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Page last updated at 14:11 GMT, Thursday, 13 August 2009 15:11 UK

Election buzz in remotest Afghanistan

By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Badakhshan

Mother and son in Badakhshan province
Little has changed in Badakhshan province over the years

Tucked away in a remote north-east corner of Afghanistan, Badakhshan province exists in a world of its own.

It is a mass of snowy peaks and scattered valleys, with no sustainable road network and only a dirt track to connect the province with the rest of the country.

Yet it is the question of who rules in the capital, Kabul, some 600km (373 miles) south-west across treacherous valleys, that is looming large as the presidential elections draw near.

Afghanistan goes to polls on 20 August.

So too will Mohammadullah Khan, a peasant from Daraim valley, some 50km (31 miles) south of Faizabad, the capital of Badakhshan.

Mohammadullah Khan
I will certainly express my opinion, and so will my wife and two sons
Mohammadullah Khan

On election day, his family members will ride their pony and two donkeys to the polling station, which a one-and-a-half hour journey from their home.

Yar Mohammad, an ironsmith from Eshakashem, 120km (74 miles) south-east of Faizabad, says he will do the same.

"All of us must vote, because if we don't, it will weaken the system," he says.

Both Yar Mohammad and Mohammadullah Khan are part of a landscape that is stunningly beautiful but whose inhabitants endure primitive lifestyles and extreme poverty.

Both men travelled for hours in slow-moving vans across bumpy dirt tracks to bring their sons - aged between five and six years old - to a Faizabad hospital to treat them for hernias.

The doctors here say hernia issues are pretty common among children. Malnutrition, whooping cough and sometimes iodine deficiency can be the cause.

The two families' problems are more or less the same as those of the vast majority of the people of Badakhshan.

Puppet government?

So, ahead of these elections, what has the present government in Kabul done for Badakhshan's population, compared with the former warlords who ruled in isolation?

Aqa Noor Kentoos
[The Taliban] haven't tried anything more sinister than verbally inciting people to boycott the election
Aqa Noor Kentoos

Badakhshan province police chief

Many in the province say, "very little". Some even denounce the incumbent government as an American puppet, with no will of its own.

They point out that no effort has been made during the past seven years to build roads in the region and that there is no communications infrastructure.

Since the Soviet occupation ended, Badakhshan, like other parts of Afghanistan, has seen the rise of warlords who have now been co-opted by the Karzai government and who now hold various provincial offices of power.

Many have benefited immensely from Badakhshan's vast poppy crops and are still said to control its gemstone mines, as well as border trade with Tajikistan.

More recently the Taliban, who have never enjoyed a foothold in this majority ethnic Tajik region, have been showing up on the southern outskirts of the province - near the border with Pakistan - asking people not to vote in the election.

Warlord-affiliated

However, a growing number of people believe that while all of this may be true, there are signs of change on the horizon.

For the first time in Badakhshan's history, the government is building a 105km-long (65-mile) road from Faizabad to Keshem, on the border with neighbouring Takhar province.

Baz Mohammad Ahmadi, a former warlord-affiliated to Afghanistan's Jamiat-e-Islami party and current governor of Badakhshan, says the road will be completed in 2010.

Qasim Jan and his son
If the present system doesn't work, then the warlords will be back, and that will be bad for the people
Qasim Jan, local farmer

In addition, the past seven years have brought massive development funds from Western donors to boost the government's efforts to extend health facilities in the region.

Health officials say more than 70 new facilities have been built across different valleys in the area.

"A lot more needs to be done, but we have made a start," says Dr Momin Jalaly, the provincial health chief.

The Afghan government has also been successful in eradicating poppy farming in Badakhshan, which until last year was the country's second largest opium-producing region after Helmand province.

Officials say this success is partly owed to the government's policy of absorbing the warlords into its infrastructure.

"Many local warlords were given police jobs in the districts, and were told to prevent poppy cultivation in their areas if they wanted to keep their jobs," says a senior government official in Faizabad.

As for the Taliban, they are not a tangible threat, says Aqa Noor Kentoos, the provincial police chief.

As the elections approach, a growing number of people appear to realise that changes have taken place in Afghanistan and they are getting over their paranoia from the past.

"If the present system doesn't work, then the warlords will be back, and that will be bad for the people," says Qasim Jan, a local farmer.



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