Taliban bomb and rocket blitz as Afghans go to polls

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Afghan men carry an injured at a hospital a after a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on October 20, 2018. (REUTERS/Omar Sobhani)
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Afghan women wait in line to vote at a polling center for the country’s legislative election in Herat province on Oct. 20, 2018. (AFP)
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An Afghan woman arrives to cast her vote during parliamentary elections at a polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, on October 20, 2018. (REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail)
Updated 21 October 2018

Taliban bomb and rocket blitz as Afghans go to polls

  • Scores of people, including 10 candidates, have died in a series of attacks by Taliban and Daesh in recent months
  • Initial results of the vote will be released in three weeks’ time

KABUL: Afghanistan’s first parliamentary elections in eight years suffered from violence and chaos Saturday, with a multitude of attacks killing at least 36 people, key election workers failing to show up and many polling stations staying open hours later than scheduled to handle long lines of voters.

Problems surrounding the elections — already three years overdue — threaten to compromise the credibility of polls which an independent monitoring group said were also marred by incidences of ballot stuffing and intimidation by armed men affiliated with candidates in 19 of the country’s 32 provinces. Some areas have yet to vote, including Kandahar, where the provincial police chief was gunned down Thursday.

Stakes were high in these elections for Afghans who hoped to reform Parliament, challenging the dominance of warlords and the politically corrupt and replacing them with a younger, more educated generation of politicians. 

They were also high for the US, which is still seeking an exit strategy after 17 years of a war there that has cost more than $900 billion and claimed more than 2,400 US service personnel.

The ballot is regarded as crucial for the stability of Afghanistan, wracked by more than four decades of war, foreign interventions and tribal rift. The latest poll is the third for choosing a legislative body since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001 in a US-led invasion.

Deputy Interior Minister Akhtar Mohammed Ibrahimi said 36 people were killed in 193 insurgent attacks across the country: 27 civilians, eight police officers and one Afghan soldier. He said attackers used everything from grenades to small arms fire to mortars and rocket launchers, and that security forces killed 31 insurgents.

The most serious attack on the polls was in a northern Kabul neighborhood where a suicide bomber blew himself up just as voting was about to end, killing three people and wounding another 20, many of them seriously, said Dr. Esa Hashemi, a physician at the nearby Afghan Hospital. Interior and defense ministry officials said 15 people were killed or wounded, including several police.

Polling stations also struggled with voter registration and a new biometric system that was aimed at stemming fraud, but instead created enormous confusion because many of those trained on the system did not show up for work. Also, the biometric machines were received just a month before polls and there was no time to do field testing.


Results delayed

Initial results of the vote, delayed by more than three years because of a power struggle in the government, will be released in three weeks’ time. Final results will be published after two months.

Many candidates are young and educated men and women who want to replace current MPs at the house, regarded as one dominated by corrupt elements and factional members as Taliban and Daesh spread their attacks in the country.

The Taliban guerrillas had threatened to disrupt the process, conducted various attacks, including firing mortars, suicide raids and bomb blasts near some polling stations, including in at least five areas of Kabul.

“Today, we proved together that we uphold democracy with casting out ballots without fear, we honor the sacrifices of the fallen,” President Ashraf Ghani told reporters after casting his vote in a highly protected school near the presidential palace in Kabul.

Cases of widespread irregularities across the country were reported by journalists, locals and even government officials.

They include late opening of sites, lack of knowledge of some election works in recording votes and use of biometric devices, aimed at reducing fraud, which is another major concern apart from security threats.

Observers and media were barred from visiting some sites. Some stations did not open at all. The country’s second Chief Executive, Mohammad Mohaqiq, openly said that at least 22 stations did not open at all in only two areas in Kabul city itself.

Simar Soresh, a spokesman for the election commission, confirmed that some sites remained closed owing to “technical challenges,” vowing to prolong voting hours when they open.

Many blamed the government appointed elections body for the shortcomings. The body has faced organizational problems and a rift owing to a power struggle among government leaders.

Some frustrated voters even went back home after waiting for hours for the opening of polling stations in Kabul.

In one such station, a policeman asked voters if they knew the voting process so he could let the station open. In northern Maimana, people complained that there were no biometric devices in place.

In others, voters said they could not find their names on the books where they had registered months before during the registration process. It would take at least five minutes for a voter to cast a vote.

One journalist covering the event closely described the situation as “Mismanagement and chaos across the country.”

“This is just a joke, I am leaving. I came to vote despite the Taliban warning, but you see the mess and confusion and heard the blasts. It is not worth dying for this because the process is not handled properly,” Zaman Khan, a bewildered voter in a central area of Kabul, told Arab News.


Irregularities everywhere

The irregularities that led to closure and caused slow voting process are seen as a further blow to the voting, which is funded by donors’ money.

The government already had said it could not open some 2,000 sites because of security threats.

Scores of people, including 10 candidates, have died in a series of attacks by Taliban and Daesh in recent months.

The government delayed the holding of the polls in the historically important southern Kandahar for a week after an attack that killed its powerful police chief and intelligence head.

