Kabul, Afghanistan – After months of false starts and doubts, Afghanistan is finally heading towards its fourth presidential election.
The road to the polls has been anything but certain, as a series of talks between the United States and the Taliban in the Qatari capital, Doha, threatened to derail the entire process.
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The constant questioning of the polls continued until US President Donald Trump sent out a series of angry tweets declaring the talks dead after a Taliban-claimed bombing resulted in deaths of at least 14 Afghan civilians and a US soldier.
Those tweets came just 20 days before the Afghan election.
As candidates started to go from province to province and the airwaves filled up with campaign ads, the people’s questions about the election went from “will there be an election” to “will you vote” and “for whom”.
With only days to go, the Afghan voters have to decide from among 16 candidates – including the incumbent Ashraf Ghani who is seeking a second and final five-year term – the leader who can lead the country at a time when the government and its foreign allies are killing more civilians than the Taliban fighters and the so-called rebels of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
In some cheer for the economy, the afghani, the country’s currency, has just started to stabilise after a precipitous fall against the US dollar.
The precarious security situation and the struggling economy seem to be on top of the mind of potential voters such as Farooq Saidzada, who has worked on the streets of the capital, Kabul, since he was a teenager.
Saidzada, who works as a money exchanger outside a Turkish mall, said he has heard more explosions than he could count and has seen too many bodies. With robberies and kidnappings on the rise, the 24-year-old said he doesn’t even feel safe on the streets of the capital’s bustling commercial hub.
“In Afghanistan, from the moment you wake up to when you put your head down to sleep, you are in danger,” said Saidzada.
Since the start of the election campaigns in July, the Afghan capital has come under attack on a near-weekly basis.
Saidzada has been working as a money exchanger since the days of Taliban rule, when he said you could leave bundles of cash on the streets without fear, but the recent downturns in the value of the afghani have badly affected his business.
“I make half of what I used to make on the dollar compared to during the last  presidential elections, I work just as hard for literally half of what I once made.”
The economy was one of the major thrust of Ghani’s 2014 campaign, but residents in Kabul point to the current unemployment rate, hovering around 35 percent (down from 40 percent in 2016 ) as a sign of how much more still needs to be done.
For retired air force general Mohammad Mustafa, unemployment is a major issue. The 52-year-old now subsides by selling jewellery from a cart outside the city’s iconic Park Cinema.
Mustafa said he makes only 300-400 afghanis ($3.83-$5.11) a day, which is his only income since he has not yet been able to collect the retirement benefits due to bureaucratic challenges.
He is particularly angered by the fact that he spent years working for the security forces under Mohammad Najibullah, the last communist president of Afghanistan, but that he is not given the respect he feels he deserves.
“I have to work on the streets for a meagre wage, meanwhile, all of these so-called ‘generals’ and advisors come from abroad and are being paid in dollars and given armoured cars.”
Determined to vote
Despite the difficulties in his life – including walking more than two hours a day to get from his home in east Kabul to the centre of the city – Mustafa remains determined to vote despite scores of people killed in recent Taliban attacks.
The Taliban has already issued a warning to civilians to stay away from the polling centres. They have waged a bloody armed rebellion since 2001 when they were overthrown from power in a US-led invasion.
“The Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate – with the help of Allah and support of its nation – intend to disrupting this fake process of the American invaders and their few servile slaves by attacking all security personnel that guard this process and by targeting offices and centres that operate for this staged show,” a Taliban statement said on Thursday.
“We ask fellow countrymen to refrain from venturing out of their homes on this day so that may Allah forbid, no one is harmed.”
Sartaj, who sells coconuts in the Shahr-e-Naw neighbourhood of Kabul, said he will travel to his home province of Khost – about 230km away – to cast his vote despite security risks.
“The problems we have in Khost, don’t exist here in Kabul,” Sartaj says in reference to the layers of insecurity, whether it is from the Taliban or Afghan and US-backed forces, that plagues his home province.
Khost province is also home to the Khost Protection Force, a local militia group supported by the CIA which has been accused of committing abuses.
Nabiullah Baz, a 26-year-old MP from Nangarhar, said security, namely the issue of civilian killings at the hands of Afghan and US forces will be foremost on the minds of voters in the eastern province.
Baz, who was elected to parliament last year, said in the provincial capital, Jalalabad, tens of thousands will turn out to vote, which he says is a direct reflection of the relative safety and the level of education in the city.
But he was not sure how many people will muster the courage to vote in the province’s 22 other districts.
“In those districts, people will ask you outright, ‘Why should I risk my life to vote for someone I will likely never see in my life?’ and you have to be prepared to give them an answer,” said Baz.
He pointed out the people’s resentment against the 02 Unit, a branch of the Afghan intelligence agency, which has been accused of rights violations.
Earlier this month, the CIA-funded 02 Unit was accused of killing four brothers in Jalalabad.
Baz said these sorts of operations, including a recent US drone attack that led to the death of dozens of civilians in Khogyani district, have left the people of Nangarhar feeling as if “we are being targeted not just by the Taliban and Daesh (ISIL), but also by our own government”.
The young MP said that in the run-up to election day, President Ghani has become more cognisant of the issue of civilian abuses and casualties at the hands of Afghan and US forces, and that during a recent campaign stop in Jalalabad he purposely addressed the 02 Unit.
“He came and said, ‘I’m not here for a campaign, I’m here to offer my condolences’ in reference to the killings of the four brothers,” he said.
“What people want is to, at the very least, have a sense of security from the government forces.”
But he still hopes that young people will participate in large numbers.
“In Afghanistan, the youth have actual concerns, and they will turn out to vote. They will be the ones to make a difference,” said Baz.