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Afghan polls and deepening security concerns

Deadly attack on foreign journalists deepens fears of violence during Saturday's presidential elections.
Last modified: 4 Apr 2014 14:28
Bloodied cameras at the scene of Friday's shooting in Khost [Al Jazeera]

Kabul, Afghanistan – The reassurances offered at a press conference by commanders of Afghan Special Forces on Thursday rang hollow on Friday morning, when an attack on two journalists in Khost province put a fine point on the lack of security in the country.

Precisely 24 hours after the Kabul news conference, in which commanders of the country's special forces spoke of the prowess of their robust and ready forces, two veteran journalists for the Associated Press, photographer Anja Niedringhaus and reporter Kathy Gannon, were gunned down.

According to the AP, Niedringhaus died instantly and Gannon, wounded, is stable and recovering. They travelled up to the area with an election commission convoy that was distributing voting materials to the area

Targeting journalists and civilians is sadly a part of life here, but what’s jarring about the horrible attack is that they were attacked by a veteran police commander, in uniform, inside a heavily-guarded compound.

The shooter, who is identified only as "Naquibullah", surrendered after firing his AK-47 into the backseat of the private car in which the AP team was travelling. So a member of the very team intended to protect the convoy and the distribution of the election materials in fact carried out the attack.

They were not election workers, they were not in a high-profile government building, they were not in gathering places for foreign diplomats and other potential targets.

SMS poll

Furthermore, the convoy with which they were travelling was protected by Afghan police and the Afghan National Army (ANA), which will be responsible for the lion’s share of maintaining security once US troops pull out.

A March 16 – 25 SMS poll commissioned by Al Jazeera indicated that 47 percent of Afghans felt the ANA were up to the task of providing protection.

The motives of the shooter have not been verified, and according to a statement by the Khost governor’s office, he is in custody and being investigated. It could be that they were foreign women (no locals were wounded); it could be that they were with the election commission convoy, it could be that the district in which they were shot, the Tani district, borders Pakistan's Waziristan region, where anti-foreigner sentiment is strong.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Sediq Seddiqi told me that the shooter is not suspected to be a member of the Taliban, that he simply didn't know that journalists were coming to the area and that it "could be poor judgement".

He could not answer questions about why the shooter would only target the two women in the backseat and not the driver, but added that the investigation is ongoing.

Still, if such an attack can take place at 10:45 on a Friday morning, then how can security forces guarantee the security of voters and election workers on Saturday, when the Taliban has vowed, repeatedly, to disrupt Saturday's elections?

They have already struck at multiple targets around the capital at will – hotels, election commission offices and even within the gates of the Ministry of the Interior itself on Wednesday, when a Taliban operative dressed in a police uniform passed several checkpoints before detonating a suicide vest, killing six.

'Psychological warfare'

Defence Ministry Spokesman Mohammed Zaher Azimi described the tactics of the Taliban as "psychological warfare" during Thursday’s press conference held at the government media centre.

"It’s intended to control public ideology," said Azimi.

"This kind of warfare is intended to cause tension in the public psyche…if they want to strike a blow to the security forces, then it's clear where the security targets are. If they want to, as they say, strike against the foreigners, then it's clear where the foreigners go…so I ask you, 'what's the result of an attack on a market in Faryab?'" said Azimi, pointing to the fact that work-a-day people were the targets.

But the fact is, the Taliban has struck against police as well as foreigners. It's unknown if the Khost shooter is a Taliban operative, what's clear is that no one is safe here now.

Whether the roughly 200,000 security forces being deployed for Saturday’s election will be enough to protect voters and workers at the nearly 21,000 polling stations around the country remains to be seen.

Whatever the case, Afghanistan is, as always, bracing itself for the worst.

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