PANJWAII DISTRICT, Afghanistan — Taliban threats of a massive attack during Saturday’s parliamentary elections in Afghanistan failed to materialize but the threat alone appeared to keep many voters at home.
Overall, election day and the days preceding it were quieter this year than during last year’s presidential election, yet more than a dozen rockets and bombs went off in Kandahar city and Afghans trickled into polling centres to cast their ballots.
Kandahar Governor Tooryalai Wesa, an Afghan-Canadian from British Columbia, survived a bombing attempt as he urged residents to get out and vote.
Resident Haji Zahir said he has never voted, and never will.
“It is just a game of money, everybody fills their pockets,” Zahir told The Canadian Press. “After the election we will not see the candidates here in Kandahar. What did the previous candidates do in five years?”
For nine years, he said, the city has suffered.
“Why should I get my finger cut off or get killed for nothing?” he said, referring to insurgent threats to cut off the finger of anyone bearing the ink stain proving they cast a ballot.
In the Panjwaii district, southwest of Kandahar city where Canadian efforts are now concentrated, insurgents tried to set up a road block to prevent voters from reaching polling centres.
There were sporadic firefights throughout the day between Taliban and pro-government forces, and some IED and rocket attacks. Two children were injured by an insurgent rocket and medically evacuated for treatment.
Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, commander of Canadian troops in Kandahar, said election day was relatively quiet — “almost a normal day here in Kandahar province,” the war ravaged region that gave birth to the Taliban.
“It’s fairly quiet across the province. There’s been a few incidents,” Milner said.
“I don’t know exactly how many have gone out to vote which I think is really what we want to see, but I’m very confident that the security measures put in place… allowed for safe elections.”
Many of the Panjwaii residents who voted did so in the safer confines of the city, scrubbing the election ink off their fingers before returning to the district.
Resident Matiullah Agha said people went to Kandahar city because security was not good enough in the area.
“Many people in Panjwaii didn’t come to vote; they are scared of the Taliban,” Agha said. “I was scared while voting. I disguised myself, because I know there are many Taliban spies here.”
The streets of Kandahar city were closed to all vehicles except those bearing a special election sign, and shops were also closed.
But in the Dand district, which lies between the city and Panjwaii province, and where Canada’s Task Force Kandahar unveiled its village-by-village counter-insurgency strategy last year, most shops remained open and there were crowds of voters seen at some polling stations.
Resident Abdul Khalik said there were some rocket attacks but he and his entire family voted.
One of the biggest surprises came in the Zhari district, west of Kandahar city, a violent insurgent stronghold where Taliban unleashed co-ordinated attacks on Canadian bases during last year’s presidential vote. Voters lined up at some polling stations where very few ballots were cast a year ago.
“People are fed up with the Taliban, that’s why they’re coming out more and more, so they can get rid of the Taliban,” businessman Saleh Naeem said.
Observers said at least 24 people were killed in election-related violence preceding the vote, including four candidates.
Despite his close call, Wesa continued to urge voters.
“The enemy wants the election to fail, so if you want the insurgents out of your land, you’ll have to come out and vote,” the provincial governor said.
Militants attacked most major cities with rockets, the first in the capital of Kabul before dawn. A rocket in northern Baghlan province killed two civilians and there were scattered attacks on polling stations, but Afghan officials said they did not hamper voting.
“There are no reports of major incidents,” Afghan Election Commission Chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi told reporters.
For western nations who have staked their exit strategy from Afghanistan on improved governance, Saturday’s vote was a test of the Afghan security forces who were responsible for security and of the electoral system.
Last year’s presidential elections were marred more by corruption than insurgent violence and fake voter cards were discovered in Afghanistan ahead of Saturday’s vote.
Milner cautioned against judging the vote by western standards.
“I think that’s where us westerners need to be a little bit more patient,” said the Canadian commander. “Our first thoughts will be ’Is there fraud?’ and all of that, and I think our definitions of that sometimes are a little bit different. I’d say give them some time.”
Full preliminary results are not expected until the end of the month and final results in late October.
– With files from the Associated Press