Hamid Shalizi - The Taliban have launched a violent campaign to disrupt this weekend’s presidential election in Afghanistan, but in a restive eastern corner of the country they are paying villagers to surrender their voting cards.

Residents in Nangarhar province, which lies on the border with Pakistan, said local Taliban militants have been offering voters 500 Pakistani rupees - the equivalent of just over $5 - to opt out of the election.

“At first we thought the Taliban were trying to trick us and wanted to find out who had voter cards, but later we found out that they were honest and paid money,” said Ahmad Shah, a youth in a village just outside the city of Jalalabad. The Taliban did not respond to a request for comment.

Saturday’s election will bring the first democratic transfer of power in war-torn Afghanistan and an end to the rule of President Hamid Karzai, who has led the country since the ouster of a Taliban regime in late 2001. The Taliban have branded the election a Western-backed sham.

The Independent Election Commission has said at least 10 percent of polling stations will not be able to open due to the threat of violence, the majority of them in the east where the insurgents are most active. “When the Taliban are in control and warn people not to vote, and instead pay money for your voter card, it’s not a bad thing,” Haji Khan Wali, another man in the village, where the Pakistani rupee is more commonly used than the local currency, the Afghani.

“People here have to think more about finding bread to feed their families than the election. To tell you the truth, half the people here don’t know anything about the election,” said Khan, wearing a white turban and long beard.

Local officials said they were aware of such reports from remote areas of Nangarhar, which are under Taliban influence. Southern and eastern parts Afghanistan are dominated by Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, which has traditionally enjoyed strong political influence.

Karzai is a Pashtun, which made him an obvious choice for many in these regions at the 2009 election, but the three frontrunners to succeed him are also Pashtun. Of them, the one with the closest links to eastern areas bordering lawless lands inside Pakistan is Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official.

Influential tribal elders say they would support any of the three candidates, but many people in remote areas of the region won’t be casting a vote anyway. In Nangarhar alone, 115 polling stations will not open due to concerns about mass fraud and ballot-stuffing as well as security, the provincial election chief, Akhtar Mohammad Ajmal, told Reuters. A 10-year-old was caught with 1,200 fake voting cards in neighbouring Kunar province this week.

The 2009 presidential election was marred by widespread fraud and another flawed election would undermine attempts by the United States and its allies to foster democracy ahead of the departure of foreign troops at the end of this year.–Reuters

Pakistan keeps close eye on vote

Posters of turbaned Afghan presidential candidates are rolling off the presses in Pakistan, which will be keeping close watch on the election in its strategic backyard.

Helped by cheaper labour and a favourable exchange rate, printers in Peshawar, less than 60 kilometres from the border, have been busy making Afghan election banners.

“We have been swamped with work for the past two weeks because of the Afghan elections. One candidate has asked me to print 200,000 posters,” said printer Mohammad Sajid.

Business links with Afghanistan have grown in recent years and analysts say Pakistan wants a stable northwestern neighbour, shifting from the interference of the past.

Pakistan wants to exert its influence on the Taliban to join a broader peace process, observers say, rather than topple Afghanistan’s democratically elected government and create a new power vacuum with a violent spillover effect.

Fear of encirclement by arch-rival India led generations of Pakistani military thinkers to view Afghanistan as a zone of potential risk - and thus legitimate space for covert intervention.

This doctrine of “strategic depth” saw Pakistan seek to support groups in Afghanistan it regarded as favourable to its ends, first the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and then the Taliban during their 1996-2001 rule in Kabul.

Pakistan vigorously denies the claims and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has worked hard to improve ties with President Hamid Karzai, who is stepping down after serving the maximum two terms in office. “I think this change started in the previous government and Pakistan sticks to the policy because probably they have realised this ‘one favourite’ policy has been a disaster,” author and defence analyst Imtiaz Gul of Islamabad’s Centre for Research and Security Studies told AFP.

During the last Afghan presidential election, some Pakistani officials were more favourably disposed towards incumbent Karzai, who shared a good rapport with his then-Pakistani counterpart Asif Ali Zardari.

No horse in race

This time, however, Islamabad has been careful not to side with any candidate in Afghanistan’s first ever democratic transition of power. Pakistan may be reluctant to antagonise whoever might emerge victorious by backing an opponent, but as Gul noted, it also does not have an obvious ally among the three leading candidates.

Zalmai Rassoul is seen as the preferred choice of Karzai, with whom Islamabad’s relations are at a low ebb. Former minister Abdullah Abdullah draws support from the Tajik ethnic group, who have not favoured Pakistan, and economist Ashraf Ghani has “no connection” with Islamabad, Gul said.

Talat Masood, an analyst and retired Pakistani general, said Pakistan’s decision to halt air strikes in the area as part of peace efforts with the TTP “benefits the (extremist) Haqqani network, it gives them more scope to manoeuvre”.

Pakistan is believed to be sheltering some of the Afghan Taliban’s leaders in the southwestern city of Quetta and in September freed the movement’s former deputy Abdul Ghani Baradar as part of peace efforts. “They (the Pakistani government) want peace and stability on the Afghan border because it has a direct impact on peace and security in Pakistan,” said Saifullah Khan Mehsud, an expert on Pakistan’s restive tribal border regions at the FATA Research Centre.

Pakistan also fears a new wave of Afghan refugees, who currently number some 1.6 million having fled in the aftermath of the withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1989.

While the refugees were able to vote in 2004, no arrangements have been made this time around.

“We’re frustrated, we’d like to have a say about the future of our country,” said Haji Jumaa Gul, an elderly man at a refugee camp in Peshawar, who says the situation at home is still too volatile to return.–AFP