Afghanistan's Voter Registration Drive Is Unexpectedly Peaceful and Successful

U.S. military officials wonder why insurgents are uncharacteristically quiet before national election.

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN—The early phases of election registration in Afghanistan went smoothly enough that some defense officials admit to feeling suspicious. "It's not what we expected," says a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan.

Though there have been some incidents of voter intimidation and isolated attacks on polling stations, the U.S. military has been generally surprised by the lack of interference coming from insurgent groups as voters here register for crucial provincial and presidential elections scheduled to take place next year. "It's been reasonably free of intimidation," adds a senior military official in Kabul.

"The next question," says another senior U.S. military official, "is: Why is it going so well?"

There are a number of possible explanations, the official adds, among them that insurgent groups realized that massing the forces they would need to disrupt registration would cause heavier casualties than they were prepared to take. What's more, registration got underway as fighting season is winding down, and resources tend to dwindle as winter approaches.

"I don't know what to read into it—I'd be cautious of reading too much," says the senior official in Kabul. "I think it's too early to determine if it's been successful. There's still a lot of time for intimidation."

The voting registration process is being done in four phases, with eastern provinces first—some violent, some more peaceful—and the more volatile southern provinces in the weeks to come. Voters who are already registered do not have to register again, and, as a result, the drive is aimed mainly at those who are coming of voting age. Voter registration recently began in Kabul.

Some express concern that insurgent groups could be saving their energy for election day. But, officials note, such a move would alienate Afghans, many of whom support the voting process. A recent Asia Foundation survey found that more than 70 percent of those interviewed feel that their vote means something, despite widespread government corruption and a lack of services in many areas.

In any event, officials are stressing the importance of investigating how accurately voting districts have been mapped out and gathering intelligence on the ramification of victory by various potential candidates. They add, too, that it is critical that U.S. forces are seen as supporting the process, not the person.

This is because Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration is largely seen as failing to curb corruption, a key source of concern among everyday Afghans. And though Karzai remains the front-runner for the presidential elections next year, some U.S. officials privately admit wishing there were more choices in the presidential election, the second since the 2001 fall of the Taliban.

"The problem with the election is that there's no viable candidate," says the senior military official in Kabul. "It would be good if another Pashtun stepped forward," says a senior U.S. military official, referring to Karzai's tribal affiliation. "Karzai is too tainted at this point."