The police chief launches operations to secure insurgency riddled districts. Campaign managers complain about the performance of the IEC. Militia commanders do their best to exhibit power, helping candidates to get more votes for money and incentives offered in case of victory. And then there are those candidates who peacefully compete for the trust of the people, ‘armed’ with just a printer and a mobile phone. AAN has been travelling Kunduz – a province notoriously contested between government, insurgents, militias and criminals (and one we report from regularly) – and watched how it prepared for the vote. Here some first impressions from the eve of the elections.
On Thursday, 3 March, two days before the elections, a group of journalists from Kunduz province gathered at the office of a local media NGO to discuss how to cover the vote. They were encouraging each other. Don’t buckle to threats, they said to each other. Be brave. Others exchanged tips where to find shelter in case of emergency. They also talked about what to do when they discovered fraud while observing what was going on in polling stations and around. IEC officials joined the round and asked the journalists to help them detect and document the rigging of votes. The discussion went on for three hours. In the end, the journalists decided on a joint effort: they would share immediately with each other and with the IEC when they learned about fraud, both in the provincial council and presidential election. They would also jointly report the same cases, hoping that this way, as a collective, they would be safer from acts of revenge.
In Kunduz, it is hard to get protection and even harder to challenge the powerbrokers. The Taleban, regularly issuing threats against the elections and delivering night letters to the public – as happened for example Tuesday night in Zard Kamar village in Khanabad district where night letters had been stuck to a mosque’s wall and to shops’ doors – have frightened many people and hamper their participation in the just a-day-away presidential and provincial elections. Kunduz police chief General Mustafa Mohseni told AAN that security forces have, in the past two days, again launched clearance operations to “ensure security for election day,” particularly focusing on the districts Chahrdara, Khanabad and Dasht-e Archi. He also said that around 4,000 security forces have been deployed across the province (he didn’t want to comment on how many additional forces had been pulled in), and more than 20 mobile police check posts have been set up in the provincial capital to prevent suicide attackers from entering polling centers.
The high number of illegal armed groups across the province adds to the insecurity. Candidates’ representatives have been doing the rounds among the militia commanders, offering money and government positions in return for support, residents told AAN. This has fueled the rivalry among the groups competing for access to leadership and resources for the upcoming years. Now is the time, commanders seemed to have thought in the weeks ahead of the elections, to exhibit power and ability, expand territories and eliminate rivals. In the past few months, since the campaign season started beginning of February, the Kunduzis, anyway plagued with a deteriorating security situation (see AAN reporting here), witnessed an even higher number of targeted killings and attempted assassinations than usual. In the past ten days alone, a bomb blast killed the head of the criminal investigation unit for Khanabad district, Islam Hussain, an attack on a buzkashi game in northern Kunduz killed five (apparently aimed at provincial strongman Mir Alam), and an ambush targeting the vehicle of a commander of an anti-Taleban militia on the Kunduz-Khanabad highway left eight of his family members dead.
Chahrdara, Dasht-e Archi, Khanabad – three districts under threat
Khanabad district is a good example for the intricate patchwork of political fault lines and spheres of influence of warlords and milita commanders. Here, mini-fiefdoms have been developing over years, mainly along ethnic and factional affiliations, and everyone is pulling at the vote to get a piece as large as possible. Some areas are ruled by the jihadi commanders of presidential candidate Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, others by Jamiati commanders close to presidential candidate Dr Abdullah while supporters of Hezb-e Islami (the group supports Qutbuddin Helal) control their own parts. Their militias are illegal, however, their connections with high-ranking government officials protect them from the security forces and the judiciary. In fact, it is these local commanders who help presidential and some provincial council candidates to get more votes. “They deliberately create so much fear that people won’t go to vote and they can stuff ballots in peace,” residents told AAN. Other commanders “have been collecting our voter cards and never gave them back. They have been selling our votes. And they will go with out voter cards and do our voting.” In return, that’s the deal, the ‘winners’ of the elections will ensure the commanders’ safety and wealth.
Chahrdara and Dasht-e Archi districts have a similar problem with commanders and illegal militias, but are even more “under serious threats of insurgents”, as Hamidullah Baluch, the head of IEC’s public information department, told AAN. Here, the government controls not more than 30 to 40 per cent of the area – the rest is ruled by Taliban. “There are also much more illegal armed groups than security forces,” Baluch said. “If the government fails to ensure that they stay away, it will be hard to hold elections.” He fears that militia commanders will “come, scare voters away and fill ballots in favour of their candidates.” The province’s police chief, General Mohseni, however, sees the militias in a different light. He told AAN they had been quite “helpful in pushing Taleban out of the area in the past” (see AAN reporting on police-militia cooperation here) and that he had asked them to cooperate and prevent Taleban attacks. The militia commanders had promised not to interfere in the election, he said.
“30 per cent of Kunduzis don’t have voter cards”
Looking at the pre-division of votes and power, one wonders what ‘regular’ political campaigning could still achieve in this province. Kunduz has seen its fair share of it, though. Among the most active teams was the one of Ashraf Ghani (together with Dr Abullah’s team; while Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf, Qutbuddin Helal, Daud Sultanzoi and Amin Arsala have not visited the province at all). Ghani’s campaign manager Wahidullah Rahmani told AAN, though, that he was concerned about the potential interference of armed groups. He believes that this might lead to the IEC quarantining polling centers, resulting in his candidate losing votes.
Muhammad Amin Imaq, the head of Abdullah’s team in Kunduz, on the other hand, was rather angered about the performance of the provincial IEC, that, as he said, unrealistically claimed that polling centers in insecure areas will be open. (1) Imaq said that for example in Dasht-e Archi district most of the polling centers would surely remain shut. “There are places the security forces are not able to go,” he said.
For Zalmai Rassul’s team the major concern was that the provincial IEC office failed to offer enough opportunities to apply for voter cards. There were not enough offices, and many of them regularly closed early although there were still long queues, he complained. Jan Agha Ataee, the head of Rassul’s youth team, said that as a result around 30 per cent of the Kunduz residents did not have voter cards.
24,000 text messages and four slogans per A4-sheet
Despite all challenges, this author found it reassuring to see how much ‘honest politicking’ was still going on in the days before elections. Local warlords have wielded their influence pro and contra candidates way before the vote, claiming and defending their political territories, but for provincial council candidate Qari Najibullah Sediqi, for example, “nothing is impossible.” A teacher in his mid-twenties and soft-spoken, he has worked for the provincial education department before – not a position that would help to amass riches. A few days before the vote, he was sitting in his tiny office at a very old desk, with a laptop and a dusty black and white printer in front of him. Sediqi said that he invested a year’s salaries in his election campaign, making the best out of his limited resources. He has sent 24,000 “Vote Sediqi”-text messages to Kunduzis with his own mobile phone (“cost 70 Afghani”), and he has figured out that one A4 page paper allows him to write and print four slogans to be distributed. The competition of the local warlords and their power in form of money and weapons don’t seem to discourage him.
Another young provincial council candidate, Hejratullah Hamdard, said he was running for office because the current provincial council members had failed to meet the people’s demands. “They were only interested in their own agendas”, and this was why Kunduz has become a “safe haven for criminals and warlords”. People were fed up with their representatives, he said and that they would not again cast their votes for jihadi commanders and warlords. He believes that this should give him a better chance.
(1) There are supposed to be 14 polling centres open in Chahrdara district, 41 in Khanabad and 20 in Dasht-e Archi. It will be interesting to see how many votes they will produce.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020