Five years on and optimism turns to fear in Afghan elections

Because of this summer's surge of violence, some Afghan MPs up for re-election are running their campaigns from Kabul or provincial capitals.

KABUL // In the build-up to Afghanistan's last parliamentary election, Rahela Bibi Kobra Alamshahi jumped in her car and took the two-hour drive south to Ghazni province to register as a candidate. It was a blissful journey without the need for bodyguards or a burqa, and the thought of getting killed never even crossed her mind.

Five years later, the member of parliament finds herself trapped in Kabul and unable to campaign to retain her seat. Instead, she stays in the capital and wonders which of her many enemies would hunt her down were she to make the same trip again. "I have received threats, but not from the Taliban. I have lots of competition in Ghazni because I was one of the most successful women MPs," she said. "I am very scared of the Taliban, too. If I go there, I am sure I will receive some threats, some warning letters, and they will kidnap me."

The Independent Election Commission recently revealed that because of growing insecurity, 938 polling centres will be kept closed when voting for the lower house of parliament is held here on September 18. That number may rise further before then and if it does, very few of the candidates taking part will be surprised. Since campaigning officially started in June, the country has faced spiralling violence. July was the worst month for US forces since the war began, with 65 American service personnel killed. The death toll for Afghan civilians over the same period was 270, according to government figures.

As a result, some MPs who are standing for re-election have been forced into running shadow campaigns from Kabul or provincial capitals, too afraid to go out and meet the people they hope to represent. Others predict that voting day will be dominated by bloodshed, making a free and fair poll impossible and further tarnishing Afghanistan's halting efforts to cobble together something resembling a democratic process.

Ms Alamshahi spent four months in Ghazni during the summer of 2005, even sleeping out on the balcony of her house on hot nights. Looking back now, she remembers it as a time of glorious optimism when there was no real need to take any threats she received seriously. They were, it seemed to her then, all part of a new and relatively healthy political rivalry amongst Afghans. "We did not know what a bodyguard was or what a gun was. We had nothing and we were not worried," she recalled.

With a light blue scarf loosely draped over her head, she added, "Now we have just sent our campaign team there, but I am not sure if they are working properly or not." Today, Ghazni is a Taliban stronghold connected by a highway that is the scene of almost daily insurgent ambushes on Nato supply convoys. Election candidates in the province have been left in no doubt about the dangers they face. One has already been kidnapped and beheaded.

Despite the closing of 938 polling centres, 5,897 are expected to remain open. The IEC says its decision to shut down voting in the most insecure areas will reduce the risk of fraud. More than 2,500 candidates are competing for 249 seats in the lower house; of these, 68 are reserved for women. A huge array of election posters has sprung up across the country, depicting a bewildering variety of faces to choose from, including notorious former militia commanders, religious leaders and TV personalities.

In the southern province of Helmand, this sort of advertising is one of the only safe methods of campaigning. Mohammad Anwar Ishaqzai, an MP for the area, described how "I made myself brave" before deciding to run for office again. "This is my personal view and I have talked about it a lot in parliament. In this kind of situation we cannot have a fair election. It's impossible because we have very bad security in Afghanistan," he said.

According to Mr Ishaqzai, two districts of Helmand are entirely under Taliban control, with the rebels wielding massive influence in other areas. "All the candidates are running their campaigns in the capital of the province. We cannot go to our districts," he said. The international community and its Afghan allies insist progress has been made this year, although they acknowledge that fighting has intensified.

In a series of recent interviews designed to boost morale at home, Gen David Petraeus, the head of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, said 365 rebel leaders and about 2,400 foot soldiers have been captured or killed in the past three months. He also has stressed the need for patience. However, 2010 has been noticeable for a clear spread in the Taliban's activity, with insurgents now staging regular attacks across much of the north - a region not usually associated with their supporters. Crime has risen there as the government struggles to impose itself on remote and often fiercely independent communities.

Mohammad Shaker Kargar, an MP for north-western Faryab province, said militants were paying his constituents to fight for them and imposing taxes on farmers. He warned that a number of villages would be off limits on polling day. "I can never tell you there will be whole districts where we can't have a fair election. But I can tell you we will have lots of problems during the election," he said.