Afghanistan: election campaign opens amid violence, warlordism

The campaign officially opened for Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban parliamentary race Aug. 17, even as violence continues to plague the country. Authorities are still not ruling out the possibility of an attack against a helicopter that crashed near Herat Aug. 17, killing 17 Spanish soldiers on board, although bad weather could have been the cause. (RFE/RL, Aug. 17) But Taliban rebels were almost certainly behind the bombing of a bus carrying police trainees that day in Kandahar, killing one and injuring at least 11. Eyewitnesses said the bomb was in a cart placed near a speed bump on a road in the city centre and was detonated as the bus passed by. (BBC, Aug. 17)

Fighting continues in Uruzgan province, where Afghan and US forces claimed to have killed six suspected Taliban fighters after guerillas fired at a “forward operating base” Aug. 14.(RFE/RL, Aug. 17)

The country’s progress towards modernity and democracy looks slow and tentative at best. Also Aug. 17, the UN Population Fund issued a statement on recent findings that nearly half of all marriages in Afghanistan are thought to involve girls under age 16. The statement said that in some rural areas children as young as six are married off by their families, and it is common for girls to be traded to resolve conflicts between tribal families. Such children usually become the “property” of the family or individual who receives them. The agency announced that it will be holding a workshop later this month for Islamic leaders from around Afghanistan to try to combat the problem. (AP, Aug. 18)

Rights workers are also concerned that militia commanders and other figures with ties to factions blamed for much of the bloodshed of past years could succeed in winning a place in the 249-seat parliament.

Nearly 2,800 people are running for parliament, or the Wolesi Jirga, with more than 3,000 others seeking places in 34 provincial councils. The elections are to be held in September. Candidates will not be listed by party affiliation, in an effort to distance the new government from the regional ethnic or religious-based parties tied to warlords and miltias. But critics charge this only means voters will not be able to distinguish between candidates or know the background of who they are voting for. Most voters will not even be able to read the names on the ballot papers, as an estimated 80% of Afghans are illiterate. Candidates’ photos and a symbol will also be printed on the ballot. “This means the election campaign will be far more about the projection of powerful individuals than choices between manifestos and programmes,” warns the International Crisis Group in a new report.

Figures with ties to past atrocities are officially barred from running. But a joint Afghan and internationally-staffed Election Complaints Commission (ECC) announced last month that just 11 candidates had been disqualified for having such ties – from an original list of 208. In many areas, “at least half of those standing are warlords or have some links to these commanders,” claims Prof Wadir Safi of Kabul university. And many on the original disqualification list have since turned in weapons, thereby making them eligible.

Human Rights Watch says it is particularly concerned about one influential former mujahedeen commander, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who it says should face war crimes charges and who is standing for a seat in Kabul.

Some fear many of these former warlords will band together if they win seats to push through legislation to prevent any judicial process being established to investigate them. Under the constitution, with a two-thirds majority, parliament can implement its own legislation, overruling President Hamid Karzai. (BBC, Aug. 18)

More than 30,000 foreign troops are in Afghanistan: 20,000 with the US-led coalition and 11,000 NAT0-led “peacekeepers. (NYT, Aug. 18)

See our last post on Afghanistan.