Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hamid Karzai accused by rival candidate of rigging Afghanistan election
The main challenger to President Karzai accused him yesterday of rigging last week’s Afghan presidential election as investigators began wading through hundreds of complaints that could leave the country in political limbo for more than three weeks.

However, Abdullah Abdullah told The Times that he would challenge alleged fraud only through legal channels, rather than calling his supporters out in protest, and would accept defeat if it was ultimately confirmed by election bodies.

His moderate stance — after talks with US officials — eased short-term fears that the country could split along ethnic lines and erupt in protest after Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah both claimed a first-round victory on Friday.

Western officials already wrestling with a Taleban insurgency fear that political unrest would exacerbate a situation that Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted yesterday was “serious and deteriorating”.

The scale of the alleged fraud now threatens to undermine the entire election process, which is seen as a test of international efforts to defeat the Taleban and build democracy in Afghanistan.

“Widespread rigging has taken place by the incumbent, through his campaign team, and through the state apparatus,” Mr Abdullah, a former eye doctor and Foreign Minister, said. “This has to be prevented. That’s critical for the survival of the process and that’s critical as far as the hope for a better life of the Afghan people is concerned.”

The Times discovered further discrepancies yesterday in figures being reported from Helmand province, where British Forces have been since 2006 and launched Operation Panther’s Claw in June to allow 80,000 more people to vote.

Engineer Abdul Hadee, the local head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), told The Times on Thursday evening that fewer than 50,000 people had voted in Helmand, but changed that figure yesterday to 110,000. He also said that turnout in the district of Garmsir was 20,000, compared with zero as he had claimed on Thursday. In Nawa district his estimate had risen from zero to 3,000.

Mr Hadee also said that 18,000 people had voted in Musa Qala district. He had not given an earlier estimate, but a Western official monitoring the election said that turnout in the district was only 9,000.

Mr Hadee said that his earlier estimates were based on incomplete information. Analysts said that was possible but it was more likely that the ballot boxes had been stuffed in the absence of local or international monitors, who could not be there because of poor security. “There was big fraud in the election here,” a local journalist told The Times. “I think only 10 or 15 per cent of people in Helmand voted.”

British officials declined to comment on the poll in Helmand, saying that they were waiting for the IEC to publish its preliminary results. It is due to start issuing those tomorrow.

It cannot issue official, certified results until the Electoral Complaints Commission has investigated all the most serious allegations of fraud — a process that could take several weeks.

The ECC said that it had received 416 complaints as of last night, of which 46 had been categorised as high priority because they could affect the outcome of the election.

Grant Kippen, the ECC chief, said that the allegations mostly involved ballot stuffing, but also included violence, intimidation and problems with the indelible ink that marked voters’ fingers. “We’re going to look into all of this,” he said, warning that the process might not be completed by September 17, as the IEC had suggested.

Mr Abdullah said that his campaign had filed 100 of the complaints to the ECC, including several about southern provinces. He accused Mr Karzai of rigging the vote to compensate for poor turnout in the south, which is dominated by the Pashtun ethnic majority, from which the President hails. Mr Abdullah is half Pashtun and half Tajik but gets most of his support from the Tajik-dominated north, where Mr Karzai’s aides also allege there was widespread fraud.

Mr Abdullah refused to accept Mr Karzai’s claim that he had secured victory in the first round by winning more than 50 per cent.

But Mr Abdullah backed away from his own claim of a first-round victory, saying that he would be happy to participate in a run-off scheduled for October 1, and ruled out protests, which could easily turn violent in a country awash with weapons.

“One thing which I will avoid is to ask for demonstrations because of the fragility of the situation,” he said.

“I’ll try to control emotions and avoid any violence. From the other side I’ll try to fight it legally in whatever way possible.”

And if his legal challenges fail?

“I’ll accept that, even though I know it won’t work and I’ll try in my position as the opposition to bring it on track as much as possible.”

No Ramazan package yet for IDPs

PESHAWAR: Contrary to their expectations, the uprooted families from Bajaur and Mohmand agencies, particularly living in camps, did not get extra ration for Ramazan.
Living at the makeshift Katcha Garhi camp in Peshawar, the IDPs from Bajaur demanded of the government, UN and other relief agencies for special package for the month of fasting. The IDPs said they were assured of help for Ramazan but nothing had been done so far.During a visit to the Katcha Garhi camp housing over 2,000 displaced families, an official told The News the UNHCR had collected data from the camp residents to know their demand for extra food during the month. No additional aid was, however, coming in despite the beginning of the month on Saturday, he added.The official said the IDPs direly needed additional food, squashes and fruit, the items usually used during Iftar in normal conditions. A similar situation was reported from Jalozai. Although some teams of aid agencies registered the families about a week before the start of the holy month, dwellers of the makeshift camps complained they were getting nothing so far.Ghuncha Gul, inmate of the Jalozai settlement, said no fresh assistance was distributed to them and the camp officials had told them that cooked food would be distributed for Iftar, but nothing was there.According to camp officials, nearly 4,500 families were living at the Jalozai camp. They said all the Swat families had left the settlement. The officials said registration of IDPs was completed before Ramazan, but aid was likely to be distributed in a day or so.

