Spate of attacks spark Afghan election fears

Campaigns worry assassination attempts could affect election turnout and delegitimise the polls.

Presidential elections in Afghanistan are scheduled for April 5 [Reuters]

Herat, Afghanistan – Posters of presidential candidates have already come to blend into Herat’s landscape. Yet there is little sense in Afghanistan’s western city that an election is less than two months away. 

For the people of Herat, daily life continues as usual under the watchful eyes of powerful men promising reconstruction, peace and moderation. However, in the past month, Herat has already been the site of three election-related attacks, raising questions about the campaigns’ ability to reach out to voters in Herat province’s rural districts. 

The latest incident left Arbab Qasem Jamshidi, a campaigner for Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, severely injured after gunmen attacked him outside a sauna in Karokh. The attack on Jamshidi came almost a week after two aides to Abdullah Abdullah, who came in second in the 2009 presidential polls, were shot dead in the provincial capital.

And on January 24, an assassination attempt was made on Mohammad Ismail Khan, a vice presidential candidate for Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and a former water and energy minister. No group has claimed responsibility for any of the attacks. 

Although only the shooting of Jamshidi took place during actual election campaigning, the attacks have raised fears about the security of a poll that could see the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in the nation. 

Police investigation

A week after their workers were gunned down, representatives for Abdullah’s campaign in Herat told Al Jazeera they have hope that the police investigation will provide a lead and a motive for the killings. Ahmadzai’s campaign, too, has accepted promises by the security forces that they will conduct a thorough investigation.

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“We will do everything we can to participate and put pressure on the police to get to the bottom of this,” Halim Yousof, head of Ahmadzai’s Herat campaign office, told Al Jazeera. 

Having spoken to Jamshidi shortly after his arrival at Herat’s central hospital, Yousof said he cannot be certain that the gunmen’s motive was entirely political.

Regardless of the intent behind either attack, both campaigns say it is imperative that progress is made in the investigations. “Tomorrow or the next day, something else could happen. This is a constant threat,” Yousof said. 

Though the city itself is considered among the safest in Afghanistan, the villages and districts surrounding Herat have increasingly come under the influence of illegal armed groups. 

In November, the United Nations issued a statement that the 736 deaths in Herat, Farah, Ghor and Badghis provinces in the first 10 months of 2013 represented a 60 percent increase for the Western zone compared to the same time period in 2012.

Naser Khazei, head of Abdullah’s Herat team, told Al Jazeera that if attacks are not thwarted, “it could bring the condition of the whole election into question”.

‘Too dangerous to continue’?

Though Yousof insists that the campaigns will “continue on their paths”, he acknowledges the potential difficulties ahead. “Finding a way to reach constituencies beyond even the safest cities is one of our biggest challenges.” Yousof told Al Jazeera. 

Khalil Ahmad Parsa, a civil society representative in the city, says the threat of future attacks is likely to have a bigger impact on ordinary citizens than on campaign workers. “The campaign workers are unlikely to leave the cause. They are dedicated to an ideal and stand to gain something from their role in the elections.” 

In contrast, Parsa said, the ordinary citizen “likely feels as if they have a lot to lose by even casting a ballot”. This could hurt turnout. 

But Wahab Seddiqi, a journalism student, said he has already heard campaign workers beginning to question their participation. “I reported on the shooting of Abdullah’s aides, and I clearly heard other campaign staffers saying that it had become too dangerous to continue.” 

As the police investigate recent attacks, Parsa recommended that they not overlook candidates’ local support bases – especially those not involved in campaigning. “[The candidates] are trying to play to very strong local and ethnic ties. It’s very likely that over-zealous supporters could be behind these attacks,” he claimed. 

Taliban’s role

Though the Taliban has issued repeated statements rejecting the elections and threatening to attack election sites and officials, the group has so far only claimed responsibility for the February 8 death of Haji Yaseen, head of Abdullah’s campaign in Sar-e Pol province. The Taliban said Yaseen was a village police commander who had also worked with the Afghan intelligence agency. 

Khazei said it is possible the Taliban had a hand in other election-related attacks, but said he did not think they would bring the group much benefit – especially given their refusal to participate in the polls.

Though the motives in the attacks remain unclear, the campaigns fear the effects the violence will have this early in the election season. 

Yousof says the most important signal to the voter is for the campaigns to continue despite the violence. “If we let this get to us,” he says, “we will never be able to go to another district to hear the people’s voices.”

Follow Ali on Twitter: @alibomaye

Source: Al Jazeera