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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Afghans Face Ongoing Security Challenges As Elections Approach

Afghanistan is inching closer to holding presidential elections next spring. The candidate registration process is underway and Afghans are watching to see who will throw their names in the ring.

However Afghans appear to be more consumed with their concerns about the ongoing security challenges across the country, as the Taliban continue to stage high-profile attacks.

NPR’s Kabul Correspondent Sean Carberry joins Here & Now to discuss the latest in Afghanistan.





Afghanistan is inching closer to holding presidential elections next spring. The candidate registration process is under way, Afghans watching with varying degrees of fascination to see whose names will be thrown in the ring; although most appear to be more consumed with concerns about security, as the Taliban continue to stage high-profile attacks. NPR's Kabul correspondent Sean Carberry is making a rare visit home. He joins us in the studio. Sean, welcome back.


YOUNG: Good to see you. President Karzai, appointed in 2001, he won subsequent elections. We'll talk more about the sense of how well those elections went. But he's now stepping down because of term limits. Candidates registering, what's the process?

CARBERRY: Well, at this point about three dozen candidates have picked up registration packages, which have the information about what they need to do, which includes registering 100,000 signatures from at least 20 of the country's 34 provinces. They have to deposit a million afghanis, which is roughly about $18,000. They have to meet, of course, the criteria, which is you have to be Muslim, an Afghan national and at least 40 years old. So no one has officially registered yet.

YOUNG: A couple of questions: 100,000 signatures and $18,000, do those sound like high bars for Afghanistan?

CARBERRY: There's concern that they are high bars, but one of the issues was they wanted to have some type of system to narrow the field. And there isn't a formal primary process in Afghanistan, and you don't have a very strong party structure either. So there are various parties and coalitions that are going to put forward candidates, but this was viewed as some way to try to weed things down to get to a serious group of candidates who are, you know, likely to follow through and run.

YOUNG: And who are they?

CARBERRY: Well, it sort of depends who you ask right now. There's been a season of speculation going on with lots of namedropping. There are certain ones that seem very likely. For example, Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul has been mentioned. Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner-up in the last election, is considered a likely candidate. Then you've got Fawzia Koofi, one of the leading female parliamentarians, is considered a candidate.

YOUNG: I was going to ask if there's an opportunity - if there's a possibility of a female presidential candidate.

CARBERRY: Possibility of a candidate, definitely. Most people consider her a long shot for, you know, a variety of reasons, but would be interesting to see if she does actually officially run. Qayum Karzai, one of the president's brothers, is considered a likely candidate. Lots of names, but most people feel they're going to have to weed it down to two or three, you know, a Karzai-backed candidate and then an opposition candidate.

YOUNG: Any chance a Taliban representative would come forward and say, I'm going to run for president?

CARBERRY: Well, you know, President Karzai has opened the door for that. He has called on the Taliban to participate in the elections, to participate in the political process. They have been saying outright for the last few months that they are boycotting this election. They still consider the government and the political process to be run by the U.S., and they want nothing to do with it. They've been telling people to boycott. And the big concern is about how violent they're going to get in attempts to try to block the election.

YOUNG: Well, so Karzai, appointed in 2001. We remember the images in 2004 of Afghans streaming to vote, getting those little purple marks on their fingers when they voted. And then 2009, criticism about security and other issues around that election. So what's the sense about the April 5th elections, whether or not they'll be fair and safe?

CARBERRY: Well, many of the same concerns still exist, concerns about fraudulent voter registration cards, people registering multiple times. Those concerns exist. They do have an independent election commission and a complaints commission. There were concerns those would be eliminated, but the international community is fairly happy with what they're seeing on a technical level.

The big concern is security, because if there's a lot of violence in the Pashtun areas of the country and they're disenfranchised because of that, that could undermine the results of the election and, you know, cause people to contest what comes out of it. So security is going to be the big lynchpin to this thing coming off and being viewed as a legitimate election.

YOUNG: Well, what is your sense, living there among Afghans, of whether or not they're looking forward to this election? You've got so much going on. You've got the drawdown of U.S. troops. You've got an escalation of violence and questions about whether or not Afghan security forces can handle the takeover. You're nodding. Are people then saying and I'm so excited about the elections? What's the feeling?

CARBERRY: People are hopeful, but they're also pretty realistic. They've seen the track record. They think the last election - again, there was a lot of fraud. There was a lot of violence. They hope to see a change. When you ask people, they say, yes, we hope someone new will come in, someone who won't be corrupt, someone who will move things forward.

But at the same time, they feel like it's going to be whoever Karzai wants or whoever the power brokers want to take over. They don't feel that this is, you know, a true democratic process. And they have significant concerns after this summer fighting season where the Taliban really took it to the Afghan forces, who were in the lead for the first time, high levels of violence, high levels of casualties among Afghan forces.

They didn't really lose any ground. It's been kind of an ongoing standoff. But it's certainly raising concerns among Afghan people about whether their forces are going to be able to maintain control as the international troops leave.

YOUNG: In fact, we have a little bit of sound when you visited Helmand Province, where the Afghan forces are being trained in sort of taking over some of the operations there, and you visited with U.S. Marines - to begin. Let's listen to a little of your report.


LT. COL. JONATHAN LONEY: Trying to see where all our good coffee is.

CARBERRY: It's 8 a.m. at Forward Operating Base Nolay, a small Marine outpost in the Taliban-infested Sangin District of Helmand. The Marines here are in the process of caffeinating and preparing for the day. Suddenly, explosions and gunfire ring out. The Marines don't run for their weapons or bunkers for that matter. They don't even flinch.

LONEY: We can sit here and we can have a cup of coffee when there's booms going on. We're not concerned about it.

CARBERRY: That's Lt. Col. James Loney, and he said they're not concerned because it's not their fight, at this point. The Marines in Helmand, where some of the most intense fighting went on, are not out doing combat operations. They've transitioned. They're training and overseeing the Afghan forces and really working on some of their weak points, which are issues of logistics, maintenance, supplies, organization, the things that make an army sustainable.

And that's - the big concern right now is the fact that Afghan army, they can fight. They still need improvements there. But in terms of their ability to sustain themselves as a living organization, they need years of training and support to be able to do that.

YOUNG: Well, a thumbnail then from Sean Carberry, NPR's correspondent in Kabul, here stateside. When you head back, so what is the first thing you're going to be looking for?

CARBERRY: Well, I'm going to be looking to see if anyone has actually registered yet and to see who is serious about running for president and how people are moving behind the scenes to position behind the different candidates. You know, the political season there is watching the maneuvering of different factions and who's going to be the Karzai candidate and who's going to be the opposition candidate.

YOUNG: And we will be watching along with you. Sean, thanks so much.

CARBERRY: You're welcome, Robin.

YOUNG: A dangerous job, both president and yours. Stay safe. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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