Some 300 elders of the Tarzi tribe expanded on their ominous electioneering technique in a public statement released on Friday.

Any man who does not vote for the US-appointed interim president, they said, will not be buried by his family. And he can forget about marrying off his female relatives, too.

But fear is just one part of the everyday reality for millions of ordinary Afghan people, according to more than a dozen national and international organisations.

Hearing the voiceless

The Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium* (HRRAC) published a report detailing the views of hundreds of people from six cities - views that are a testimony to how little has been achieved since the Taliban were ousted in November 2001.

Entitled Take the Guns Away, people from the Afghan street explain what it is like to live in Herat, Mazar-i Sharif, Faizabad, Kabul, Jalalabad or Kandahar.

They say the rule of law is non-existent, militias are still armed and regional commanders are as powerful as ever.

Recording the experiences of local teachers, housewives, shopkeepers and farmers, HRRAC project directors Dawn Stallard and Julie Lafreniere summarised information recorded from 700 surveys.

Summary

"Afghans continue to be exposed to all manner of humiliation and abuse. The rule of law is effectively non-existent throughout the country and ... a culture of impunity dominates.

"It's hard not to conclude that this [presidential election] was so much about getting an end result and not having a meaningful process"

Andrew Wilder, Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit chief

"They recite a litany of crimes committed against them - mainly by [regional] commanders or their men. Confidence and trust in the police is low and ... central government is weak," the report said.

A Herati man also condemned Kabul's US-sanctioned policy of giving some regional commanders official government positions.

"There is no difference between the forces of the Taliban and the Mujahidin and all the others who carry guns. Only the faces and the clothes have changed," he says.

Flawed

Given the atmosphere of fear and intimidation, other international organisations have drawn the conclusion that presidential elections simply cannot be free or fair.

In a report published on Monday, US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the vote was unlikely to be representative of anything since the country is still run by private armies involved in extortion, kidnapping, rape and murder.

HRW chief John Sifton concluded: "The warlords are calling the shots. Politically active people are not taking part and few voters understand the secret ballot, so people are being told how to vote."

Last week, the group quoted a UN worker in Jalalabad who said village elders in the east had been threatened and told to vote for candidates including President Karzai and that "there was little cause for optimism".

Monitoring limited

A communications manager at the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) has even highlighted major flaws in the election process itself.

Thomas Muller told Aljazeera.net that "the presidential elections in Afghanistan are likely to be observed by less than 150 international observers covering 5000 polling stations".

Thousands of ordinary Afghans
will not be able to vote freely

He estimates that out of the US $200 million that has been spent on registration and holding presidential elections, less than $500,000 is going towards domestic monitoring.

So far, there is just one significant Afghan observation effort - the newly formed Free and Fair Elections Foundation for Afghanistan (FEFA).

But a FEFA member who asked for anonymity says that even if his organisation managed to train 1500 people before 9 October, it would only be sufficient to observe just 12% of polling stations.

Muller believes that in many areas polling staff from local villages will be "guarded" by local police, all under the watchful eyes of the local militias.

"This is a recipe for electoral fraud. The US and their Nato allies have not made human rights and democratisation a priority."

Rigging under way

Since voter registration centres closed in mid-August, evidence has grown that widespread vote-rigging is in progress - a controversy that has consequences for Bush's re-election campaign.

Election officials openly acknowledge the number of voting cards issued far exceed the estimated number of eligible voters - and that the illegal practice of multiple registrations is widespread.

"An Afghan election marred by allegations of fraud would be bad for President Bush's overall claim of promoting democracy in the Muslim world," said Husain Haqqani, an Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The timing could not be worse, he adds. "In the absence of good news from Iraq, the Bush administration needs Afghanistan as its success story."

Few believe the elections will be
free from attacks on voters

With his own election on 2 November, Bush has staked political capital on a successful democratic Afghanistan, saying it would serve as an example of how the US can bring democracy as well as free and fair elections to the developing world.

"The rise of democratic institutions in Afghanistan and Iraq is a great step toward a goal of lasting importance to the world," Bush said in a speech in Washington last March.

"We have set out to encourage reform and democracy."

Two winners

But the type of democracy being encouraged is quite peculiar. Abd al-Latif Pedram, a writer who is one of 17 candidates challenging Karzai, says the rushed election process is designed to benefit two incumbents only: Karzai and Bush.

He too believes that a comfortable victory by Karzai will bolster Bush's re-election chances - which is why the electoral playing field is so uneven.

In fact, challengers operate at a disadvantage. Pedram pointed out that only the US-appointed interim president has been given resources to visit the country's 34 provinces by the US military.

"Karzai can go with American helicopters and American bodyguards to 10 provinces in one day," he said. "What can we do?"

Other Afghan and Western analysts say pressure from the US and Karzai has forced UN officials, who are organising the vote, to create a form of instant democracy that cuts corners.

"It's hard not to conclude that this was so much about getting an end result and not having a meaningful process," said Andrew Wilder, head of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit.

* The Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium is comprised of the Agency for Rehabilitation, Oxfam International, Ockenden International, Rights and Democracy, Cooperation for Peace and Unity, Mercy Corps, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Save the Children, Care International, the Afghan Development Association, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief and the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.