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Afghans to Vote Despite Taliban Threats10/19 06:12

   KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Most Afghans will return to the polls for 
parliamentary elections on Saturday, hoping to bring change to a corrupt 
government that has lost nearly half the country to the Taliban.

   Voters in Kandahar, however, will have to wait a week after the province's 
police chief was assassinated, resulting in the vote there being postponed.

   In the eight years since Afghanistan last held parliamentary elections, a 
resurgent Taliban have carried out near-daily attacks on security forces, 
seizing large swathes of the countryside and threatening major cities. An even 
more radical Islamic State affiliate has launched a wave of bombings targeting 
the country's Shiite minority, killing hundreds. Both groups have threatened to 
attack anyone taking part in the vote.

   In areas where the government still provides relative security, Afghans face 
a different array of challenges. Widespread corruption forces people to pay 
bribes for shabby public services, and increasingly influential 
ultraconservative clerics blame the country's many ills on years of Western 
influence, threatening to roll back the limited gains made by women and civil 
society since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

   Many of those Afghans brave enough to defy the death threats hope to vote in 
a new generation of younger and better-educated leaders. But they fear that 
former warlords and the corrupt political elite will cling to power by 
lavishing entertainment and cash handouts on impoverished voters.

   "I am still not hopeful it will be fair," said Saeed Matin, a fruit seller 
in a mostly Shiite neighborhood of Kabul who was bundled up against the chilly 
autumn evening. He waved off the threats from the Taliban and said he hoped for 
new leadership, pointing to campaign posters showing younger candidates.

   "They are young and educated and I wish they could do something, but 100 
percent I am worried the warlords and the corrupt people will not give them a 
chance," he said. "These corrupt people are paying 3,000 Afghanis (nearly $50) 
for each vote. They are not interested in the country, only in what they can 
put in their pocket."

   Afghanistan is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world by 
Transparency International, which last year called efforts by President Ashraf 
Ghani's government to stem runaway corruption "insufficient." Poor governance 
has also confounded Washington's efforts to find a peaceful exit from the 
17-year war --- the longest in American history --- which has cost the United 
States more than 2,400 lives and over $900 billion.

   The Taliban point to the government's dysfunction as proof of its 
illegitimacy, and have rejected international demands to hold peace talks with 
the authorities in Kabul, who they view as Western puppets. They say they will 
only negotiate directly with the United States, which they view as an occupying 
power.

   Religious conservatives, even those who have not taken up arms, are 
increasingly echoing the Taliban's rhetoric, saying years of Western influence 
have eroded the country's values --- a mix of Islamic teachings and tribal 
traditions --- causing a breakdown of society.

   Abdul Wadood Pedram, who heads the Human Rights and Eradication of Violence 
Organization, said religious clerics use their weekly sermons in mosques 
throughout the capital to rail against Western influence.

   "Our society is growing very radical, day by day, because the government has 
no control of the mosques and the madrassas (religious schools)," he said. He 
said clerics routinely inveigh against women's participation in the workforce 
--- a rare bright spot in Afghanistan's recent history --- as well as 
independent media and human rights activists.

   Despite the widespread pessimism, analysts and activists say the elections 
--- which were delayed for three years because of insecurity --- send an 
important message to the Taliban that no matter how unpopular the current 
government is, the political system is here to stay.

   "It is very important to indicate to the Taliban that the government is 
functioning, the institutions in Afghanistan are functioning and that the 
political process ... is also functioning," said Kabul-based analyst Haroun 
Mir. "It will be a clear message to the insurgents and to the Taliban that they 
have to deal with the political process that is accepted by the majority of the 
Afghan people."

   In the heavily fortified offices of the Independent Election Commission, 
Wasima Badghisy is working on final preparations for the vote.

   "Young people are voting for the first time and many are worried about the 
corruption, yet they still feel it is important to participate," she said. 
"They feel that it will take time but gradually with every election it will get 
better. For many this election is like a practice for their future. Their 
energy inspires me to try to make it better."

   The most pressing concern is security. Earlier this week, the Taliban warned 
students and teachers not to vote and not to allow their schools to be used as 
polling stations. Militant attacks have killed seven candidates, both before 
and after the 20-day campaign period started. Two candidates have been 
abducted, their fates unknown, and three others have been wounded in violence.

   On Thursday, Afghanistan's powerful Kandahar provincial police chief Gen. 
Abdul Raziq was killed along with at least one other senior provincial 
official, in a brazen attack by one of their own guards during a meeting to 
discuss security ahead of the vote. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying 
their target was U.S. Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops 
in Afghanistan, who was unharmed.

   As a result of the attack, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission on 
Friday postponed polling in the province for one week.

   Security fears have already forced the commission to close about 2,000 
polling centers. It has cancelled the vote in 11 of the country's nearly 400 
districts, as well as in the entire eastern province of Ghazni, where the 
Taliban control the countryside and laid siege to the provincial capital for 
five days in July. More than 50,000 security forces will be deployed to defend 
polling stations.

   With 8.8 million registered voters, Badghisy said turnout will reflect 
Afghans' confidence in the system.

   "If 5 million voters turn out that will be very good," she said. "Those who 
vote, I feel they are very, very brave."


(KA)

 
 
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