With U.S.-Taliban talks in tatters, Afghans brace for bloody elections

“Our future is uncertain,” said a Kabuli who has decided not to vote. “There is no guarantee that tomorrow I will still be alive.”
Image: Afghan elections
Employees of the Independent Election Commission load ballot boxes on trucks in Khost Province ahead of Saturday's vote. Farid Zahir / AFP - Getty Images

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By Ahmed Mengli and Saphora Smith

KABUL, Afghanistan — Ramish Azizi says he's staying home on Saturday rather than risk his life voting in Afghanistan's presidential election.

Azizi, 25, is afraid he will be attacked by the Taliban, which have warned Afghans not to vote and threatened to target polling booths and security personnel.

“I'm scared, 100 percent,” said Azizi, adding that the Afghan government had not secured his area in Kabul, even though he had been forced to close his ice cream shop for two days because of its proximity to a polling booth.

Ice cream seller Ramish Azizi said he is too afraid to vote in Saturday's election.

Violence has raged across Afghanistan this month since President Donald Trump pulled the plug on a potential deal with the Taliban to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from the country and end America’s longest war.

Since those negotiations broke down on Sept. 7, the Taliban, already gaining ground throughout the country, launched a spate of deadly attacks that killed dozens. (Meanwhile, U.S. and Afghan forces said they were investigating whether civilians were killed in strikes targeting ISIS and al-Qaeda.)

The fragile democracy born in the wake of the 2001 U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban is at risk of growing weaker as many Afghans grow more afraid and disillusioned. Now, presidential elections bring fresh threats and further anxiety for a population that has already suffered 40 years of war.

More than 70,000 Afghan forces have been deployed to guard polling stations with another 30,000 on standby, according to the interior ministry. Insecurity meant that the government planned to open fewer than 5,000 polling stations out of the more than 7,300 available, according to Afghanistan Analysts Network.

That means around a third of the population won’t be able to vote.

In the days leading up to the vote, the streets of Kabul were quiet, with locals preferring to stay home where possible and not linger in public spaces to avoid becoming the conflict’s latest victims. Since 2001, tens of thousands of civilians and security personnel, as well as more than 2,400 Americans, have been killed in Afghanistan.

Khaibar Shamal, 27, said he, too, would stay away from the ballot box.

A Kabul native who is getting married next month, Shamal said he was not inspired by any of the candidates and was afraid of being attacked.

“There are security problems. I hope these elections will be safer,” he said. “The future of Afghanistan and our future is uncertain. It’s not a clear situation. There is no guarantee that tomorrow I will still be alive.”

The Taliban has repeatedly threatened to target and disrupt the vote. In a message Thursday, the leadership warned Afghans that fighters would attack all security personnel and close roads to stop rural voters from traveling to polling stations.

“In case of any problems or casualties arise, all responsibility shall befall the participants of this American process themselves,” it said in a statement.

The group, which was toppled after it harbored 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, disputes the credibility of the elections, calling them "fraudulent" and saying they are organized by a government that it does not recognize and that it describes as a puppet of the U.S.

Early Saturday a hospital in the southern city of Kandahar said it was treating at least 15 wounded after a bomb attack on a local mosque where a polling station is located.

Of the 18 presidential hopefuls, President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who is chief executive of the unity government, are expected to have the greatest chance of victory.

In 2014, the election was mired in fraud allegations and the U.S. decided that a winner should not be declared but instead helped craft a power-sharing agreement between Ghani and Abdullah.

Afghan National Army soldiers stand guard at a checkpoint ahead of presidential elections on Saturday in Kabul.Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Some Afghans believe there will be a repeat of 2014. Abdullah has already expressed concerns over voter fraud.

It would not be the first time the Taliban has followed through with its threats to target the electoral process. Last year, during the parliamentary elections, the militants carried out multiple attacks to stop people from voting.

But Ali Adili, a researcher for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said many signs suggest that this year's elections will be worse.

“In 2014, security was much better. At that time we had more international forces still in the country and fewer districts that were controlled by the Taliban,” he said.

A poster of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah is displayed on a street on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. Ebrahim Noroozi / AP

Since then, the Taliban has expanded and consolidated its reach, according to researchers Ashley Jackson and Florian Weigand. Today, despite almost two decades of fighting, the militants control or hold sway in about half of the country.

The U.S. has also reduced its presence in Afghanistan. In 2014, there were more than 30,000 troops in Afghanistan, according to Reuters. Today, in America's 18th year of war in the country, there are 14,000 troops on the ground.

But not everyone NBC News spoke to said they planned to stay home. Despite the risk of violence, Nimatullah Sadat, 46, said it was his duty as an Afghan to vote.

“It is the religious and national obligation of all Afghans to vote for someone who is capable of leading the country,” said Sadat, a father of five.

"People want to participate in a process which can change and shape their future," he said.

Ahmed Mengli reported from Kabul, Saphora Smith from London, and Mushtaq Yusufzai from Peshawar.

Mushtaq Yusufzai and Associated Press contributed.