CHARBULAK, Afghanistan: Villagers in Afghanistan say the Taliban have been telling them not to vote in elections planned later this year, threatening to burn down the house of anyone who does, in a bid to derail a vote seen as a major test of government credibility.
Parliament and district council elections scheduled for October represent an enormous challenge for a government which is under heavy pressure from its international backers to ensure a fair and credible vote.
But the Taliban, who launched their annual spring offensive this week, have already made it clear that they will not allow the process, seen as a dry run for next year's presidential election, to go ahead unhindered.
"They gathered us in the mosque and warned us that if we went to the registration centres and voted, they would burn down the village," said Kamal Uddin, a resident of Rahmat Abad village in the northern province of Balkh, after a visit to his area by Taliban fighters last week.
The complex process of registering voters at more than 7,000 centres around Afghanistan began this month in 34 provincial capitals, with district centres and villages due to begin next month.
With no room for hitches if some 14 million voters are to be registered by October, officials acknowledge that the process began slowly, with some 568,000 people signed up by Thursday, although they are hopeful it will gather pace.
There was a bloody reminder of the threats facing the process when a suicide attack claimed by the ISIS group killed 60 people at a voter centre in Kabul this week. However, it is in the provinces that the difficulties may be greatest.
According to U.S. estimates, the government has firm control over no more than around 56 percent of the country and vulnerability will increase as the process continues into district centres and rural areas.
'A small punishment'
Balkh, one of Afghanistan's more stable provinces with valuable trade crossings into Central Asia, is a long way from the Taliban heartlands in the south and is considered far more secure than neighbouring Kunduz province, where the Taliban dominate many areas. But even here, the militants appear determined to lay down a marker.
Shams, a resident of Dowlat Abad district in the north of the province, said the most recent visit by Taliban tax collectors levying ushr (land tax) and zakat (an Islamic tax) included an explicit warning to stay away from the elections.
"They came with a great show of force because the elections are coming up and they wanted the people to see," he said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied the movement was issuing warnings about burning houses but said they were telling people to stay away from the election. However, other Taliban officials were more open.
"Burning a house is a small punishment if they are caught in supporting this U.S. operation to prolong their stay in Afghanistan," said one Taliban commander, who asked not to be identified.
Afghan security forces have launched operations to drive the Taliban back and promise people will be able to vote in safety.
"We will not allow anyone to stop elections taking place in this province," said Balkh's provincial governor, Mohammad Isaaq Rahgozar. "If the Taliban has issued warnings, that's one of their techniques to intimidate people, but we are trying to make sure that nobody suffers any harm through this."
However, many Afghans in the area, who over the years have seen repeated military clearance operations followed by the return of the Taliban, are sceptical.
"The Taliban have had a presence in this area for a very long time," said Fazel Ahmad, a resident of Chemtal district in Balkh. "The government and the security forces don't have the capacity to provide security. If we vote, we'll be killed."
© Thomson Reuters 2018