Fear of Iran-style unrest grips Afghans
In Herat, Afghanistan’s cultural capital, less than two hours’ drive from the Iranian border, the influence of the country’s western neighbour permeates the streets and cafes.world Updated: Aug 13, 2009 12:29 IST
In Herat, Afghanistan’s cultural capital, less than two hours’ drive from the Iranian border, the influence of the country’s western neighbour permeates the streets and cafes.
Persian-style architecture is common. Many women wear the black, Iranian-style chador instead of the all-encompassing Afghan burka, and the smell of shisha tobacco drifts out of restaurants.
But it is another Iranian import people in Herat worry about -- a copycat of the deadly street protests that erupted in Tehran after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in June.
As candidates in Afghanistan’s August 20 presidential election hurl insults, tap tribal divisions and fret over potential vote fraud, fears grow that the result could unleash violent demonstrations here too.
“I think that after the election there will be violence. The presidential candidates are against each other,” said 18-year-old mechanic Mostafa Nazary.
Nazary should be filled with optimism -- he is about to get married along with 49 other couples at a mass wedding in Herat -- but is plagued with fears about the outcome of the nation’s second-ever presidential vote.
“When they start fighting in Afghanistan, Afghanistan will be demolished and innocent people will be killed,” he said.
Mohammed Faridon Sorush, a professor of law and political science at Herat University, told AFP Afghans were shaken by events in relatively-stable Iran, where officials say about 30 people died in protests.
“So in Afghanistan, in a country were more than 50 percent of people are armed and they are out of control, what will happen?” he said.
“Candidates have ethnic support from the people who are armed (and) they are not going to be calm... As one of the candidates said, after the elections we will have a political earthquake.”
Tensions rose early this month after an analyst’s comment that people “will come with their Kalashnikovs” if they disagree with the poll results was wrongly attributed to the campaign team of candidate Abdullah Abdullah.
Wounds have not yet healed from an ethnically charged civil war of the 1990s that left the capital in ruins with at least 80,000 people killed in the city alone.
The reports prompted the interior ministry to say it would “deal strictly” with any trouble-makers, while the British embassy in Kabul warned that any violence would be “unacceptable”.
But candidates have continued to trade barbs over the spectre of unrest.
Presidential hopeful Ashraf Ghani on Sunday issued a statement calling on Abdullah and incumbent President Hamid Karzai “to renounce violence and to refrain from appealing to voters based on ethnicity or factional interests.”
Much of the fear stems from the tribal and ethnic divisions in Afghanistan, with Karzai -- running for a second term -- counting on the support of the dominant Pashtun group, and his main rival Abdullah tapping the Tajik vote.
Global think-tank the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) said if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, prompting a second round, “Afghanistan could be plunged into political and ethnic violence.”
Attacks by Taliban insurgents, who were ousted from government in the 2001 US-led invasion, grip much of Afghanistan, raising fears that people will be too scared to turn out on polling day.
This could favour Abdullah, as the worst-hit regions are Karzai’s Pashtun strongholds in the south and east, ICOS said in a report this month.
“If a run-off is needed, or there is a strong voter response to allegations of election fraud, the chances for civil unrest are high,” the report said.
But Herat governor Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani insisted that international and local observers will man all polling stations, and urged everyone to honour the results.
“I hope good sense prevails over some of these agitators,” he said. “For the sake of the innocent people, the loser has to accept the loss gracefully like in a normal democratic country.”
Others share his optimism, and hope that Afghanistan has closed its chapter of inter-tribal warring and civil unrest.
“For 24 years people have seen many wars, and now they are tired of violence and war,” said 30-year-old Herat spice shop owner Jawad Montazer.
“Whoever becomes the president must serve people and help people -- that is what is important.”