Afghanistan election violence fears lead UN to evacuate third of staff
The Guardian
By Jon Boone in Kabul

The UN has evacuated about a third of its permanent international workforce from Afghanistan amid fears that this weekend’s parliamentary elections will be marred by violence and fraud.

The exodus of roughly 300 staff deemed non-essential to preparations for Saturday’s poll is ongoing, with most staff expected to remain out of the country for a week.

Those who stay behind will be under draconian security restrictions, including bans on movement around Kabul.

The decision highlights the risks to international organisations involved in the election, nearly all of whom have scaled back their efforts to monitor voting compared with their presence during the August 2009 presidential election, which was wrecked by electoral fraud.

Safety concerns are especially acute at the UN after five staff were killed when a guesthouse accommodating election workers in Kabul was attacked following the first round of voting in last year’s election.

“It would be naive not to take these precautions as we are a target,” said Staffan de Mistura, the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan.

“We are going to be particularly careful as the Taliban have announced they will attack anyone involved in this election and we are very much involved.”

Mistura said the organisation expected an increase in violence surrounding the election but denied that the departure of 300 staff constituted an evacuation.

“Many of them were already due to go on holiday while others were told to take their holidays now,” said Mistura.

The “reduction of the footprint” of permanent staff has also created space for some 171 election specialists who have come into the country to help the UN, he said.

Already this has been Afghanistan’s most violent election campaign according to Nader Nadery, the chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation Afghanistan (FEFA).

The organisation has recorded details of more than 240 security incidents in the last two months, including various attacks on politicians, such as the five volunteers campaigning for a female candidate in Herat province who were murdered by the Taliban.

Tensions have been further raised by Afghan outrage over the unfulfilled threat by a pastor in Florida to burn Qur’ans last weekend.

In clashes in Kabul today between police, and protesters chanting “death to America”, at least one protester killed and five others injured.

The main international monitoring groups have drastically reduced their efforts, with some organisations abandoning attempts to mount full “observation” missions, opting instead for less thorough “assessments”, which will probably lead to only a muted condemnation of any fraud.

Nearly all groups are cutting the number of foreign electoral experts and housing those that do come in Kabul or other relatively safe areas of the country.

The International Republican Institute, a US democracy group with a long-term presence in the country, has cut its foreign observers by around half to just five while increasing the number of Afghan observers from 40 to 160.

In the last week Singapore-based Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) has already repatriated more than half of its observers because of difficulties finding a security company prepared to provide armed guard to election monitors who need to be able to roam around polling stations.

Charles Supriedi, the ANFREL mission director, said that a recent presidential ruling restricting armed private guards has forced the group to slash its foreign observers from 74 to 30, who will deploy to 11 provinces rather than the originally planned 21.

The most dramatic contraction is that of the EU, which last year fielded a 120-strong observation team and got into a furious row with the government over fraud. This year it has just seven experts taking part in an assessment mission.

Most of the burden for monitoring the election will fall to FEFA, which is fielding some 7,000 Afghan volunteers.

However, Nadery said the organisation would only attempt to cover 65% of the country’s 5,897 polling stations.

He warned that the absence of foreign observers would make the work of his volunteers more dangerous.

“The added value of international observers is that as well as providing technical support we do not have to stand alone if anybody wants to put pressure on us or threaten our work,” he said.

The sharp reduction in foreign observers comes at time of growing anxiety that electoral fraud could match the extraordinary levels of corruption that surrounded last year’s presidential poll where at least 1.2 million votes were illegal.

Some efforts have been made to strengthen the Independent Election Commission, the body that oversaw last year’s fiasco, and to introduce anti-fraud measures, the most striking of which was the decision to not open almost 900 polling stations in the most insecure areas where effective oversight is impossible.

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