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May 28, 2004

Security, Low Voter Registration Threaten Afghan Polls

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, (IPS) - Presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for September in Afghanistan could be jeopardized by rising violence, poor voter registration, a shortfall in funding and a deteriorating security situation in the country, a senior U.N. official warned Thursday.

Assuming voting goes ahead as planned, the legitimacy of the next Afghan government could be undermined by several factors: the public's perception that polls were distorted by military intimidation; under-registration of voters; and a funding gap of about $80 million needed to hold "free and fair elections," U.N. Special Representative Jean Arnault told the Security Council.

The world body hopes to register about 10.5 million Afghans for the vote, which was originally scheduled for June. But as of last week, only 2.7 million people have registered.

After a slow start, Arnault said, women's registration has picked up and now accounts for 37-38 percent of all registrations. But women are still significantly under-represented in the country's southeast and east, where female registration remains below 30 percent.

"And, quite apart from the immediate impact on the outcome of elections, under-registration – whatever its causes – is bound to generate frustration and suspicion that parts of the country have been deliberately disenfranchised," he told delegates.

The Soviet Union, which militarily occupied Afghanistan for over a decade, pulled out in 1989. The Taliban government that followed was ousted by U.S. military forces in late 2001. Washington then installed Hamid Karzai, described by many as a U.S. puppet, as the new president.

The upcoming elections are also meant to confer legitimacy on Karzai, who continues to be heavily protected by U.S. security forces.

While 15,500 U.S. troops are trying to hunt down members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group and the Taliban militia in Afghanistan's rugged mountain terrain, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), comprising mostly troops from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), is in charge of security in the capital Kabul.

Arnault said that even though no deadly suicide attacks have occurred in Kabul recently – like those directed against two ISAF patrols in 2003 – another ISAF patrol was attacked last week with rocket propelled grenades, killing a Norwegian soldier.

Anti-government forces are now operating in small groups of 10-20 men, targeting Afghan police, the army, civilian administration, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government representatives, he added.

"In recent weeks, the number of arms caches uncovered by ISAF has been increasing and multiple signs of heightened anti-government activity have appeared, indicating that the 'spring surge' underway from the east to the south, may be ongoing in the country's capital," he added.

During a visit to Kabul last month, General Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, hinted that Washington might gradually reduce its troops immediately after the September elections. But that, say Afghan analysts, would be a recipe for political and military disaster.

"A significant reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan would send a very negative signal to the Afghan people," says Mark Sedra, a research associate at the Bonn International Centre for Conversion, where he leads a project that monitors and analyses security in Afghanistan.

"It would fuel the growing perception among Afghans that the United States and the international community are once again turning their backs on the country – as they did after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union," he added.

Painting a relatively gloomy picture, Arnault told delegates the most recent U.N. security map bears out the fact there has been little change in the identification of low risk, middle risk and high risk provinces in Afghanistan.

"Within this pattern, however, the situation has evolved negatively in recent months in the more risky areas – and in particular in the South – with a tangible increase in the number of incidents and their toll," he added.

Growing insecurity has also forced members of humanitarian organizations to keep a low profile in certain areas in order to reduce their vulnerability.

Since the killing of a U.N. aid worker in Afghanistan last November, most international employees working for more than 30 U.N. agencies have been withdrawn from the country's southern and eastern regions. As a result, the world body has suspended aid to refugees returning from neighboring Pakistan.

Arnault also said one of the major challenges facing Afghanistan is lack of money needed to finance fair elections.

While voter registration is almost fully financed, with a shortfall of only about $2.6 million, the parliamentary and presidential elections are only "very partially funded," he added.

Of the $108 million needed to cover the two elections, as well as out-of-country registration and voting and security, only about $28 million have been secured so far, leaving a gap of $80 million.

Arnault also argued that much of the responsibility for creating a safe environment in Afghanistan rests with Afghans themselves – but it is a responsibility they cannot shoulder without international assistance.

"Widespread, robust international military presence in support of domestic security forces, remains critical."

The persistent woes of Afghanistan – terrorism, fundamentalism and criminal networks – are as much at work today as they were two years ago and their ability to subvert state-building and a genuine political process is hardly diminished, Arnault said.

"Whether it is counter-terrorism, electoral security, counter-narcotics or control of factional fighting, at this critical juncture for the Afghan peace process, international security assistance continues to make the difference between success and failure," he said.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Thalif Deen has been Inter Press Service's U.N. Bureau Chief since 1992. A
    former Information Officer at the U.N. Secretariat and a one-time member of
    the Sri Lanka delegation to the General Assembly sessions, he is currently
    editor of the Journal of the Group of 77, published in collaboration with
    IPS. A Fulbright-Hayes scholar, he holds a Master's degree in Journalism
    from Columbia University in New York.

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