Afghanistan election marred by bloodshed and corruption: ‘I can’t see much hope for the future’

The elections come at a time of uncertainty for Afghanistan, with hopes of a peace deal emerging from long-running negotiations between the US and the Taliban now over, writes Kim Sengupta in his first dispatch from Kabul

Sunday 22 September 2019 14:32

The final days before Afghanistan’s presidential elections are being filled with rallies and speeches, but also with a grim foreboding of the carnage that has already claimed a lethal toll of those murdered and maimed.

The polls on 28 September come at a time of uncertainty in this fractured and turbulent land, with hopes of a peace deal emerging from long-running negotiations between the US and the Taliban now over.

US president Donald Trump announced he was suspending the talks after an American soldier was killed in a bombing – the fourth US casualty in two weeks. The Taliban responded by threatening to raise the tempo of attacks and a spate of deadly blasts has followed.

The scale of violence has been on an extraordinary level for some time, with an average of 74 people killed every day last month.

The strife has continued during September with a sustained campaign of suicide bombings, cars packed with explosives, mass shootings and assassinations, including an attack at a rally for Afghan president Ashraf Ghani.

Thirty-nine people died and 140 were injured last Wednesday when a truck bomb was detonated outside a hospital in the southern city of Qalat.

The victims were mainly doctors, nurses, patients and visiting families. The Taliban claimed responsibility, saying its target was an intelligence services office next door.

Another 30 people were killed in a US air strike in Khoygani district in Nangarhar province in the east.

Villagers and local Afghan officials said the dead were farmers working on a field of pine nuts in a densely forested area.

The American military initially stated that its drone had been targeting Isis fighters and efforts were ongoing to establish the identities of the victims.

A senior US official subsequently claimed Isis fighters were present after making a deal with villagers.

The official insisted that “they were IS fighters, but it appears that during the harvest festival season the locals cut deals with IS fighters to act as harvesters. We are working through it now with the officials.”

But Malik Rahat Gul, a clan elder, was adamant what had happened was obvious.

“These workers were sitting together around a bonfire when they were hit from the air with a bomb, they were just workers,” he said.

Afghan security forces work at the site of a suicide attack near the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, hours after a suicide bomb hit the president’s campaign rally.

The day before, suicide bombers killed 48 people in two separate blasts.

One was in Charakar, in Parwan, where President Ghani was holding a rally and is believed to have been the intended target. The Taliban claimed credit for the explosion, which killed 26, and also for a second blast in the centre of Kabul near an Afghan army base and the US Embassy, which claimed a further 22 lives.

According to United Nations figures, nearly 4,000 civilians have been killed or wounded in the first half of the year, with a sizeable increase in “collateral damage” caused by American-led foreign forces and the Afghan army and police.

For Afghans, who have faced decades of unending conflict, the future holds little to be optimistic about.

Mohammed Amir Gul’s brother-in-law Safi was seriously wounded in last week’s Kabul bombing. It was a hazard, he pointed out, faced by people every day.

“Safi was just in the area going to meet someone when this happened. He has injuries to his legs and back and had to have an operation. He won’t be able to work for a very long time and there would be no income for his wife and children. The rest of the family has to help out” said Mr Gul, an electrical engineer.

“My family and I will vote in the election, but we have heard the Taliban will target the (polling) stations as they have done in the past. It is a very great worry.”

His colleague Farzaad Rahman added: “My family will vote as well. We’ll vote but I just cannot see things getting better. We also know that there is fraud in elections here.

“So is it worth the risk with the bombings? Who knows? I can’t see much hope for the future, we thought the talks (in Doha, Qatar) would lead to something, but that isn’t going to happen now, so we just carry on.”

The Afghan government had been effectively excluded from the Doha negotiations between an American team, led by Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, and a Taliban delegation augmented by members of the organisation’s leadership from its headquarters in Pakistan.

Afghan as well as western officials had warned that the agreement envisaged by Mr Khalilzad, which would have led to the vast majority of American forces pulling out before next year’s US presidential election, gave far too many concessions to the Taliban without getting anything like enough in return.

Mr Ghani, who had been among the critics of the proposed deal, said after the bombings: “By continuing their crimes, the Taliban have once again proven that they have no will and desire for peace and stability in Afghanistan and that all their movements are nothing but deceit.”

The Afghan president also promised to take further steps to prevent civilian casualties following the drone strikes. He said he had already introduced several “checks and balances” to stop night raids and other, often US-planned, military operations, which put civilians at risk.

Mr Ghani faces an immediate crisis after the US, soon after finishing the Doha process, accused the Afghan government of abjectly failing to fight corruption and cut more than $160m (£128m) in direct funding.

Afghanistan attack: Car-bomb blast in Kabul claimed by Taliban kills 14 and wounds 145

“We stand against those who exploit their positions of power and influence to deprive the Afghan people of the benefits of foreign assistance and a more prosperous future,” said the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, in a damning statement.

“We expect the Afghan government to demonstrate a clear commitment to fight corruption, to serve the Afghan people, and maintain their trust. Afghan leaders who fail to meet this standard should be held accountable.”

Mr Ghani’s main rival at the polls, Abdullah Abdullah, has vowed to fight corruption. Yet critics have pointed to his time as chief executive officer in a power-sharing deal and demanded to know why graft continued then.

Mr Abdullah lost previous elections to Mr Ghani and Hamid Karzai, the country’s first president after the fall of Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime. Both the elections were mired in allegations of ballot rigging.

Mr Karzai, who has changed his views in the past about talking to the Taliban, maintains that the Doha talks should resume. “Taking note of the demands of all Afghans I call on the government of the United States to restart negotiations with the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan in an immediate move,” he said.

Walid Durani, a 20-year-old student, commented: “Karzai has said in the past that the Taliban can’t be trusted for a dialogue. Now he wants talks on a deal, which was not good for the Afghan people, to get attention. Maybe he is positioning himself for an attempt back in power if the elections end badly. One must be sceptical about what all the politicians are saying.

“The main aim of the Afghan people should be to avoid getting blown up between now and the end of the week when we vote,” declared Mr Durani.

Read the second part of the Conflict Without End series: Afghanistan families torn apart by deadly carnage​

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