Phantoms at the Polls

Demoralization and despair have reached such a level in my city, Kandahar, this summer that most people tell me they will not participate in Thursday’s presidential election. They doubt the transparency of the vote, disbelieving that President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt administration will allow another candidate to win.

One reason for the pessimism here is that the president’s brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, managed to place relatives and friends in most of the important government positions. One of them runs Kandahar city’s education system, so it’s no surprise that many of the teachers are encouraging their students to support the president. This is especially worrisome given the widespread allegations of “phantom voters” — people under the legal voting age of 18 who have used fake names or lied about their ages to register for the election. In fact, my brother, who is a student of voting age, was invited to a rally last month where his teachers urged all the participants — the vast majority of whom were under 18 — to vote for Mr. Karzai.

“I am not going to vote at all, because I am sure that Karzai will win the election again, no matter if people vote for him or against him,” insisted Teella Muhammed, who runs a food shop near my home.

“Why do you think so?” I asked him.

“Karzai has power and wealth, and the international community likes him — and they are the decision makers,” he replied.

Thus, it is almost beside the point that the Taliban have been escalating their campaign of intimidation, flooding the city with leaflets that promise to “punish” those who go to the polls. Such threats have special resonance here: Kandahar was the birthplace of the Taliban. Last Friday, I heard the mullah at the mosque next door to my home in central Kandahar denouncing the election and saying that it is purely “in the interests of foreigners.” I wondered whether I was hearing the true thoughts of a religious scholar or whether pressure from the Taliban had shaped his words.

People who live in the suburbs are even more vulnerable to the Taliban’s threats, as the government security forces have little or no control out there. Ali Ahmad, a friend of mine who lives in the Panjwai district, some 10 miles west of the city center, told me the other day that he and his friends couldn’t vote even if they wanted to. “Taliban have warned us not to vote,” he said. “If we do so, our lives are at risk.”

And even if the government were to send troops to secure the polling stations in every district on voting day, the people would still not dare to vote, rightly fearing that the Taliban would punish them after the troops left.

While some voters in Kabul or in the safer northern provinces may still have faith in Mr. Karzai and his international allies, the government has lost its credibility in the south. Not only did we have the deadliest bombing since the American invasion here in February, but the Taliban have even carried off successful attacks on government buildings. Is it any wonder that these security lapses, combined with the corruption of the local government and NATO airstrikes that have killed civilians, have sapped Kandaharis of any hope for a peaceful future?

The one thing everyone agrees on is that it will not be possible to defeat the Taliban unless we have a responsive and accountable government. President Karzai has had years — first as “interim president” and then as elected leader — to create one, and he has failed.

Progress will begin only if he loses on Thursday. Not only would this give the Afghan people faith that their democratic system is finally functioning honestly, but it should also give the United States and our other Western backers faith that we Afghans are capable of undergoing a transition of power not through a coup, warfare or violence, but through the ballot box.

Atif B., a former aid worker.