(Kabul) - In the run-up to the October 9 presidential election in Afghanistan, warlord factions continue to threaten voters, candidates and political organizers, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. These human rights abuses are jeopardizing the integrity of the country’s first national election.
The 52-page report, “The Rule of the Gun: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in the Run-Up to Afghanistan’s Presidential Election,” documents how human rights abuses are fueling a pervasive atmosphere of repression and fear in many parts of the country. The report explains how voters in many areas of the country do not understand the ballot or have faith in its secrecy, and how they face threats and are offered bribes from militia factions.
One Afghan political organizer told Human Rights Watch that the militia factions said, “Why are you doing what you’re doing? Why do you oppose the mujahidin? Why are you writing articles calling us warlords? These articles are endangering your life.”
“The warlords are still calling the shots,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Many voters in rural areas say the militias have already told them how to vote, and that they’re afraid of disobeying them. Activists and political organizers who oppose the warlords fear for their lives.”
Human Rights Watch said that the election is of great historical and political importance to the presidential poll, the first national election in Afghanistan’s history. But it is concerned that the Afghan government and the international community have become complacent, confusing high numbers of registered voters with genuine political freedom.
The report discusses several flaws in the voter-registration process and the administration of the election itself, including the widespread multiple registration of voters. As noted in the report, it is likely that the number of registered voters cited by most Afghan and international officials—more than 10 million, including more than 4 million women—is inaccurate. (On October 4, Human Rights Watch will release a report on Afghanistan specifically focusing on women’s participation in the election and civil society in general.)
In the report released today, Human Rights Watch also discusses the failure of the international community and Afghan government to organize an adequate election-observation effort. As the report notes, most of the polling sites will not be adequately monitored. Because security remains a problem through most of the country, only a handful of properly trained and independent monitors will be deployed.
“Many abuses in the crucial pre-election period and on election day won’t even be discovered—because there won’t be anyone out there to report on them,” said Adams. “How can such an important election have such an anemic observation effort?”
Countries involved in Afghanistan, including NATO member states, should vastly increase their troop contributions to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), Human Rights Watch said. Moreover, the United States and its NATO allies should re-focus the mandate of international security forces toward disarming militias and protecting vulnerable political actors and groups.
“Afghan leaders and external powers such as the United States continue to underplay the dangers posed by warlord dominance,” said Adams. “For a long time there has been widespread agreement that elections cannot be successful unless additional international security forces are deployed and warlord militias are disarmed. If Afghanistan is a priority of the international community, where are the troops?”
The abuses documented in the report compound other problems Afghanistan is already facing from Taliban and other insurgent forces, who have launched attacks on the election process in the south and southeast of the country over the last year. These forces may cause further violence in the days leading to the election. However, voters and political organizers across Afghanistan told Human Rights Watch that abuses by local factions have posed the most significant threat to the political process.
“The reality is that most Afghans involved in politics on the ground are primarily afraid of warlords and their factions, much more than they’re afraid of the Taliban,” Adams said.
Human Rights Watch warned that if the international community does not take urgent steps to disarm the warlords and provide adequate security for average Afghans, serious human rights problems could disrupt next year’s local and parliamentary elections, which are likely to be much more contested than the presidential election.
“The signs are ominous,” said Adams. “Many candidates for next year’s elections are already facing threats, and may shelve their candidacies for fear of being killed. The Afghan government and its international allies have to act fast. What’s needed is a significantly increased international security force and U.N. human rights monitors.”