Afghans determined to vote for a president despite Taliban threats and suicide bombings
No guarantee of clear winner, but next president likely will attempt to join peace process
On Saturday, Afghans will vote in only the fourth presidential election in their history, in a process that's been racked by uncertainty and violence.
The Taliban has repeatedly threatened the poll, and has launched a number of bold attacks, beginning at the start of the two-month campaign with a suicide bombing and assault that targeted vice presidential candidate Amrullah Saleh, running on the ticket with incumbent President Ashraf Ghani.
Salah was injured, but 20 people were killed in the attack and gun battle at his office in Kabul. The Taliban have since attacked a number of election-related activities, including one of Ghani's political rallies in Parwan, north of Kabul, earlier this month that killed 30 people and injured dozens more.
To mitigate the threat, the government closed schools from Thursday and 72,000 Afghan security forces have been drafted to help police protect polling stations.
Streets blocked, minivans stilled
As the elections draw close, the streets of Kabul fell quieter. Trucks and minivans that act as public transport have been banned by the city, and streets have been blocked.
Colonel Abdul Wassi, a member of the Afghan security forces, currently has a mission in central Kabul to protect an area that is home to one of the presidential candidates. He has fought all around Afghanistan, in Paktika province in the east and Helmand in the south, among other places.
"The Taliban threatened elections, so we are on alert. They told us they could attack in 100 different ways, maybe dressed as a woman, or in a military uniform, so we are watching everything," he said.
For security reasons, he would not allow photos of his 50 men, who were setting up metal blockades in a Kabul neighbourhood. Those checkpoints will be removed after Saturday's vote, he said.
New Taliban threat to discourage voting
As the election neared, the Taliban issued a fresh threat, instructing their fighters to use "everything at their disposal" to prevent the process. The statement on their website says the Taliban "issues an ultimatum to all those individuals, especially city dwellers, that intend to participate in this process to stay away from polling stations on election day and not throw themselves into danger."
Thousands of Canadian forces served in Afghanistan from 2002-2011, in Kandahar and Kabul and 158 Canadians died.
Part of Canada's stated aim when it first came to the country was "rebuilding the democratic process." There have been successes, including the first peaceful transition of power in the country's modern history when president Hamid Karzai stepped down in 2014, in favour of a unity government led by Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
That arrangement, brokered by then-U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, was a compromise after a presidential election that was widely viewed as corrupt, so neither man would accept the results.
Measures to prevent election fraud
Since then, new measures have been implemented to prevent fraud and improve accountability, such as biometric machines to verify voter identities and registration lists that mean voters must cast their ballot in the area where they were registered. First introduced in parliamentary elections last October, the new procedures caused confusion and delays that meant the elections were extended for a day.
Election officials and observers hope this vote will go more smoothly, because the polls are better staffed and those using the machines have more experience with them.
Although there will be 18 candidate names on the presidential ballot, a couple have dropped out of the race, leaving about 16. Ghani and Abdullah are seen as the two frontrunners.
Another candidate, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former warlord and leader of the Hizb-e-Islami political party, who Ghani brought to Kabul in a peace arrangement, has warned if the vote is not free of corruption, he and his followers could return to the battlefield.
Ghani has ruled out the possibility of another power-sharing national unity government, even if there is a dispute over election results, which prompted the arrangement after the last election.
Afghan government left out of peace talks
Many thought these elections were not going to happen at all. The Taliban and the U.S. had been negotiating since last October in Doha and in August both sides said they were close to signing an agreement that would lead to intra-Afghan talks.
Those talks, scheduled to begin Sept. 23, were likely to have precluded the election. Then earlier this month U.S. President Donald Trump revealed he had invited the Taliban to Camp David – the Taliban said they had refused to come before the deal was signed. Trump then cancelled the negotiations, calling the talks "dead."
Ghani's government had been left out of the negotiations, in part because the Taliban regard it as a puppet of the United States.
Taliban leaders have travelled to Russia, China and Iran in recent weeks to garner international support to get the U.S. back to the negotiating table.
The election will decide who, if anyone, the Taliban will negotiate with. That is, of course, if this vote produces a winner. To prevent a runoff election, one candidate must get more than 50 per cent of the vote.
It's not known if the Taliban will talk to the new president, but Afghans have been saying repeatedly that the Taliban must negotiate with Afghans.
Afghans shrug at possibility of violence
While the Taliban has repeatedly threatened the elections, the group has also softened its stance on two matters, announcing that both the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization could resume activities in areas they control.
"We don't care about the Taliban threat," said Hamisha Charaghi, 19, who is studying journalism at university.
"We want a better future and the only way to do that is to vote. That will make the country better."
Fruit seller Mohammad Isaq, 55, shrugged when asked about the possibility of violence. "We know about that? What can we do, we need change. I will vote."