Men carry rolls of fabric at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photographer: Jim Huylebroek/Bloomberg)

Afghan UN Envoy Predicts That Rigging and Taliban Attacks Will Mar Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Afghanistan is at risk of a surge in Taliban violence and vulnerable to vote-rigging in its upcoming elections, according to the war-torn country’s envoy to the United Nations.

There are “serious worries about fraud and irregularities in the voter registration," Afghanistan’s ambassador to the UN Mahmoud Saikal said in an interview in New York. Violence is also likely to plague the elections, he added.

The UN Security Council met last week and reiterated calls for free, fair and credible elections ahead of long-delayed polls due in October. But worries remain about Taliban attempts to derail or discredit the western-backed democratic process. Since 2001, when the Taliban were ousted in the U.S. invasion, elections in Afghanistan have been repeatedly tainted by violence, widespread ballot-stuffing and delays. A discredited process in upcoming elections could prompt a fresh crisis in Afghanistan.

“Some fraud is inevitable,” said Michael Kugelman, senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, in an email. “But the bigger concern is the Taliban. Some attacks are inevitable. The insurgents have never been stronger.”

Sham Process

The South Asian country is scheduled to hold parliamentary and district council elections on Oct. 20 after three years of delay over technical reasons and fears of more violence. Afghanistan is also expected to hold a separate presidential election by April next year, which is likely to be even more challenging.

A fraudulent result in the 2014 presidential elections nearly sparked a civil war before the U.S. brokered a power-sharing deal between the two top candidates to form a coalition government.

The Taliban has described the election as illegitimate and vowed to discredit the process with violence. Taliban and Islamic State militants have targeted several voter registration centers in the past few months, killing and injuring more than a hundred people. In April, an attack on a voting center in the Afghan capital Kabul killed nearly 60 people.

More than nine million Afghans have registered to vote for both elections, according to the country’s Independent Election Commission. But almost one-third of the country’s 7,000 polling centers will remain shut due to insecurity, Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN’s top envoy in Afghanistan, said in a Sept. 17 briefing to the Security Council.

“Preparations are on track," Yamamoto said. "Yet I remain very concerned that political challenges could jeopardize the tight timelines and derail the elections, unless all political leaders engage constructively and peacefully to ensure that elections are held on time.”

‘Huge Achievement’

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is struggling to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table in a bid to break the impasse and end America’s longest war. UN Secretary General António Guterres said on Sept. 20 that “political dialogue” between the group and Ghani’s government is the only possible way out from the war.

The Taliban agreed to an unprecedented three-day ceasefire in June, but began attacks on police and army bases across the nation shortly after the truce ended.

Taliban forces now control or contest roughly half of the country, more territory than at any time since they were toppled in 2001, making the prospects of a peaceful election unlikely. The United Nations said more than 10,000 civilians were killed or wounded in 2017, with roughly 42 percent of casualties coming from Taliban attacks and 10 percent coming from Islamic State.

If presidential elections are postponed, “there would be an immediate legitimacy crisis that could bring people into streets and cause all kinds of political problems,” said Kugelman. “If Kabul is somehow able to pull it off, a strong and defiant message would be sent to the Taliban -- it would be a huge achievement for Afghanistan.”

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