Afghanistan goes to the polls today amid fears that the outcome will be distorted by low turnout caused by violence and intimidation. After eight years of war, the landmark presidential poll could redefine Britain's military mission there, but the Taliban have already shown that they are still in control of huge swathes of countryside.
Large numbers of voters in the southern Pashtun belt, which holds the key to the result in what looks increasingly like a tight race, may fail to turn out to vote because of Taliban threats.
Islamist insurgents, who have vowed to disrupt the ballot, blocked the roads in and out of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province yesterday in a show of strength.
Despite a massive British operation just outside the city, traffic in and out was down by more than 80 per cent as word of roadblocks and explosives kept people in their homes.
Travellers reaching Lashkar Gah from the south had "permission slips" signed by insurgent commanders, to let them through a series of impromptu checkpoints.
Rahmatullah, 43, said: "The Taliban told everyone, all the traffic, all the cars: 'You are not allowed to leave Marja'. They said: 'If you go to Lashkar Gah you will vote in the elections. We won't let you.'"
The Afghan capital Kabul came under attack again yesterday, following Tuesday's suicide bombing . In the latest assault three gunmen stormed a bank and engaged in a protracted firefight with police. The Taliban also warned that 20 suicide bombers had infiltrated the capital and were preparing attacks.
The intimidation in the south is bad news for President Hamid Karzai who is relying on votes from ethnic Pashtuns to win a second term. According to the latest set of opinion polls, he is on track for around 45 per cent of the vote. But he will need his Pashtun constituency to bring him up to 50 per cent for an outright victory. Failure to do so would mean an attritional second round battle with huge security implications.
The Helmand provincial governor, Gulal Mangal, yesterday said he hoped 75 per cent of the province's 800,000 people would vote. But privately, his staff were more realistic. "We'll be lucky if we get 200,000," said a senior official.
The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, yesterday urged a vote in which all eligible Afghans would be able to take part. However, the danger of staging an election in a country at war was underlined by the announcement that its largest vote monitoring mission will not be coming to Nad-e-Ali, the most populated area in Helmand as it will be too dangerous.
Habibullah Khan, the district governor at Nad-e-Ali, admitted that most people in his district will not turn up to vote. "They are scared. The Taliban tell them they will cut off their heads, or their hands if they vote, and people do not want to take the risk," he said, sitting in his office in front of a Dushka machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
"The Taliban have been warning people not to travel; not to go to work; not to open their shops on election day. They have laid mines on roads, they have threatened people and unfortunately this is likely to work."
Afghanistan's independent election commission had planned to open 222 polling stations in Helmand. This has been revised down to 107.
Observers fear the election result will almost certainly also lead to recriminations over rampant fraud. There have been repeated tales of bogus voter registrations, blank ballot papers being sold in the bazaars, and tribal leaders being bribed to deliver block votes.
A failure to hire anything like enough female election officers also means that vast numbers of women will not be able to vote.
Abdullah Abdullah, the President's leading challenger, has warned that any evidence of vote-rigging in favour of President Karzai will lead to Iran-style public protest. "If we find that there has been rigging we shall have something similar to what happened in Iran, but here it will be much more serious", said Mr Abdullah's running mate, Hukamyun Shah Asifi.
Mohammed Yaqub insisted he will be going to the polls despite the threats. "I will vote, and I will vote for Karzai because he has been president for five years and he has the experience," he said. "But I do know that a lot of my family members and neighbours will be staying away. They want to vote, but they are afraid."
The pressure is in evidence across the south. In Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban, leaflets have been distributed in the name of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan," declaring vengeance against those who vote.
In Kajaki, where British troops are helping on a project which will provide electricity, the Taliban has set up a radio station which broadcasts repeated warnings against voting. In Zabul insurgent commanders have commandeered mosques to threaten dire consequences for the election process.
Mahmood Mirza, a 35-year-old farm labourer from Kajaki, said "The Taliban say they have prepared 200 suicide bombers to attack polling stations on election day. Now people are scared and they won't take part in this. I will not vote and I will not leave my home on the day of the elections."
Two men, however, insisted they were extremely keen to play their part in the electoral process. Niamtullah Khan, 28, said: "I would vote for Karzai because I think he is a strong leader. I am not worried about these threats." His companion, Safi Iqlas, added: "I would vote the way my community elders tell me to do. But yes, I will definitely vote."
Neither man will be allowed to vote, however, as they are inmates of Nad-e-Ali jail. The pair were captured by British troops three days ago as Taliban suspects. The jail is being used as a polling station.
The tent man and other lesser-known candidates
He lives on a frugal diet to show solidarity with the poorer ranks of Afghan society, eschewing meat and soft drinks. He has no armed bodyguards, no spin machine and uses a tent as his political office.
Ramazan Bashardost is certainly not your typical Afghan presidential candidate, but the 48-year-old could find himself a kingmaker if today's election fails to deliver a decisive result and a run-off is needed. Opinion polls put Mr Bashardost, who resigned from Hamid Karzai's government and is running on an anti-corruption platform, in third place with 10 per cent of the vote.
Following the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Mr Bashardost, an ethnic Hazara, returned to Afghanistan from France, where he had been studying. He served briefly as planning minister in Mr Karzai's first administration and was critical of the role played by foreign non-governmental organisations, saying their staff salaries were draining money that should have gone to the Afghan people.
The three best-known candidates outside Afghanistan are of course the incumbent president, Mr Karzai, who was polling at 44 per cent; the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah (26 per cent); and World Bank technocrat Ashraf Ghani (6 per cent).
But there are 31 names on the ballot paper in today's poll. These include Muhammad Rahmani, a retired air force colonel, who now works as a caretaker and has been campaigning by bicycle around Kabul and whose former military pals have clubbed together to get campaign photos done.
There are only two women bidding to lead their country, one of of whom is Frozan Fana. The 40-year-old orthopedic surgeon is running in memory of her husband, Abdul Rahman, who was murdered in 2002 when he was minister for civil aviation in Mr Karzai's first cabinet.
The Afghan vote in numbers
15 million Afghans have registered to vote in today's election at 7,000 polling stations but the Taliban have vowed to disrupt the vote.
$220 million How much donors have given to help the Afghan Independent Election Commission organise the ballot.
100,000 Number of Western forces in country, including 63,000 Americans and 9,000 Brits. They, and 90,000 Afghan soldiers, will provide security.
44 per cent The proportion of Afghans intending to vote for Hamid Karzai, according to the latest opinion poll.
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