There’s an eerie sense of calm to Kabul ahead of Saturday’s elections, as government security forces place the city under lockdown in an attempt to neutralize any Taliban attacks before they happen.
Afghanistan’s first round of presidential elections in April were surprisingly peaceful — at least within the Kabul security bubble — but the Taliban has publicly vowed to disrupt Saturday’s runoff, warning voters to stay away from polling stations. Rumours are swirling around the capital of Taliban assault teams already in place and armed with heavy weapons and magnetic bombs. In response, army, police, and intelligence service checkpoints have sprung up on every intersection in Kabul, choking the city’s already dense traffic into a packed stream of honking horns and eye watering exhaust fumes.
The Taliban threat is very real — only last week, the frontrunner presidential candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah narrowly survived a coordinated suicide bomb attack, which killed three of his staff and a number of bystanders, and reduced his armoured car to a shrapnel-peppered hunk of charred steel.
Since then, Abdullah’s electioneering has been restricted to his fortified Kabul compound, with streams of tribal elders and representatives of the country’s interest groups filing into his media center throughout the day to listen to near-identical speeches and announce their support for his presidential bid.
VICE News was granted a brief audience with Abdullah, in which he brushed aside the suggestion that the sudden jihadist blitzkrieg on Iraq heralded a glimpse of Afghanistan’s future after ISAF troops pull out.
“Those are very serious events,” Abdullah said, “[but] in Afghanistan the majority of the people have rejected the Talibanization of the country. They don’t have a place, and I am sure that with the legitimacy of the future government based on transparent elections, the state institutions will be strengthened.
"There are problems, there are challenges, but there are ways to deal with it.”
“I am not concerned about that scenario here in Afghanistan,” he added. “Security is a challenge for the country, and will be a challenge for the country, and support from the international community will be needed. There are problems, there are challenges, but there are ways to deal with it.”
Asked whether he saw a negotiated settlement between an Abdullah administration and the Taliban who’d just tried to assassinate him, he remarked that “the end result, the projection of the end of this conflict, of course there needs to be a negotiated settlement. When is it that it is possible to achieve it, that’s a different issue. That does not mean we should not take serious steps and genuine steps to pursue negotiations, but that does not take one side; it also takes the other side.
“So, on the Afghan side, I think genuine serious efforts for pursuing negotiations and offers should be made. At the same time, we should protect our own citizens, we should strengthen the security of the country and pursue the programs which is dealing with the priorities of the majority of the people, like governance, like the fight against corruption, rule of law, and delivering to the people the delivery of services.”
In practice, Afghanistan’s central government has a shaky hold at best on much of the country, severely limiting its ability to provide any of the above aspirations outside major urban centers. But Kabul, buoyed until recently by an economic boom derived from aid money, expats, and local corruption, and secured like a fortress by its heavy foreign and Afghan military presence, presents a vision of what a semi-stable future Afghanistan might look like.
A violence-free election will provide a major propaganda boost for the incoming government, and the security services have thrown vast resources at ensuring this outcome. In a bid to reassure the populace that polling day will take place smoothly, Kabul’s police chief summoned dozens of journalists on a tour of the city. Dozens of cameramen were crammed into police pickup trucks, which careered around the congested streets in a long convoy of blaring sirens and shakily held camcorders, producing choking clouds of dust and the bewilderment of passers-by.
The convoy halted at one of the city’s Quick Reaction Force bases, where ranks of elite police — destined to be the first response to any insurgent attacks — stood formed in ranks beneath the fierce sun. At a shouted command, the QRF troopers ran to their vehicles and drove around the compound in slow circles for the benefit of the cameras, in an underwhelming display of heightened preparation.
Away from the cameras, the real work of counterinsurgency policing is taking place in the city’s densely-packed warren of private homes and businesses, as secret police monitor suspected Taliban operatives and commando units raid homes looking for concealed weapons.
Whether the city will escape major violence is the biggest question of the whole election. The government is keen to spread the message that security is under control, but Kabul’s vast NGO community has already voted with its feet: the majority of expats have already left for the certain calm of Dubai, just in case.
Follow Aris Roussinos on Twitter: @arisroussinos