KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- The Taliban have escalated a campaign of threats and intimidation ahead of the presidential election next Thursday, warning voters in mosques and through leaflets and radio announcements not to vote, or face “strong punishment.”
A leaflet distributed in Kandahar says: Dear citizens, we are telling you people not to participate in the election, unless you fall prey to our operations. We are carrying out different sorts of tactics during the elections." It further warns, "Don't use your houses as election offices; if someone does he will face difficulties in the future."
One Taliban commander stood up in a mosque in the southern province of Zabul and warned people that the Taliban would cut off any finger stained with the indelible ink that marks voters, a witness said.
Until now, the insurgents have refrained from specific violence against the election process and have kept the government and international forces guessing about their real intentions.
But the intimidation campaign, which has just started in the last week or so, is an indication that the Taliban are switching gears and are intent on keeping people away from the polls to demonstrate their influence.
A successful election is critical to the efforts of the Afghan government, as well as of the Obama administration and its allies, to demonstrate that after seven years of war, progress is being made toward securing peace and stability in Afghanistan.
The Taliban campaign threatens to further erode the credibility of the election, which is already rife with problems like duplicate voter registration, raising questions of fraud. Here in the south, where the insurgency is strongest, the effort could also further alienate ethnic Pashtuns from the government if they feel their voices have not been heard in the balloting.
“Every day we hear the Taliban leaving threats in every mosque urging the people not to participate in the election or otherwise they will face danger,” said Haji Ahmad Shah Achakzai, a member of Parliament from Spinbaldak, a town on the southern border with Pakistan.
He said the Taliban had the upper hand in rural areas and it would be impossible to hold balloting there. The government controls only the district centers, and the rest is “Taliban land,” he said.
Mahmood Mirza, 35, a villager from the Kajaki district in the adjoining province of Helmand, said the Taliban had rigged up a radio station and were broadcasting to a radius of three to four miles from their base, warning people not to take part in the election or to support a government that they said was destroying their houses and bombing their people.
The Taliban say they have prepared 200 suicide bombers to attack polling stations on election day, Mr. Mirza said. “Now people are scared and won’t take part in elections,” he said. “I myself will not vote and will not leave my home on the day of elections.”
President Hamid Karzai spoke blithely of the Taliban threats in a speech in Kabul on Tuesday. “The election will pass peacefully,” he said. “The enemies of Afghanistan will try to create some chaos; you don’t bother about it,” he told his audience, adding that it was vital for Afghans to vote.
His main rival in the election, Abdullah Abdullah, held a campaign rally in Kandahar on Wednesday, making him one of the only candidates to visit the city, which is considered a high security risk. Mr. Karzai opened his campaign here in a tightly controlled event at a government guesthouse last month. Under tense security, Mr. Abdullah was met with cheers when he told a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered under a tent that he would bring peace to the region.