Sunday, September 19, 2010

Afghans brave attacks to vote in elections

Rocket attacks have disrupted polling in Afghanistan as parliamentary elections get underway.
Afghanistan's second parliamentary election since the Taliban regime was ousted began on Saturday morning in the shadow of widespread intimidation and kidnapping.

The Afghan government and western diplomats have sought to lower expectations of the vote, warning of insecurity and fraud, but hoping it will be better than last year's presidential elections. Polling stations opened hours after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake shook the country from its epicentre under the Hindu Kush mountains in the north east of the country. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Last year's poll saw Hamid Karzai re elected amid widespread fraud and was the most violent day of 2009 following similar insurgent threats. Turn-out was only around a third of voters.

The Taliban this year have threatened to attack polling stations and voters. About 20 candidates, poll staff and campaign workers were kidnapped in the two days before voting began.

A rocket landed close to Nato headquarters in Kabul early on Saturday and several more were launched at a US base in Nangahar province, without causing casualties.

Mohammad Husman, who queued to vote in the east of the capital, said: "I came here because I want prosperity for Afghanistan, stability for Afghanistan." "I'm worried about security and fraud. I hope my vote goes to the person I picked to vote for." The elections have been keenly contested with over 2,500 candidates standing for 249 seats and around 650 fighting for 33 positions in the capital alone.

Many Afghans have called for a new generation of better educated, young candidates to replace incumbent strongmen who have failed to deliver their 2005 campaign promises and often remain implicated in the savagery of the 1990s civil war.

Walls and billboards have been wallpapered with posters for new candidates including businessmen, an Olympic female sprinter, a chat show host and a television comedian.

Bawar Hotak, a 32-year-old bodybuilding, shot putt and wrestling champion standing in Kabul, said voters demanded jobs, peace and education after years of disappointment.

He said: "We all voted in the first election. We were promised there would be solutions, but we haven't seen anything. No one reached out to us." However the election is instead expected to consolidate power among Mr Karzai's supporters and wealthy strongmen. Warlords and existing ministers and governors have promoted their own candidates.

Several campaigns have apparently received vast funding. The close relatives of existing governors, and ministers are among those standing.

Campaign workers and diplomats said voting had become a lucrative market for entrepreneurial election officials.

One senior diplomat in Kabul told the Sunday Telegraph fraudulent votes had been auctioned by officials in Wardak province for $6 (£4) each.

One campaign worker in Parwan, due north of Kabul, said he had been telephoned by a corrupt official and offered fake votes for $20 (£12) each.

He said: "They said we could for example send ten people to a polling station, but they would give us 20 ballot papers. Then they could add another 20 votes when they tallied the votes at the end."

The Taliban have formally rejected offers to join the political system and called for a national boycott, but several candidates have seemingly been promoted or allowed to campaign by local militant commanders.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan said Taliban in Faryab had posted notices demanding voters support their favoured candidates.

Several candidates in north western Afghanistan are rumoured to have strong insurgent links.

Stephen Carter, an independent political analyst in Kabul said: "I don't think this is a breakthrough, I think it is more likely to be people accommodating themselves with the Taliban than the Taliban trying to enter the political system."

Pakistan faces major hunger crisis

The world's leading independent NGO for kids - Save the Children- has warned that Pakistan faces a major hunger crisis, as the number of acutely malnourished children is set to rise steeply in the wake of unprecedented floods in that country.

"The number of malnourished and critically sick children will rise dramatically in October and November as the food crisis takes its toll," the Daily Star quoted the NGO's country director in Pakistan, Mohammed Qazilbash, as saying.

"These children have weakened immune system because of the shortage of food, making them very vulnerable to disease," he added.

According to UN statistics, over 12,000 children have become severely malnourished since heavy monsoon rains devastated large parts of the country in early August, but experts suggest that the true figure could be higher, as many vulnerable young survivors in remote areas might have missed the count.

Around 21 million people have been affected by the floods, of which, approximately three million are under the age of five, according to Save the Children.

Senior officials from all over the world will meet United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in New York on Saturday to discuss the global response.

Girls’ school bombed in Peshawar

PESHAWAR: Taliban bombed a girls’ school on Saturday in Peshawar.

Terrorists planted explosives around the Iqra Rozatul Atfal Girls’ School, situated at Charkhakhel area of Peshawar, which went off around 1:40am.

Police said that the blast damaged the walls, rooms and windowpanes of the school. However, the watchman of the school, who was present there at the time of the blast, was unhurt. On September 6, Taliban had also bombed a girls’ high school in Landi Arbab area of the city.

