Terror threat could mar Afghan polls

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MAIDAN SHAHR, Afghanistan -- As Afghans head out to vote for their next president today, violence is expected to be intense and widespread. But the risks won't be dispersed evenly.

Just a short drive from Kabul, close enough for a daily commute, hundreds of thousands of potential voters will have to face down the Taliban if they go to the polls. Many have already decided that the danger is too great.

On Thursday, Hiran Gharat was on his way home from the sprawling capital, with its sea of campaign billboards, to Ghazni province -- a trip that took him from Afghanistan's most fortified city to one of its most vulnerable villages.

Behind him, in Kabul, thousands of police officers have been stationed to secure the presidential election. But 90 miles to the south, where he and his friends were headed, voters will be afforded no such protection.

"If we vote, the Taliban will cut our fingers off," said Mr. Gharat, 20, a student at Kabul University, speaking at this city along the route. "They will see us leave our homes, and they will track us down."

Mr. Gharat is one of many Afghans who move daily between the nucleus of the country's security infrastructure and its rural periphery. The rift between those two worlds has rarely been wider as Kabul residents prepare for a day at the polls and people elsewhere prepare to hunker down.

"Ninety percent of the people in my district will not vote," said Abdul Karim, also a student in Kabul, who lives in rural Wardak province. "It's too dangerous and not worth it."

The winner of the election, which is being contested by 11 candidates, will succeed Hamid Karzai, who has been president for 12 years, in the first democratic handover of power in the country's history.

In preparation for the historic vote, Afghan forces closed the roads between Kabul and the surrounding districts Thursday, an effort to insulate the capital from insurgent strongholds.

"This is the road the Taliban wants to use," said Col. Zalmay Mangal, the police commander charged with blocking the main highways, indicating the road connecting the capital and Ghazni.

U.S. forces have largely withdrawn from the volatile districts outside Kabul. While Afghan troops and police have filled the gap in many places, Taliban fighters exercise influence in dozens of villages, and undermining the legitimacy of the vote has become their top priority.

If Taliban intimidation succeeds, it will raise questions about the election's fairness and representativeness, particularly in restive southern and eastern communities where ethnic Pashtuns predominate.

On the day of Afghanistan's most recent presidential election, Aug. 20, 2009, the Taliban stepped up attacks across the country. More than 400 attacks were recorded by the NATO coalition, one of the most violent days of the war. At least 31 people died, more than half of them police officers.

The Taliban violence kept many voters home. After more than a million fraudulent votes were thrown out, election observers calculated that about 4.5 million people had voted out of more than 15 million registered -- about half as many as had gone to the polls in 2004. About 700 polling sites didn't open.

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