Life-or-Death Afghan Vote Tests Taliban Battle on Democracy

Halima Habibi isn’t sure she’ll have the courage to leave her home tomorrow to vote in an election marking Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power since the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001.

Since her friend died in a Taliban attack last month, Habibi has stopped traveling the three kilometers (1.9 miles) to the private school where she teaches Dari literature and Afghan history. The 43-year-old lost her husband to the Taliban in 1998, and doesn’t want her children to end up as orphans.

“I understand elections are crucial in determining our future,” she said, surrounded by her five kids in their mud-walled home in the western Afshar district of Kabul. “However, I love my children, and if I die, who will take care of them?”

The Taliban has vowed to kill voters picking a successor to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in an effort to roll back democratic gains made since the U.S. invasion. At stake are legal protections for women, a jump in school enrollment, and billions of dollars in aid money that will help bolster an economy that has seen an eight-fold expansion since 2001.

“They will determine the fragility of the state post-Karzai and as the U.S. and NATO transition out,” said Caroline Wadhams, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a research institute in Washington, referring to the elections. “If the state fails in Afghanistan, expanded conflict would occur among different groups, backed by different countries, creating regional instability.”

Run-off Probable

Front-runners among the eight presidential candidates are former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, ex-foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul and Abdullah Abdullah, the runner up in 2009 who also served as the country’s top diplomat. All three have held positions in various Karzai cabinets.

“Election day will determine the fate and destiny of our country,” Karzai said in a televised address last night. “Wider participation reflects the people’s strong determination in continuing the democratic system of the country, and reflects a strong message of defiance to those who think violence would disrupt our people’s determination.”

Preliminary results will be announced on April 24, according to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of votes tomorrow -- a scenario the head of U.S. forces in the country views as probable -- a run-off between the top two candidates would take place around the end of May.

Taliban Threats

The Taliban have called the elections a U.S. conspiracy and vowed to use suicide bomb attacks to disrupt voting. Twenty million Afghans are eligible to vote, according to election commission data.

An Afghan policeman shot two female foreign journalists working for the Associated Press while reporting on a convoy carrying materials to a polling site, Baryalai Rawan, a spokesman for the governor in Khost province, said by phone today. German photographer Anja Niedringhaus was killed and Canadian Kathy Gannon is seriously wounded, he said. The eastern province borders Pakistan.

“On election day, every polling site throughout the country and everyone working there or participating in voting are at risk,” Zabihullah Mujahed, a Taliban spokesman, said in an April 2 statement.

In the past month, the militant group has killed at least 25 people in Kabul, including policemen, election officials and foreigners. Habibi’s friend was slain at the election commission office in Kabul on March 25.

‘Blue Finger’

Even if the Taliban succeed in limiting turnout, they won’t be able to threaten the Afghan state, according to Said Jawad, who served as Afghan ambassador to Washington from 2003 to 2010.

“People are determined to go out and vote and give a blue finger to the Taliban,” Jawad said of citizens in urban areas, referring to the blue ink that shows a person has cast a ballot. The sight of a candidate traveling on paved roads with a female running mate is a leap forward from the situation a decade ago, he said.

The economy grew 9.2 percent a year on average between 2001 and 2012, expanding to $20.5 billion from $2.5 billion, according to World Bank data. Since 2002, school enrollment has risen to 7.8 million from 1 million, with the number of girls jumping 15 times to 2.8 million, the data show.

About 85 percent of the population lives within an hour from basic health centers and infant mortality, while still “worryingly high,” has fallen 33 percent since 2001, according to the National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment 2007/2008, conducted by the government with funding from the European Commission.

Mobile Phones

The Taliban insurgency is threatening that progress. Prospects of violence have prompted 330 of the nation’s 17,700 schools to close, Amanullah Iman, spokesman for the country’s education ministry, said in an April 1 e-mail.

The telecommunications ministry is concerned that they may see an exodus of businesses in the sector, which contributes more than 10 percent of the country’s revenue. Afghanistan has about 23 million mobile phone subscribers, compared with 1.2 million in 2006, according to official data.

“This shows meaningful progress in a war-torn country,” ministry spokesman Nasrat Rahimi said in an April 1 e-mail. “These gains may be lost and telecom companies may shift business to other countries if they are not protected.”

Troop Pact

Karzai has delayed signing a pact that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond this year, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to ask the Pentagon to prepare plans for withdrawal of all forces by December. All eight presidential candidates have vowed to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA, if they take office.

“That’s going to put the Taliban narrative in trouble,” retired General John Allen, who commanded U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, said at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research institute, on March 31, referring to a scenario where the BSA is signed shortly after the vote and the West gives “unambiguous” support for the new president.

For Habibi, the Taliban threat is big enough to forego her monthly salary of 8,000 Afghanis ($139) a month to stay safe. Former finance minister Ghani will get her vote if she musters up enough courage to leave the house, she said. Voting begins 7:30 a.m. local time and is scheduled to end at 4 p.m.

“The Taliban banned women from working or studying, and I don’t see any difference now,” Habibi said. “It is better to stay with my children and starve for some time than to die in a Taliban attack.”

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