By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On May 11, 2018, at least four unidentified militants were killed and another four persons, including two personnel of the ‘public uprising force’ and two militants, were injured when militants attacked a voter-registration center in the Kamarab region of Firoz Koh City (District), the capital of the Ghor Province. The first ‘public uprising force’ was reportedly formed way in 2013, when a number of people in the Andar District of Ghazni took up arms against the Taliban. Since then, according to varying media reports, activities of such ‘forces’ have been reported from at least 17 out of the 34 provinces in the country, though the total number and strength of such ‘forces’ is not known. Confirming that such ‘forces’ had the support of the Government, Second Vice President of the National Unity Government Mohammad Sarwar Danish, had stated, in August 2017, “The Afghan Government welcomes and supports the public uprising forces. We urge our people, especially the youth of every region not to just be witnesses but to cooperate with the national army and police forces and to stand with the public uprising forces (against the insurgents).”
On May 8, 2018, six Policemen and three militants were killed and six Policemen and another three militants injured, when militants attacked a voter-registration center in the Laman Region of Qala-e-Naw District of Badghis Province.
On May 6, 2018, at least 17 civilians were killed and 34 were injured in an explosion that targeted a mosque where people had gathered to obtain voter cards in the Yaqoobi area in Khost City (District), the capital of Khost Province.
These incidents were among a series of attacks deliberately targeting election-related facilities since the commencement of the voter-registration process on April 14, 2018, for the Parliamentary and District Council elections scheduled for October 20, 2018. On May 10, 2018, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in a report titled ‘Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: Election-Related Attacks and Abuses during the Initial Voter Registration Period’ stated,
Since voter registration for the upcoming parliamentary elections began on 14 April, UNAMA has verified 23 election-related security incidents resulting in 271 civilian casualties (86 deaths and 185 injured), the majority of whom were women and children, and the abduction of 26 civilians. The vast majority of civilian casualties occurred on 22 April 2018, when a suicide attacker detonated his improvised explosive device (IED) amongst a crowd outside a national identity card (tazkira) distribution centre in Kabul city, resulting in 198 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 138 injured). Of concern, approximately 75 per cent, or 17 of the 23 election-related security incidents, occurred at schools  or mosques  used for election-related purposes. Two incidents at schools concerned the abduction of six civilians, one involved setting fire inside a school, one involved an IED [improvised explosion device] detonated in a school, and one IED detonated at a mosque, while the remaining incidents at schools and mosques involved threats, intimidation and harassment.
The date till which incidents were covered in the report was not specified.
Partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM) identifies at least 10 election-related incidents of violence across Afghanistan after voter-registration began (data till May 13, 2018). These incidents resulted in 111 deaths [94 civilians, eight security force (SF) personnel, and nine militants] and 194 injured. As mentioned above in the UNAMA report, the April 22, 2018, Kabul attack was the worst such incident. The Islamic State or Daesh claimed responsibility for the Kabul attack.
Tadamichi Yamamoto, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Head of the UNAMA since June 2016, thus observed, in the aftermath of the Kabul attack,
Compounding the callous disregard for the lives of civilians, the killing appears to be part of a wholly unacceptable effort by extremists to deter Afghan citizens from carrying out their constitutional right to take part in elections.
Indeed, the adverse impact of these incidents has already been noticed. On May 11, 2018, civilians protested against shutting down of 77 polling stations due to the security threat, depriving more than 300,000 people of their right to vote in nine Districts of Paktika Province. Melma Civil Society and Media Organization Head Yaqub Khan Manzor disclosed that closing the 77 polling stations in the nine districts was a joint decision of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan and the military.
Significantly, on April 1, 2018, IEC of Afghanistan Chairman Abdul Badi Sayat had confirmed that the long-delayed Afghan Parliamentary and District Council elections would be held on October 20. Afghanistan has, so far, held two Parliamentary elections since the end of Taliban rule, the first in 2005 and the second in 2010. The third election – which was due in April-May 2015, as the five-year term of the present Parliament was set to expire on June 22, 2015 – could not be held. The elections were repeatedly postponed thereafter, both because of security fears as well as disagreements on how to ensure a fair vote after the bitterly contested Presidential Election of 2014. In the meantime, President Ashraf Ghani extended the Parliament’s mandate until a vote could be held, through a decree issued on June 19, 2015. The current Parliament is operating under this decree. District Council Elections have not been held since Taliban rule ended, despite being mandated in the 2004 Constitution.
According to UNAMA’s 2014 Mid-Year report, at least 242 violent incidents targeting the 2014 Presidential Elections, had resulting in 380 civilian casualties (74 killed and 306 injured). In fact, civilian casualties, which had remained in four digits till 2013, entered five digits in 2014 for the first time since 2009, when UNAMA started documenting casualties. Since then, casualties have remained in five digits. There were 10,453 casualties (3,438 deaths and 7,015 injured) in 2017. As of March 30, 2018, such casualties had already reached 2,258 (763 deaths and 1,495 injured). Despite this, the new date of the election has been announced, reportedly because President Ashraf Ghani’s credibility was on the line with both Afghan voters and increasingly impatient international partners.
Meanwhile, internal discord within the Government, which has existed since the time of its formation in 2014, has become prominent once again. On May 3, 2018, Abdullah Abdullah, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Government of Afghanistan, vehemently opposing the launch of the electronic-National Identity Cards (e-NIC) distribution by President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and declared that “all the national processes which are not being consulted within the National Unity Government (NUG) and with the people of Afghanistan are not legitimate and I will not be part of those processes.” Abdullah also warned that the distribution process of e-NIC will unfortunately divide people further and add further to problems. Earlier, in the day, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had inaugurated the distribution of e-NIC, hailing it as an important step toward securing national elections. A day later, the Jamaat-e-Islami party, a prominent coalition partner in the Government, also criticized the move, arguing that it was not appropriate to launch the distribution of e-NIC as there are pending controversies in its contents, specifically the nationality of identity card holders.
According to reports, the main point of contention has been the use of the word “Afghan” on the cards to refer to all Afghan citizens. The word was historically synonymous with Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group. Other groups, especially the Tajiks, who are the second largest ethnic group, have objected that using “Afghan” would politically benefit the Pashtuns.
A relatively peaceful conduct of the scheduled Parliamentary and District Council elections is essential for Afghanistan, as indefinite delay in the democratic process can only add to the country’s present misery in the country. However, the challenges of holding this massive electoral exercise within circumstances of enveloping violence across wide areas of the country remain overwhelming.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management