Afghan voters torn between fear, frustration, sense of duty

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Torn between fear, frustration and a sense of duty, Ahmad is undecided about defying Taliban warnings not to vote in this weekend's Afghan presidential election.

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He has good reason to think twice: His index finger was chopped off by Taliban members after he voted in the presidential election five years ago.

The Taliban have relentlessly issued threats against Saturday's vote. The insurgent group has sent suicide bombers to rallies and election offices, killing dozens and warning they will kill more.

"I know for the love of my country I should vote, but I look at the candidates and I think none of them are worth the risk," he said.

Ahmad asked that his family name and other details about his identity not be published for fear of retaliation by Taliban insurgents, who have greater control in his district than the government of President Ashraf Ghani, one of two front-runners in the race.

Afghan officials say security preparations have been elaborate. In an interview with The Associated Press, Minister of interior Masoud Andarabi outlined an election security plan that he said has been more than eight months in the making.

Outside each of the 4,942 polling centers across the country, three distinct cordons of security will be set up. The first two security rings closest to each polling center will be manned by police and intelligence officers. Afghan National Army personnel will be deployed to the third and most distant cordon.

"For the first time eight months ago, we started planning for the Afghan elections (and) for the first time the Afghan security forces were leading and initiating the planning," he said.

Still, Ahmad can't help but vividly recall his experience after the 2014 election. He was driving down a lonely stretch of road in western Herat province when Taliban insurgents stopped his car. They were looking for people who had voted. They were easy to identify with their blue-inked fingers, a mark given each voter to ensure they don't vote twice. The Taliban blindfolded him and whisked him away on a motorcycle.

Taken to a village under Taliban control, Ahmad was kept in a room and blindfolded. He could hear others arrive.

A construction worker at the time, Ahmad believed he would be killed because he was working on a government project and had seen videos of Taliban beheading Afghans who worked for the government. "I thought I was going to lose my head," he said.

The next morning, Ahmad and 11 others were taken before a four-member panel and told they would lose the part of their finger covered in ink as punishment for voting. "I was so relieved I wasn't going to lose my head I said: 'Go ahead.'" Taliban members administered anesthetic before chopping off his finger, he said.

Now, the Taliban are again warning voters to stay away from the polls.

On Thursday, the insurgents urged Afghans to boycott elections. They warned they would attack security personnel guarding the thousands of polling centers across the country, close roads and take particular aim at polling stations in Afghan cities.

"We ask fellow countrymen to refrain from venturing out of their homes on this day so that may Allah forbid, no one is harmed," the statement said.

Despite the government's best efforts, 431 polling centers will be closed Saturday because Andarabi, the interior minister, said they were too difficult to secure — either because they were under Taliban control or Taliban could threaten nearby villages.

In conservative Afghanistan, men and women vote separately, and that means thousands of women police will be deployed to search the women coming to vote.

Zargona, 36, who goes by one name, will deploy to one of many schools in the capital being used as polling centers. She said she isn't afraid of the Taliban.

"I am a trained police officer and am here to protect my people," she said.

But many Afghans are having second thoughts about heading to the polls. They are rattled by an increasing lack of security that some say is caused as much by criminal gangs as insurgents. And they are frustrated by rampant corruption in the government.

Nur Aga, who owns a gas station within sight of Kabul's Qasi Stadium, where Taliban once cut off the hands of thieves and publicly executed convicted murderers, says he won't vote. "I won't risk my life for any of the candidates on the ballot," he said.

Sitting on a tea-stained carpet on the broken cement stoop near his gas pumps, Aga said he voted in 2014. But in the five years since then, the security situation has worsened, poverty has deepened and Aga said high school and even university graduates come regularly looking for work pumping gas. "They will take any job," he said.

Nearby, a police commander, who doesn't want to give his name because he is not allowed to talk to the media without permission from the Interior Ministry, said although security plans are in place, there aren't enough police. The Taliban are increasingly stronger and armed supporters of the many candidates can perpetrate fraud even with police at the polling centers, he said.

"From the Taliban, from fraud, suicide attacks, jihadi leaders. I worry about all of these. No one can guarantee anything," he said.

At a traditional restaurant with low-lying tables, Kabul resident Rajab Qorbani said attacks have become so frequent that just leaving home can be deadly.

"One moment we can be just sitting here and in the next moment we could all be dead," he said, pointing to the street and the many cars that could hide a suicide bomber. "Who knows what will happen on polling day."

Several people in the restaurant, most of them ethnic Hazaras, had lost family members to violent attacks. Most Hazaras are also minority Shiite Muslims, who are targeted by an affiliate of the Islamic State group operating in Afghanistan.

Just days before last October's parliamentary polls, a bomb ripped through a voter registration office nearby, causing multiple fatalities. Mohammad Naderi lost three members of his family in that attack. "No, I won't vote," he said, adding it wasn't fear alone keeping him away from the voting center.

"I haven't found an honest person to give my vote to. Why would I risk my life?" he asked.

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Associated Press writer Tameem Akhgar contributed to this report.

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