KP Education Minister Sardar Hussain Babak had earlier said that more than 1,000 schools had been destroyed as a result of Taliban bomb attacks so far. The KP government says it needs at least Rs 5 billion to rebuild the schools.

Donors want Pakistan to tax rich to pay for floods

Pakistan's plea for billions of dollars to recover from this summer's floods has sparked pressure on the country to reform a tax system that collects very little money, even from the rich.

The country's biggest donor, the United States, has issued one of the strongest warnings, saying the world will only be able to fund a quarter of the tens of billions of dollars it will take to rebuild — and it will be difficult to get American taxpayers to help if Pakistanis aren't footing their share of the bill.

But many economists fear the threats are hollow and the US and others will once again bail out Pakistan without insisting on necessary economic reforms because the country is so important in the war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

''Pakistan can say, 'If you don't help us, the economy crumbles, the Taliban takes over and there goes your war on terror,''' said Akbar Zaidi, an economist who recently published a report on Pakistan's tax system for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ''They don't want to alienate the government, so they will let them off the hook.''

Despite years of international pressure, Pakistan has one of the lowest effective tax rates in the world, equal to about nine per cent of the value of the country's economy, according to the Carnegie report. In contrast, the US equivalent is more than three times as high at about 28 per cent.

One of the reasons Pakistan's rate is so low is because many people avoid paying taxes. Fewer than two per cent of the country's 175 million citizens pay any income tax, according to the report.

Also, some sectors of the economy like agriculture — a major money maker for the elite — are totally exempt from tax, and the rich have pushed to keep it that way.

''A small elite comprised of the military, land owners, and the rising urban upper and middle classes, is loath to give up any of its wealth (some of which is illegally accumulated),'' said the report.

Ishrat Hussain, former head of the Pakistan central bank, estimated that better enforcement of current tax policies and the elimination of key exemptions should produce an effective tax rate of 15 per cent — generating nearly $10 billion in additional revenue per year.

That money would go a long way toward repairing devastation from the floods, which affected more than 18 million people and damaged and destroyed over 1.8 million homes. It would also provide the money necessary to begin fixing Pakistan's crumbling school system and health infrastructure.

''This is a time we have to tell people that we have to all pitch in and mobilise our own resources,'' said Hussain. ''Why should the international community come to your rescue if you are not doing your part of the bargain?''

He said donors should keep up the pressure on Pakistan, but advised against directly linking reconstruction money to tax reform, predicting the move could backfire in a country where animosity toward the West, and the US in particular, is extremely high.

''It wouldn't be a very smart move because people here would consider this as an intrusion on their sovereignty, and the debate would then be muddied,'' said Hussain.

The US and other countries have donated around $1 billion for emergency relief, and international financial institutions have provided about $2.5 billion in emergency loans. Donors are scheduled to meet in New York this weekend to discuss raising additional aid.

Washington has promised more money for reconstruction, but the US special envoy to Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, warned during a visit to the country this week that the international community could only fund about 25 per cent of the bill. He said the US would not condition reconstruction money on tax reform, but cautioned that American generosity has its limits.

''I don't want to withhold money they need, but I think we have to be clear that the Congress is going to be reluctant to give money if the money is filling in a gap because people are not paying taxes,'' he said.

Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund held back more than $1 billion of funding because Pakistan had not met a number of economic criteria, including reforming its tax system. The money is part of a multibillion loan Pakistan took out in 2008 to stabilise its economy.

It's unclear if the IMF's tough stance will last. The organisation has provided funding to Pakistan in the past when it didn't meet its loan criteria — a move that some Pakistani economists believe was driven by international pressure because of Pakistan's strategic importance.

Pakistan had promised the IMF it would introduce a new tax scheme in July — moving from a general sales tax to a value added tax — but ended up delaying it until the beginning of October because of disagreements between the central government and the provinces, especially Sindh province.

Kaiser Bengali, a senior adviser to the Sindh chief minister who is responsible for negotiating the tax deal with Islamabad, said it seems unlikely that the government will be able to reconcile its differences with the province by the revised deadline.

"I wouldn't do things simply because the donors are asking me to do it," said Bengali.

If Pakistan does not reform its tax system and the donors fail to bail the country out, it is unclear how the nation would come up with the money necessary for reconstruction.

The government has proposed a one-time tax on urban property and agricultural land not affected by the floods, but it is uncertain whether it will be implemented and how much money it would produce.

Hussain, the former central bank chief, said that even if the one-time tax was implemented, he was worried the elite would simply use their influence to avoid paying anything as they have done in the past.

"The system has given power to the thieves to monitor themselves," he said.

Afghan observers question election as tally starts

Afghan election observers said they had serious concerns about the legitimacy of this weekend's parliamentary balloting as officials began Sunday to tally the results — a process that could take months.