In Pakistan, Taliban Tearing Apart a Culture

Pashtun Residents Say Militants Have Imposed Extremist Views on the Population, Displacing Centuries-Old TraditionsPashtun literature used to be full of romance and praise for the beauty of nature. Now it reflects the death and explosions that have filled the lives of Pakistanis.The literary trend is the lesser-known victim of the "Talibanization" in Pakistan's northwest. Militants imposed their ultraconservative brand of Islam in and around the Swat Valley until the military ousted them this summer, and they continue to hold sway throughout the tribal regions.Residents in these areas say their reign is robbing this predominantly Pashtun area of its centuries-old culture and tearing the social fabric, from poetry to dancing to community centers. Even in Swat, where residents displaced by the fighting are making their way home, many entertainers have not come back for fear the Taliban might.
"This is an attempt to Arabize the Pashtun society by attacking their culture and their highly revered institutions," says Said Alam Mehsud, a leader of the Aman Tehreek, a peace movement recently launched in Peshawar.
The Pashtuns, an ethnic group concentrated in northwestern Pakistan and southern and eastern Afghanistan, live by a revered code of conduct called Pashtunwali. Society has traditionally centered around community centers called hujras, where assemblies of elders and community leaders called jirgas are an important part of the culture.
But the militant brand of Islam brought by the Taliban has displaced the hujra and instead placed the mosque at the center of society, says Raj Wali Shah Khattak, former director of the Pashto Academy at the University of Peshawar. That has reduced the role of the jirga, leaving space for clergy to bring the Pashtun culture under a strict interpretation of religion, says Dr. Khattak, who is not related to the reporter.It has also deterred people from coming forward to organize lashkars (armies of tribal volunteers) against the militants. More than 200 tribal elders have been killed in North and South Waziristan alone since 2004, while many others have fallen victim to the militant attacks in Swat and other districts of northwest Pakistan. Community centers and mosques, often used to organize lashkars, have been targeted by suicide bombers in the past two years.
Music Under Attack
Music has also come under assault. Attacks on stores selling CDs have become common. "Music functions are integral parts of Pashtun marriage ceremonies, and even Islam allows the beating of tambourine in marriage functions, but all these things are rapidly becoming a tale of the past in face of Talibanization," says Khattak.
The wave of militancy has forced many Pashtun musicians, singers, and dancers to leave the tribal areas and Peshawar, the commercial and cultural capital of the Pashtun tribal belt.Last August the singer Haroon Bacha, a star in northwestern Pakistan and Afghanistan with more than two dozen albums, fled his homeland for the United States after receiving threats from militants.Singer Gulzar Alam survived an assassination attempt and left Peshawar early this year for Karachi. In a telling sign of Pakistan's decline, he then moved to Kabul, the capital of a country at war  Afghanistan.The famous dancer Shabana was shot in the street in Mingora, in the Swat Valley, by militants after she defied warnings to stop dancing at marriage ceremonies. Since her death, Banr Bazaar, where dancers congregated in Swat, has become vacant as dozens of dancers left for Karachi, Lahore, or other cities.
And in Peshawar, once known for its cinemas, five movie theaters have been closed and converted into commercial shopping plazas. One was attacked with a bomb, killing seven people, in May. The sole theater in Peshawar, 600-seat Nishtar Hall, has been closed since 2003, under threat from the Taliban.
Poetry Reflects Cultural Shift
The clampdown on cultural expression has been reflected in contemporary poetry and music, an important part of Pashtun culture. Young Pakistanis have responded to the trend by composing poems expressing their grief and anger and using Facebook and text messages to spread their work. One young artist recently circulated a poem called "Don't wound Peshawar," which laments:
"As the wound of Kabul is still bleeding,
You're filling a bowl of blood here
While you have yet to drink the blood-filled bowl of Kabul."
"War is going on in [the] Pashtun's land, and changing trend[s] in poetry in such a situation is a natural process," says Khattak. "We can't expect romance ... or songs for spring and flowers when there is bloodshed all around."