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Taliban use voter cards as 'visas'

The Globe and Mail

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Taliban fighters are using recently acquired voter identification cards as makeshift passports to smooth border crossings from Pakistan and ease travel between cities in Kandahar's southern provinces.

When produced, the voter registration cards give fighters an appearance of legitimacy, they say, and help them “trick” Afghan security and international forces into allowing them to sail through police and army checkpoints set up to limit the militants' mobility.

Interviews with several mid-level Taliban commanders and low-level fighters spread across southern Kandahar province, including the Taliban-dominated villages of Mushan and Zangabad, revealed that insurgents have no intention of using their voter registration cards to participate in the coming election. “We will not be allowed to vote … because this government is not for us. It is only for slaves of the USA and others, and we reject this government,” one fighter hiding out west of Kandahar city told a Globe researcher.

Instead, the militants interviewed explained that they applied for the cards on the advice of senior commanders in Quetta, Pakistan, who suggested the cards might help insurgents traverse southern Afghanistan's dangerous highways, which are controlled by Afghan troops in some sections and by Taliban in others.

And so far, they say, the cards have often worked.

“If we want to go into the city or other districts, we face NATO forces or [Afghan] police … if we show these kinds of cards they let us go free and don't make any problems against us,” the same fighter said.

A Canadian military spokesman deferred comment on the issue to Afghan officials. However, Kandahar's recently appointed Governor, Tooryalai Wesa, said he has not had any reports of Taliban using voter registration cards as if they are travel visas. “This is propaganda,” he said. “They're just putting words out. They cannot fight face to face, so this is what they do. They put words in the media.”

Abdul Qahir Wasifi, a Kandahar-based spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, openly invited Taliban supporters to attend voter registration drives held in January and February of this year. At the time, a Taliban spokesman rejected the suggestion, calling it “disgusting.” But unofficially, junior fighters said, many were advised to try getting the cards. Mr. Wasifi said there was no way to prevent them from doing so. “Every Afghan person, according to our constitution, they can get the cards to vote,” he said. “I don't know who is a Talib and who is not.”

The problem of not being able to visually distinguish Taliban militants from regular citizens makes it difficult for election officials to curb the misuse of the registration cards, added Noor Mohammad Noor, a national spokesman for the election commission. “The Taliban don't have any specific uniform, so the people who came to the [voter registration drive] got their registration cards.”

Mr. Noor said the cards “should only be used for voting” and Afghan security officials should stop accepting them as valid pieces of identification ahead of the elections.

But it was unclear whether Afghan officials will make any push to do so. Top Afghan security officials in Kandahar are currently immersed in a continuing operation to flush insurgents and their weapons caches out of areas in the city known to harbour them. They are also in the early stages of developing a security plan for the election, scheduled for August, to ensure residents of the province can make it safely to the polls. If there are obstructions that day from insurgents though, it will not be because they are trying to vote.

“If any one from us gives the vote, we will punish and disarm him and kick him out of the Taliban party. This is the order of our leadership,” a mid-level commander said, adding: “And we will not let the common people give their vote. This is our general policy.”

Afghan security forces are taking the threat in stride. “The enemy has always attempted to destabilize our election process,” said Brigadier-General Shir Mohammad Zazai, commander of the Afghan National Army's 205 Corps, which has troops spread across the country's south. “Our biggest concern is focusing on the upcoming elections. We want them to be safe for the people.”

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