Saturday's balloting holds a chance of redemption for a government that lost much of its credibility both with Afghans and its international backers due to a fraud-tainted presidential vote a year ago. But a showering of rocket attacks, polling station closures and charges that anti-fraud measures broke down mean the vote counting and investigation of complaints will have to be particularly rigorous to guarantee a legitimate outcome.

The country's international backers rallied around the government as polls closed with praise for those who voted and hope for a democratic result, but the main Afghan observer group said the quality of the balloting was questionable.

The Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan said it "has serious concerns about the quality of elections," given the insecurity and numerous complaints of fraud. FEFA deployed about 7,000 people around the country, making it the largest observer of the parliamentary vote. Many international observer groups scaled back their operations from last year because of security concerns.

At least 11 civilians and three police officers were killed during the voting, according to the Interior Ministry, amid 33 bomb explosions and 63 rocket strikes nationwide. The attacks appeared to have the desired effect, as many polling sites had light turnout. A number of polling stations were closed because of security problems, causing some in safer areas to run out of ballots.

The Afghan election commission has yet to provide an overall turnout figure but said late Saturday that 3.6 million people cast ballots at the 86 percent of polling stations that had reported figures so far. Nearly 6 million ballots were cast in the presidential vote last year out of 17 million registered voters. The election commission said before Saturday's vote that its plan would allow a maximum of 11.4 million voters — an acknowledgment that turnout was not expected to be high.

Throughout Saturday's balloting, complaints that anti-fraud measures were being ignored or weren't working poured in from across the country. People said the indelible ink that is supposed to stain voters' fingers for 72 hours could be washed off. In some polling stations, observers said poll workers were letting people vote with obviously fake voter cards.

"Ballot stuffing was seen to varying extents in most provinces, as were proxy voting and underage voting," FEFA said.

At a polling station in Sancery village in southern Kandahar province, one man said hundreds of people in his village of about 600 gave their voting cards to the village elder, who cast their ballots for them.

"My father asked me to give the card," said Matiullah, who only gave one name. "This is what we did last time. Everyone submitted their card to the elder." It was not possible to verify if the elder had been allowed to vote for the village.

Individual polling sites started counting ballots as soon as polls closed Saturday and 95 percent of them had completed that process by early Sunday, said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the election commission. As they complete their counts, the tallies are sent to a center in the capital that will compile and release results over coming days.

Full preliminary results are not expected until early October, and then there will be weeks of fraud investigations before winners are officially announced for the 249 parliamentary seats. With about 2,500 candidates running, there are likely to be a host of fraud complaints in each province.

If the people don't accept the results of the vote, it could have a profound effect both inside the country and with Afghanistan's international backers, who have 140,000 troops in the country and have spent billions trying to shore up the administration of President Hamid Karzai administration in the face of a strengthening insurgency.

Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up to Karzai in the 2009 poll, said violence was a possibility if voters feel disenfranchised.

"There is a possibility of people taking things into their own hands," Abdullah said. But he said he was also worried about the administration pushing through candidates regardless of accusations of fraudulent voting.

"If, as a result of massive fraud, it turns out to be a sort of rubber-stamp parliament in the hands of the government, then we will lose that opportunity for checks and balances which is expected from the parliament," he said, warning that a weakened legislature would make it easy for Karzai to make constitutional amendments to stay in power past the end of his term.

In the south on Sunday, rockets disrupted efforts by officials to rally support against the Taliban in the Arghandab district of Kandahar.

Officials including the governor and Ahmad Wali Karzai, chairman of the Kandahar provincial council and President Karzai's brother, addressed about 150 people in Babasab, a town that is a staging ground for attacks on Kandahar city.

"We need your help," Ahmad Wali Karzai said. "We want you to give your men to the army and police. We will support you in every possible way."

Three rockets were fired at the meeting, with the closest landing about 40 meters (45 yards) away. There were no injuries.

Meanwhile, NATO forces said they killed seven insurgents in an attack against a village compound in volatile Nangarhar province in the east, though Afghan officials said the dead may have been civilians.

The military alliance said "initial reporting indicates no civilians were killed or injured during this operation" that targeted a Taliban commander in the southern Khugyani district of Nangarhar, a hotbed of the insurgency.

Ghafor Khan, the district police spokesman, said five people were killed and two wounded in the attack. He said an investigators were determining whether the casualties were insurgents or civilians.

Afghan officials have repeatedly warned that civilian casualties undermine anti-insurgency efforts.

Also Sunday, NATO said three of its service members died in attacks in southern Afghanistan on Saturday. Two died in a bomb attack in the south and another in an insurgent attack in the north. Their nationalities were not disclosed.