Powerful armed bands are confiscating voter registration cards in some of Afghanistan’s remote provinces, interfering with elections whose transparency is viewed as critical for the country’s future security and stability.
Residents of Ghor complain that the proliferation of armed groups in rural swaths of the western province has made them anxious about their ability to vote in presidential and provincial council elections on April 5.
Ahmad, a 28 year-old resident of Ghor who, like many Afghans goes only by one name, told Radio Free Afghanistan that nearly 500 armed men linked to Taliban insurgents and warlords have confiscated voting cards in Charsada district where he lives.
"An armed gang forced me to give them my voting card earlier this month," he said. "They will either sell it or cast my vote for a candidate they favor."
Ahmad added that the weakness of local authorities has prompted armed groups to publicly declare that they will control some voting sites on election day.
"I am not convinced that we will see transparent elections in our district," he said.
Afghans will head to 6775 polling stations across the country, according to the Afghan Independent Election Commission.
Ghor has 209 voting centers for its estimated 650,000 residents.
Abdullah, 35, a resident of Ghor's Shahrak district, has similar concerns. He told Radio Free Afghanistan of a renegade militia commander, Mullah Mustafa, who is forcing Shahrak residents to handover their voter registration cards. "Basically armed men loyal to Mullah Mustafa are collecting people’s voting cards by force to cast their ballots for their favorite candidates on the election date."
Mullah Mustafa controls more than 150 armed men and allegedly receives money and weapons from Iran and Ismail Khan, a former governor of neighboring Herat province. Khan, a former powerful warlord, is running as first vice president on the ticket of another former warlord, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.
Fazel Ahad, another warlord, is using the same tactics in Ghor's Dolaina district, as is Mullah Mahmoud in the Bara Khana district, residents say. Infighting between the two strongmen has killed and wounded many civilians in Ghor in recent years.
Ghor’s Police Chief, Delawar Shah Delawar, downplayed such complaints, telling Radio Free Afghanistan, "During elections, forces from the Afghan army, police, and intelligence as well as local and foreign observers will be present here."
To prevent violence and voter intimidation he said, "We will quarantine the ballot boxes, if we receive reports about vote-rigging or ballot-box stuffing."
Ghor’s governor Sayed Anwar Rahmati admitted that nearly 4,000 illegally armed men operate in his province, but he said they do not pose a threat to the elections.
Rahmati said that the regional Afghan military command headquartered in Herat has already sent forces to secure the polls, and that the interior ministry is expected to send additional personnel.
But Rahmati provided a different assessment of the province's security in an interview a few months ago.
"The [illegal armed bands] in fact are a serious problem," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "We will not send ballot boxes to areas where we are not sure about transparent polling. We prefer not to have elections at all in areas where strongmen would do ballot-box stuffing and where voters won't be able to freely exercise their votes."
Prospects of rigging add to public fears about the elections, which the Taliban have vowed to thwart, already staging attacks in Kabul and other parts of the country in recent weeks.
Ghor residents believe that some of the armed groups in their province are linked to the Taliban.
Manizha Behzad, a female civil society activist in Ghor, said that the future political stability of Afghanistan hinges on free and fair elections. "Afghanistan will plunge into a political and security crisis if the April 5 elections are not transparent," she said.
Allegations of widespread rigging during Afghanistan’s 2009 presidential elections pushed the country into a political crisis that was diffused only after high-level diplomacy by Western leaders.