Loya Paktia, as the three provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost are sometimes referred to, is one of the portions of Afghanistan most hardly affected by the insurgency. With a long history of low degree of state control and an equally long border shared with Pakistan’s FATA, the region does not look like the perfect ground for a democratic election in these hard times. Why are people running as candidates, then? In the first part of a pre-election analysis, AAN researcher Fabrizio Foschini looks at the situation in which the 18 September poll will tale place.
Yielding to simplification is in some case justified. Loya Paktia may not have gone through a precise historic-political formation process – the kind of thing you do not expect from tribal hilly country at these latitudes, anyway – but its conceptualization as a unit does make at least some sense(1). Traditionally the region has been known as one of the places were Pashtun tribal institutions were best safeguarded and remained deeply rooted in the society, home to notorious tribes whose fame had grown through the decades of colonial threat to become the archetype of the Pashtuns, and whose names and deeds made kings tremble – or made kings tout court.
Nowadays, tribal institutions may have held their ground at least partially against both modernization and ‘talebanisation’ of society, but more than that, what renders the three provinces still alike is a common situation marked by lack of security, lack of foreign assistance and lack of jobs – the last caused by both of the former factors – and by the increasing presence of one of the most vicious group among the insurgent galaxy, the so-called Haqqani network.
The activity of this network which acts widely autonomously from the Quetta shura has recently experienced a qualitative turn: from mainly cross-border hit and run attacks to a more permanent presence now witnessed in Loya Paktia. In some districts already out of the writ of the state, insurgents have started implementing their own courts and shadow administration, and intimidating locals to avoid any contact with the government, obviously including elections. On the other hand, recent operations of the international and Afghan military intended to clear areas from insurgents in view of the elections did not achieve a turn-around, not least because of the floods that affected the terrain and the bad weather which limited air support.
With a view to the organizational aspect of the elections, on the paper the situation may not appear so bleak. There is a fair amount of candidates from Paktia and Khost at least, and all but one district, Nika in Paktika, feature polling centres announced to be open on election day (although many districts – Janikhel in Paktia; Dila in Paktika; Bak, Saberi, Musakhel, Qalandar and Spera in Khost experienced drastic reductions in numbers, retaining only a couple of polling centres in comparison to last year).
Altogether each of the three provinces lost around one third of the polling centres announced for the 2009 elections (there are now 127 for Paktia, 190 for Paktika and 104 for Khost), and of course, as it happened last year, too, possibilities still run high of their number being further reduced on election day; however, the decision from security forces and IEC has evidently been based on a will to deny the insurgency its claimed gains, and show that elections are still possible. The necessity not to penalize southern, Pashtun-inhabited regions on the national polling centres toll has probably further strengthened this imperative.
On the local level though, how is the electoral process going and impacting on people’s lives? According to all local observers AAN talked to, campaigning on part of the candidates rarely takes place outside of the provincial capitals. Even there, risks of attack run actually quite high. Khost saw the killing of a parliamentary candidate towards the end of July, when a huge explosion blew up a mosque where former Taleban planning minister Sa’idullah Sa’id was delivering an electoral message, killing him along with a number of potential electors. The attack happened in the central district of Mandozai, in a village lying only ten kilometers away from the provincial capital.
As was the case with Sa’id, himself a former associate of Haqqani who had become chairman of a party called the National Islamic Movement of Afghan Mujahedin, the insurgents – who anyway did not claim his killing – seem inclined not to spare even those candidates with past links to them or enjoining political views not completely differing from their own(2). Even some former high ranking members of the Taleban Emirate, like Rahmatullah Wahidyar, then Deputy Minister of Refugees Affairs, cannot campaign safely in their home districts. Wahidyar himself, being from Zormat, the area of Paktia where Taleban control has been more continuous and deeply-rooted, is likely to receive most of his votes in the provincial capital of Gardez only.
Candidates who are actively campaigning in the countryside are often rumoured to have resorted to ask the Taleban permission to do so in order to avoid being targeted. In Khost this is said of several candidates, irrespective of their having previous links with Taleban or even jehadi parties. Whatever is true, most of the candidates have to limit themselves to indirect campaigning. In the words of Janat Khan Mangal, a Paktia candidate who was a leading member of Karzai’s provincial election team in 2009:
‘No candidate can venture out to the districts to organize electoral meetings or talk to the people. For my campaign, I decided to print posters with my name, number of candidacy, electoral symbol and a few slogans. Then, my electoral agents, my representatives go around and meet people, talk about my program and ask them to vote for me. I also printed a short biography to distribute, but it is most unfortunate that our poor people of Paktia are illiterate to a great degree, and we are forced to rely on printed paper to get in touch with them.’
Women candidates are not spared from violence either. Notwithstanding (men’s) claims that they would probably have more chances to carry out discrete campaigning without becoming a target for insurgents, due to restraints about violence on women in tribal society, there is unfortunately consistent evidence that this is nevertheless happening. Recently, Khost candidate Simin Akbar has become the victim of a suspect robbery which looked much like intimidation, while at least four IEDs were laid on her route home and around her house(3).
Zahera Sharif, a current MP and university professor, is reportedly the only woman candidate actively campaigning in Khost. Being the sister of Gen. Sher Muhammad Karimi, the newly appointed chief of staff of the Afghan National Army, is of course of some help in arranging for a better level of security than most candidates can attain.
If the situation of female candidates is problematic, more so that of their women voters. In a traditional society like that of Loya Paktia the women’s vote is not only controlled by male relatives, it is altogether a rare occurrence. Many conservative families, even in the urban centres of Gardez and Khost, would not allow their wives, sisters and daughters to go out to vote, and the climate of insecurity and danger surrounding polling stations on election day will only strengthen this tendency. (Even the most central polling centre for women in Gardez in 2009 was not very busy with only occasional small groups of voters accompanied by their men or dropped off by car.)
But this at least will not turn into gender discrimination. The local perception is that both sexes, to a great extent, will not be able to cast their vote. People are afraid of Taleban threats, already received in many districts of Khost and Paktika in the form of “night letters” promising retaliation against voters, candidates and electoral personnel (for details, see the recent FEFA report).
(1) Paktia province included Khost till quite recently, the latter being made into a separate province only after 2001. Paktika was formed from the Southern part of Paktia (and joined with some areas of Ghazni) during the PDPA government. Many local Pashtun tribes are to be found in more than one province and some even across the border with FATA.
(2) These constitute quite a relevant group in the three provinces, including Maulawi Sardar Dzadran, a former Haqqani affiliate and current head of the Ulema Shura in Khost, and the controversial Abdullah Mujahed, former pro-Northern Alliance Gardez chief of police subsequently sent to Guantanamo for two years on charge of anti-government activities – an honour many refuse to him, only labelling him as a corrupt and predatory officer.
(3) Although this appears to be the case, reports of threats issued to candidates are sometimes to be handled with care. A candidate from Khost (Ghazi Nawaz Tanai, leader of Khost Tribal Shura and advisor to the governor) is reported to have been simulating attacks by having thrown grenades at himself with the alleged objective of raising his candidacy’s profile.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020