Bilal Sarwary, a candidate from eastern Kunar, said like some other parts of the country, there were “high irregularities” during the voting there.

“Some sites opened very late. The biometric system did not work in some sites and in others they were slow or election workers did not know how to use them,” he told Arab News by phone.

“Some state officials interfered in some sites; there were no voting papers in some areas. Overall there were irregularities and confusion. It is a pity that with the sacrifice and so much money, irregularities marred the process.”

(With AP)


British cabinet backs PM Theresa May’s Brexit plan

Updated 14 November 2018

British cabinet backs PM Theresa May’s Brexit plan

  • Theresa May: The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration
  • At the heart of May’s difficulties has been the so-called Northern Irish backstop, an insurance policy to avoid a return to controls between the British province and EU-member Ireland

LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday that cabinet had backed her Brexit plan, adding it was in the national interest but that there would be difficult days ahead.
“The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration,” May said outside her Downing Street residence after a five-hour cabinet meeting.
“I firmly believe with my head and my heart that this is a decision in the best interests of the entire United Kingdom.” 

Her minority government means May is the weakest British leader in a generation, yet she must try to get her Brexit deal, struck after more than a year of talks with the EU, approved by parliament before leaving the bloc on March 29, 2019.
“I’m confident that this takes us significantly closer to delivering on what the British people voted for in the referendum,” May told parliament. Britons voted 52-48 percent in favor of leaving the EU in 2016.
May’s plan is an attempt to forge a balance between those who want Britain to maintain close links to the world’s biggest trading bloc while having full control over issues such as immigration and judicial oversight.
“We will take back control of our borders, our laws and our money, leave the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy, while protecting jobs, security and the integrity of the United Kingdom,” May said of the deal.
But Brexit campaigners in May’s Conservative Party, which for three decades has been divided over Europe, said it was a surrender to the EU and they would vote it down.
The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up May’s government, said May had repeatedly pledged to ensure Northern Ireland was treated in the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom.
“If she decides to go against all of that, then there will be consequences,” DUP leader Arlene Foster said.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called it a “botched deal.”
At the heart of May’s difficulties has been the so-called Northern Irish backstop, an insurance policy to avoid a return to controls between the British province and EU-member Ireland which could threaten the 1998 peace accord which ended 30 years of violence.
EU sources said if the bloc and Britain failed to agree a new trade deal by July 2020, they would have to take a decision on how to prevent border checks returning.
Either Britain would have to extend the transition period, possibly until the end of 2021, or enter a UK-wide customs arrangement but with Northern Ireland more closely aligned with the EU’s rules.
Treating Northern Ireland differently risks alienating the DUP who warn it could risk the integrity of the United Kingdom, while Brexit-supporting members of parliament argue it could leave Britain subject to EU rules indefinitely.
“If the media reports about the EU agreement are in any way accurate, you are not delivering the Brexit people voted for, and today you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters across the country,” Conservative lawmaker Peter Bone said.
Nicola Sturgeon, the head of Scotland’s pro-independence devolved government, said it would be unfair that any special trading deal which applies to Northern Ireland should not apply to Scotland after Britain leaves the European Union.
“(May’s) approach would take Scotland out of the single market — despite our 62 percent “remain” vote — but leave us competing for investment with Northern Ireland that is effectively still in it,” Sturgeon said.
Sterling, which has seesawed since reaching $1.50 just before the 2016 referendum, fell to 1.3010 on news of possible ministerial resignations after briefly jumping more than 1 percent after the deal was announced.
For the EU, reeling from successive crises over debt and immigration, the loss of Britain is the biggest blow yet to 60 years of efforts to forge European unity in the wake of two world wars.
EU leaders could meet on Nov. 25 for a summit to seal the Brexit deal if May’s cabinet approves the text, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.
The ultimate outcome for the United Kingdom remains uncertain: scenarios range from a calm divorce to rejection of May’s deal, potentially sinking her premiership and leaving the bloc with no agreement, or another referendum.
May, an initial opponent of Brexit who won the top job in the turmoil following the referendum, has staked her future on a deal which she hopes will solve the Brexit riddle: leaving the EU while preserving the closest possible ties.
EU supporters say the deal leaves Britain worse off and subject to the bloc’s rules without any say in them.
Conservative lawmakers have to factor in the implications of defeating the deal which could topple May, delay Brexit, pave the way for a national election or lead to a new referendum.
The government has yet to give details of the Brexit deal, which runs to hundreds of pages, although a statement to parliament was likely on Thursday.
Brexit will pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown and many fear it will divide the West as it grapples with the unconventional US presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
Supporters argue that in the longer term Brexit will allow the United Kingdom to thrive and strike global trade deals.
Some business chiefs were positive about May’s deal.
“My gut feeling is we need to get behind it and we need to make this deal work. What we need is certainty,” said Juergen Maier, the UK CEO of German engineering giant Siemens.
But James Stewart, head of Brexit at accounting firm KPMG said: “Until there is broader political alignment and fewer risks, business leaders have little option but to continue to assume that the quest for a deal could yet be derailed.”