak another language. One Afghan election worker with an important position said that access to the vote will be guaranteed only for those within the planned three security rings around the polling sites. Asked how many live outside of them, he replied: ‘Most of them.’ He and others with similar positions estimate = whispering – a turn-out of between 20 and 40 per cent as realistic, with the strongly tribal Suleimankhel areas in the West strongest.
As elsewhere in the Southeast – but possibly nowhere so strongly as here – there are definitely two worlds in these elections. The fear of those living in the real one can almost be gripped by your hands.
PS/ Tomorrow is Afghanistan’s independence day. For security reasons, there will be not even a small ceremony to mark it in Gardez. I am not completely sure whether this has happened before. But this shows that the government is really under siege.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020