Peace is Afghan voters' main concern
AFGHANISTAN: How to deal with the warlords all over Afghanistan - with their private armies, feudal practices and enormous wealth - is the question that dogs every move of those organising next weekend's poll, writes Kathy Sheridan from Mazar-i-Sharif.
The skeletal hulks of old Soviet planes and tanks litter the landscape along the dusty, rutted, chaotic road into Mazar-i-Sharif. Nearer town, among the rackety rows of cargo containers from which the local traders do business, one carries the markings of the once-mighty Soviet navy.
Empires may come and go, but Afghan tribesmen continue to tend their camels. Neat parallel lines of little donkeys - heads deep in nosebags - stand with their carts in the baking sun.
The bazaars are booming and the entrance to the fabulous, azure-blue mosque is teeming with young students, wizened old men in turbans, women gliding by in white burqas and youths in traditional dress with ethnic roots in such places as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north.
It is a long way from the image of an entire country buckling under fear, violence and intimidation in advance of Saturday's presidential election.
The little bunch of journalists from all over the world, fresh from the similarly bustling, traffic-infested capital of Kabul, and flown up here by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to see for themselves, cannot deny the sight before their eyes. Mazar-i-Sharif is palpably tension-free. It is bursting with life and quiet optimism.
No one doubts that this could change anywhere, anytime, catastrophically, in the coming days (there is no shortage of bomb scares in Kabul this weekend). But the point is made for now.
Abdul Kadhi, a 42-year-old man standing outside the mosque, has no particular interest in the election but he believes everything is going in the right direction: "I will vote because I see good things here. There is no intimidation. I'm a labourer and I am working free in my city," he says.
Commander Mark Mellett , an Irishman on secondment to ISAF from his day job in command of the LE Eithne, is the man responsible for this rare ISAF-sponsored outing. He is a significant player in "Afghan theatre information co-ordination" (to use ISAF terminology).
It is said by those around him that Commander Mellett's diplomacy and persuasiveness have been as successful in bringing together the numerous official bodies entrusted with running the election as in honing their jumble of public messages down to three, or what he calls his "three daughters": reassurance (secure conditions in which to vote); legitimacy (of the election process); and deterrence (of those trying to obstruct it).
What makes Mazar-i-Sharif worth watching is its role as count centre for the northern region, an area the size of Scotland where the veteran strongman, serial side-switcher and now presidential candidate, Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum, is the undisputed lord.
How to deal with the warlords all over Afghanistan - with their private armies, feudal practices and enormous wealth, much of it raised from drugs and local taxes and none of it passed to central government - is the question that dogs every move in this country.
The officer in charge of the UK-led contingent in the area, Col John Henderson, does not resort to bombast. He says he prefers to call these figures "commanders it's less emotive", and cautions his audience to remember "that three years ago they were the liberators of this country and we should not forget that".
He is articulating a process that many on the island of Ireland will recognise - a policy to draw the "commanders" into the loop, a pragmatic move given that even the most uneducated voters voice, unprompted, the belief that not only is this right and proper but that no other way will work.
In fact, some people to whom The Irish Times spoke in the town cherish the notion of a dream team of Afghanistan's interim President, Mr Hamid Karzai, and Gen Dostum.
But, significantly, the name Karzai always comes first.
"When Karzai came, he changed everything," says an 18-year-old Pashtun in a turban, outside the mosque.
"Things are better now. Yes, I also like Dostum, but Karzai is educated, Dostum is not".
Khaled, a 22-year-old Uzbek, says that "with Karzai, every day is better. I would like Karzai and Dostum together", he smiles. Is he concerned that the Taliban has declared that it is against the Koran to vote?
"In the north, no one believes the Taliban. Only the south. Up here, there is no fear of them."
But Col Henderson notes that the biggest threat to the election is the Taliban. With its 1.6 million votes, the town would be a "high-value" target. "It could render the elections null and void if 1.6 million votes were to go up in smoke."
And down at the sports complex cum count centre, heavily sandbagged to the left of the entrance, a young local civic education officer tells a different story from Khaled's. "Disarmament is what the people always ask about. How and when. That is the first question and the last question."
Fariha, a woman in a white burqa, has listened well to her civic education worker. "I will not say who we will vote for only that we will select the person who will bring peace and help."
Peace is a recurring theme. The people yearn for it. The questions from Afghan media at a press conference are exclusively about security and armed militias. Stories of intimidation are rife but impossible to prove.
"We hear about things but we have no specific documents and no concerns," is the bland reply from the Mazar police chief, when asked about the threatening "night letters" posted by the Taliban at mosques.
There is talk of pressure being placed on local "commanders" to ensure that their areas vote in the "correct" fashion. This effort is supported, allegedly, by a "shadow" registration where local authorities have been counting the voters registering in their areas and know, therefore, how many votes to expect from each village.
While this will be mitigated in practice by the mixing of votes at the provincial count, all of this is bound to be highly unnerving for many first-time voters.
But no one here wants to acknowledge publicly that there might be a problem, either with intimidation or with registration numbers, which have climbed to barely credible levels and triggered talk of multiple and under-age registrations in vast numbers.
Commander Mellett acknowledges that the shortage of international observers will make it difficult to counteract any perception that these elections are not legitimate. But he robustly defends the process, noting that the census is outdated and that their surveys suggest that 92 per cent of those sampled have registered and that 87 per cent said they would vote.
Some 48 per cent of those registered in the Mazar region are said to be women. "We have to be cautious from our privileged Western positions that we don't damage the real hopes and enthusiasm of the Afghan people because we think we know better."
Such are the security pressures that five men and two women will police every one of the 700 polling stations in the region on Saturday, using up the entire local police force and more.
And such are the distances and inaccessible highlands that in the Balkh region, for example, 300 donkeys (costing about $5 a day each) will take four days to bring the votes down to the count centre.
But optimism is high.
Sebajdin Durjuti, a Kosovar-Albanian contracted to the UN who has overseen elections in Kosovo and East Timor, says he was "sure that this would be the most difficult election but it isn't, because people are so excited. I do not expect any security problems but you never know Actually, it's been perfect."