KABUL, Afghanistan – KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan officials and political figures sought to reassure wary Afghans on Thursday that it will be safe to vote in this weekend's parliamentary election despite an upswing in violence in recent months.
Both the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, an insurgent group under the leadership of warlord and former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have criticized the elections and urged people to stay home.
In the southern province of Kandahar — the birthplace of the Taliban — Gov. Tooryalai Wesa insisted that recent military operations by NATO and Afghan forces had weakened the insurgents.
"They've got nothing," Wesa told reporters in Kandahar city. "They just have propaganda and threats, so people should not be afraid. They should come out for the coming elections and they should vote their choice for their own candidate."
Saturday's poll is the first since a fraud-marred presidential vote last year that left many of the Afghan government's international backers questioning whether they had a reliable partner in President Hamid Karzai.
Much of the fraud in the August 2009 election was tied to insecurity. Polling station lists were only released a few days before the vote because of continually changing reports from security forces about what areas they could secure. A push to open as many polling stations as possible enabled corrupt officials to stuff ballot boxes for their preferred candidate at stations voters didn't know about or couldn't get to.
A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry urged citizens to trust they'll be protected by Afghan and international security forces and go to the polls.
"The Interior Ministry calls on the people of Afghanistan to come out and vote in force. The security is fine. We have taken care of the security," Zemeri Bashary told reporters in Kabul.
NATO said Thursday that eight insurgents who "actively" planned to execute attacks during the elections were killed in an airstrike and a follow-up ground operation against a Taliban district commander in northern Kunduz province the previous day.
In addition, NATO and Afghan forces arrested three men who had been planning a rocket and grenade attack on a military training center in the capital during the balloting, NATO said Thursday. The military coalition said it found the group through a number of intelligence sources, including tips from local residents.
Nevertheless, the campaign season has been characterized by violence and intimidation.
There have been at least 19 election-related deaths, including four candidates, according to the U.N. and the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, the main Afghan monitoring group. The foundation also recorded at least 220 incidents of election-related violence and intimidation across the country between July 15 and Aug. 25.
The Taliban repeated their threat of violence on election day in a statement sent to media Thursday.
It said it has planned countrywide attacks "to frustrate this American process and will implement them on the day when the illegitimate process (of elections) is conducted."
In the eastern province of Khost, Taliban leaflets were posted on mosques warning against voting.
"Any election workers or voters will be considered abandoned by our holy warriors and if they go to polling stations they will be targeted," one leaflet said. "Vehicles and polling stations will be attacked by bombs and other means."
The reactions in Khost reflected the mixture of fear and tenacity that characterizes the vote.
"I am not crazy to risk my life by participating in the elections," said one local resident, Mohammad Shapoor.
But another man said he would not be deterred. "We will vote fearlessly, we are not scared of anyone," Sharifuddin Zazai said.
About 280,000 Afghan police and soldiers will protect the more than 5,800 voting centers officially scheduled to open on election day, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi. Last year, about 150,000 Afghan forces protected more than 6,000 voting centers. International forces providing backup security have also increased to about 150,000 from 130,000 in the 2009 vote, Azimi said.
In Kandahar, local officials warned that too much security could even hamper turnout. The province, and particularly Kandahar city, have seen a surge of international and Afghan forces in recent months as part of a push to retake the Taliban stronghold.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, chairman of the provincial council and President Karzai's brother, said that people can be frightened away if daily traffic is restricted or there are too many security forces out on the street.
"It's better for people and the government to relax and make it more like a normal, routine day," he said.
Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in last year's presidential poll, called on Afghans to vote "in massive numbers" Saturday, even though he said the vote will likely be marred with fraud and violence.
"Enough measures have not been taken in order to prevent massive fraud" since the presidential vote, Abdullah said. he said that voters should consider it their duty to go to the polls and watch for misconduct when they do.
Even so, he said, "The answer is not to show apathy."
Khan reported from Kandahar city. Associated Press writers Kimberly Dozier, Dusan Stojanovic and Amir Shah contributed to this report from Kabul.