by JASON REICH
The Afghan general elections are only hours away and the tension here in Wardak is on par with the soaring temperatures. In the past 24 hours, the almost daily rocket attacks have stopped, and the roads have been suspiciously clear of IEDs. These roads are free of traffic anyways, as the people here seem to be holding their collective breath, waiting for the 20th, and the elections, to arrive.
Yesterday, I sat in on a meeting between all of the forces responsible for securing the numerous polling stations here in the Nerkh district. The coalition has been insistent that it will play “no overt role” in the security of the polling stations, in order to remove any shred of a doubt that they are influencing the elections — so Afghan troops will be the only forces on site during the elections.
On the other hand, the organization and distribution of forces is still entirely American-led. At the district governor’s office sat the head of the Afghan National Army battalion, the chief of police and the district head of the National Directorate of Security, all ranked colonel or higher. From the coalition, there was a French captain and 25-year-old 1st Lieutenant Colin Riker, from Bravo Company 2/87 Infantry. Riker was the one really running the show. The reverse-hierarchy in this meeting is not uncommon in Afghanistan, where, despite all of its efforts to prove otherwise, the coalition still supersedes Afghan forces in nearly every command decision.
This puts a lot on Riker’s shoulders. He was promised dozens of new Afghan police recruits to help man the more distant polling stations in the district, but they are nowhere to be found. The only forces he does have in abundance, volunteer militiamen from the Afghan Public Protection Force, will likely “leave their posts after an hour or two, especially if there is fighting,” Riker said. According to the local ANA commander, there are certain polling stations, mostly out west, that are in villages completely controlled by the Taliban. “Not even 100 soldiers” would be enough to secure them.
“The decision to place extra polling stations in the more Taliban-friendly villages is a huge gamble for the Afghan government. They are betting on us to be able to secure them,” Riker said. The alternative — fewer polling stations located in safer areas — creates a different problem: traffic on the roads, which can easily be disrupted with IEDs, real or fake. The calculus behind securing dangerous polling stations instead of securing dangerous roads makes sense, at least in this part of the country, Riker said. “The Taliban know that their best weapon is the IED, so we are shifting the battle away from the roads and towards the polling stations. While it makes sense to have these extra polling stations to try to encourage voting, it’s essentially for naught because nobody will dare use them.”
Another tactic the Taliban uses a lot here in Wardak is intimidation. A new directive from the Taliban leadership warns that “any finger found with ink [from the polling stations] on it will be removed.” To counter this threat, Riker suggested that the polling stations should be supplied with alcohol swabs so that voters can remove the ink from their fingers after they leave the polls. When I mentioned to him that the purpose of the ink was to ensure that people don’t vote twice, he said, “I don’t care if they vote once, twice or ten times — I just need to demonstrate that voters in our district are safe.”
Convincing the locals here in Nerkh to get out and vote is going to be an uphill battle. This morning, the local Afghan contractors who work at the Combat Outpost refused to leave until after the elections. “There are new people coming into my village everyday — they are foreign fighters,” one contractor told me. “They will kill people for simply voting. Imagine what they would do to me if they knew I worked on an American base.”
(Photo: Jason Reich)
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