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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 23:30 GMT 00:30 UK
Afghan election notebook 3 - Zabul badlands

By Andrew North
BBC correspondent in Zabul

Qalat, Zabul province
Qalat - hardly recognisable as Zabul's main town
The name somehow says it. You don't really need to look at a map to know this is one of the more remote and forgotten parts of Afghanistan.

And one of the most dangerous - the rough desert and mountain ranges that make up Zabul province border the Pakistani tribal areas on one side and Kandahar province on the other.

This is one of the heartlands of the Taleban-led insurgency that has been rumbling along in the south and east for more than a year.

In Zabul, everyone has been a target - US and Afghan soldiers, government officials, election staff and construction workers building the Kabul-to-Kandahar road.

In recent clashes, the US military says it has killed several Arab fighters - people it believes came across the porous border with Pakistan.

In another incident, several Afghan soldiers were beheaded by suspected militants.

Biggest headache

To security experts, the province is bandit country.

We do regular missions [to Zabul] from Kandahar and we still have Afghan nationals working there
Talatbek Masadykov,
UN chief for south Afghanistan

Government control barely stretches beyond the tiny provincial capital of Qalat - a dusty collection of single-storey buildings around an old fort which you can drive through without even realising this is the main town.

No surprise then that Zabul - along with another southern province, Uruzgan - is giving organisers of the 9 October presidential election the biggest headache.

That is the task of the Afghan and UN-staffed Joint Electoral Management Body.

But unlike in most provinces, it now has no full-time international staff in Zabul.

Talatbek Masadykov, the UN chief for southern Afghanistan, denies it has pulled out of the province.

"We do regular missions from Kandahar," he says, "and we still have Afghan nationals working there."

High-risk tasks

However, the job of coordinating election preparations is now largely in the hands of two employees of British firm Global Risk Strategies, which has an Afghan-wide contract to advise the UN on security for the elections.

It is a strange and isolating existence - the two men operate from a small, high-walled compound in Qalat and only venture out under heavy guard.

But in effect, here in Zabul, these two contractors have become the United Nations.

The two Global staff have been carrying out key and high-risk tasks like selecting polling sites across the province.

Two other Global workers were killed earlier this year in the eastern province of Nuristan doing the same job.

The only other international presence in Zabul is the American military.

But with the security situation so fragile, it is now clear that these US forces will play a central role in making the election happen.

Officials say the latest plan is for polling station staff to be taken to each site in US helicopters.

At the end of the day, they will be retrieved the same way, with the ballot boxes.

It is not something the Americans want to be seen doing. Elsewhere in the country, they are planning to keep their forces well away from polling stations to avoid accusations of influencing the process.

In Zabul, it looks like they will have little choice but to break that rule.

Similar tactics will be employed in other insecure areas.

But it is because there are so many highly dangerous areas like this that several presidential candidates have openly called for the elections to be postponed.

What is more, there is unlikely to be any outside monitoring of the voting here, except perhaps in Qalat.

Many fear there will be little to stop local militia commanders or tribal chiefs dictating how people should vote, if they can vote at all.

It is not the ideal environment in which to hold the first elections in Afghanistan.


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