Weary and Worried, Some Afghans Choose Not to Cast Ballot

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KABUL, Afghanistan - If the U.S. had a poster child for the kind of Afghanistan it has spent billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives trying build, 21-year-old Manizha Raihimi would be it.

The law student who aims to defy tradition and eventually become a judge believes in democracy and is working to better her beloved Afghanistan. She worries about the fate of Afghan women and helps tutor orphaned girls in addition to her studies.

But her aspirations do not include casting a ballot in presidential elections on Saturday, the country’s first democratic transfer of power.

"I am really worried. I think a lot of innocent blood will be shed."

"I would really love to vote. I would love to be part of the election in our country, but I do not trust any of the people who want to be president," she said. “They killed in the past, and they cheat.”

Raihimi, who comes from a small village in Tahar province in northeast Afghanistan, speaks from experience. When she was a child, she witnessed commanders loyal to warlord Abudul Rashid Dostum slay family members, including her brother.

Now, to her horror, Dostum is a vice-presidential candidate.

Law student Manizha Raihimi, 21, says she is disillusioned with the political process in Afghanistan, and will not vote in Saturday's elections.Haroon Sabawoon / NBC News

Raihimi is not alone. Thirteen years after the U.S. invasion, and 10 years after the first presidential election, some harbor doubts and fears about casting a ballot in this third presidential election.

While a record 21 million out of a population of 32 million are registered to vote, Afghans are split on whether their ballots will make a difference. Some feel disillusioned and angry that more than a decade after the Taliban was toppled, militant violence is on the upswing. Furthermore, the country remains one of the poorest and most corrupt in the world.

Shir, a shopkeeper from Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace and one of the most insecure regions of the country, said he is too scared to vote this time around -- even though he proudly participated in past elections.

"I voted because it is a better alternative than the Taliban. We needed to show the people had ownership of our country. We had the chance to experience democracy," said Shir, who asked to be identified by his first name only.

But his optimism faded in the years since the first election in 2004. Shir said he has no faith in the candidates who he believes are corrupt, so will not risk his life on their behalf by going to the polls.

"I am really worried. I think a lot of innocent blood will be shed," he said.

Indeed, the Taliban has already threatened voters and election workers.

“Each and every center and worker in these elections is in peril and a wide range of attacks are to be launched throughout the country,” the Taliban said in a statement earlier this week.

It is precisely because the stakes are so high that Afghans should vote, said Wadir Safi, a political science professor at Kabul University.

"This election is a very important moment in Afghan history," the 65-year-old said. "This is the first time there will be a peaceful handover of power from one elected politician to the next."

"I am proud of democracy in my country, and it is my responsibility and everyone's responsibility to vote."

Safi, who lived through decades of political turmoil and war, said democracy is the best path for his beleaguered nation.

He acknowledged that the elections may be marred with corruption, and that many of the candidates have checkered pasts, but said the election must succeed in order for the next leader to insure the integrity of future polls.

"The election will not be 100 percent fair, and there will be fraud, but we must proceed,” he said.

So despite all the controversy and danger, millions look set to vote. Among them is Mohammed Jaweed, a butcher in Kabul.

Kabul butcher Mohammed Jaweed said he is excited to participate in Saturday's presidential elections.Kiko Itasaka / NBC News

"I voted twice before, and we are all excited,” the 35-year-old said. “God willing, it will be a good election. Good and fair."

He said he has faith in the security provided by the military and police.

Outside Jaweed's store, Ramazon Rezayee sells bananas from a cart he pushes himself. He echoed Jaweed’s comments and said it his duty and a privilege to participate in the elections.

"I am proud of democracy in my country, and it is my responsibility and everyone's responsibility to vote."