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Taliban Uses Violence to Intimidate Before Elections

Alex Finkelstein

Taliban gunmen attacked a luxury hotel in Kabul Sunday, killing nine civilians including children. The Serena Hotel, previously one of the most secure spots in the Afghan capital, frequently hosts high ranking diplomats and other foreign officials. Sunday’s shooting not only targeted Westerners inside the capital, but also seeks to delegitimize upcoming elections before a NATO withdrawal.

Taliban forces have increased their attacks in order to disrupt elections scheduled for April 5th. Following the shooting, election observers who were staying at the hotel from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), have left the country. The European Union’s monitoring mission maintains the only sizeable presence left inside Afghanistan. But the EU’s mission during the polls will be limited, as it is too dangerous for most Western observers to leave urban areas.

Early Thursday the Taliban claimed a series of strikes in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, that left a Radio Television Afghanistan facility badly damaged, above. (Photo: AP)

Without widespread monitoring, rural areas will be especially susceptible to fraud and voter intimidation. During the last election cycle in 2009, 20% of the votes were invalidated due to fraud. Lacking robust oversight, the Taliban and other political groups could unfairly pressure Afghans.

Other Taliban attacks in recent weeks highlight the security challenges the Afghan government and NATO forces face, even in areas often considered safe. In January, a bombing at a Lebanese restaurant popular among Westerners killed 21 people, and terrorists killed a Swedish journalist living in the Kabul’s diplomatic zone earlier this month.

Outside the capital the security has diminished much further. The Taliban stormed a police station in Jalalabad, Afghanistan last Thursday killing ten policemen and one civilian. Two days earlier a suicide bomber struck at a market in northern Faryab province killing 15 and injuring dozens.

Amidst the electoral uncertainty and violence, American and NATO forces are due to withdraw completely at the end of 2014, if a security agreement cannot be reached. President Karzai has refused to sign the agreement and has taken an anti-American stance during his farewell tour from office, deriding U.S. officials and publicly supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Despite this, Karsai’s successor appears likely to sign the security pact, which is expected to allow approximately 10,000 US troops to remain in the country. Taliban insurgency, violence, and threats are certain to continue after the election and following the de-escalation of U.S. forces, making the task of ensuring safety and security during Afghanistan’s democratic transition a tall order for whoever remains.