Despite joy over vote in Afghan district, reports of fraud

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ANDAR, Afghanistan -- The turbulent Andar district has been caught in one kind of crossfire or another for years: between U.S. forces and insurgent leaders, between warring militant factions, between those hostile to the national government and those courting it.

Over the past year, it has become clearly divided. One side is controlled by the government, which found a foothold in the district after an anti-Taliban uprising began in 2012; the other is still ruled by the Taliban, which operates openly.

On Election Day, April 5, votes were cast in high numbers throughout Andar. Government officials hailed the news as a triumph for Afghan democracy in a place where only three valid votes were recorded across the entire district in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

To a degree, that judgment was justified. Many residents in this remote corner of Ghazni province said they felt marginalized in the last election and were determined to see their votes count this time.

"People outside of Afghanistan may think that Afghans don't know how important a vote is," said Khial Hussaini, a former member of parliament from Andar. "But this time we proved that we know the importance of democracy."

But as always in Andar, there is another side. A review by The New York Times found that polling centers in more than half of the host villages were either closed or saw little to no activity Election Day, even though they submitted thousands of votes.

The fraud is tied to poor security. For that reason, using Andar -- or any of the dozens of other similarly contested districts -- as an indicator of democracy's chances in Afghanistan is problematic.

Interviews with more than a dozen villagers near polling sites offered a stark contrast to the positive government narrative: Threatening letters from the Taliban were posted on people's doors; roadside bombs were placed on routes to the voting centers; and, in a few cases, battles raged near polling sites.

"I tried to vote, but I couldn't because the security was so bad," said farmer Abdul Basir, a villager from Qala-e-Sardar, where a polling center was located. "The government outposts were firing toward our villages, and from our village, the Taliban were firing on outposts."

Observer organizations' representatives, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of disrupting the official tabulation process, said evidence of fraud was widespread. Although polls were open across the district, it was unsafe for monitors to reach many places, raising the likelihood of vote manipulation.

Of roughly 47,000 votes registered districtwide -- roughly half the district's estimated population -- one organization figured the number of legitimate votes was closer to 10,000.

"I think only 1 in 100 people in my village voted," said Omarzai, a resident of Yaqoob, a village in a Taliban-controlled area that nonetheless had a nominally open polling center. "I have no idea how they did it."

Residents of some villages awoke to find that ballot boxes had been moved to different locations -- or were not available at all. In Shamshai, another area of Taliban control, election officials decided at the last minute to send boxes to a village a few miles away.

In Taliban-held Alizai, ballot boxes never turned up. "People wanted to vote, but the government failed to open a polling center in our village," said Mohammad Hanif, who lives in Alizai.

Still, some said they did not mind living under Taliban rule, especially in recent years. They said that after the uprising, some insurgents had started treating people better, aware that there was now an alternative.

"They used to harass people in every village, but after the uprising, they stopped," said Rahmatullah, another Alizai villager.



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