Afghanistan's first parliamentary elections in eight years suffered from violence and chaos Saturday, with a multitude of attacks killing at least 36 people, key election workers failing to show up and many polling stations staying open hours later than scheduled to handle long lines of voters.
Problems surrounding the elections — already three years overdue — threaten to compromise the credibility of polls, which an independent monitoring group said were also marred by incidents of ballot stuffing and intimidation by armed men affiliated with candidates in 19 of the country's 32 provinces. Some areas had yet to vote, including Kandahar, where the provincial police chief was gunned down Thursday.
Stakes were high in these elections for Afghans who hoped to reform parliament, challenging the dominance of warlords and the politically corrupt and replacing them with a younger, more educated generation of politicians. They were also high for the U.S., which is still seeking an exit strategy after 17 years of a war there that has cost more than $900 billion and claimed the lives of more than 2,400 U.S. service personnel.
Deputy Interior Minister Akhtar Mohammed Ibrahimi said 36 people were killed in 193 insurgent attacks on voters across the country: 27 civilians, eight police officers and one Afghan soldier. He said attackers used a variety of weapons — including grenade, small arms, mortars and rocket launchers — and that security forces killed 31 insurgents.
The most serious attack on the polls was in a northern Kabul neighborhood where a suicide bomber blew himself up just as voting was about to end, killing three people and wounding another 20, said Dr. Esa Hashemiat at the nearby Afghan Hospital. Interior and Defense ministry officials said 15 people were killed or wounded, including several police.
Polling stations also struggled with voter registration and a new biometric system that was aimed at stemming fraud, but instead created enormous confusion because many of those trained on the system did not show up for work. Also, the biometric machines were received just a month before the election and there was no time to do field testing.
Many polling stations opened as much as five hours behind schedule. The Independent Election Commission was uncertain how many of the estimated 21,000 polling stations closed by 4 p.m., the original closing time. Voting was extended until 8 p.m. for polling stations that opened late.
Afghanistan's deputy chief executive Mohammad Mohaqiq expressed outrage at the chaotic start to polling and assailed preparation by the country's election commission.
"The people rushed like a flood to the polling stations, but the election commission employees were not present, and in some cases they were there but there were no electoral materials and in most cases the biometric systems were not working," he said.
"The widespread reports today of confusion and incompetence in the administration of the elections ... suggest that bureaucratic failures and lack of political will to prioritize organizing credible parliamentary elections may do more to delegitimize the election results than threats and violent attacks by the Taliban and Daesh," said Andrew Wilder, vice president of Asia Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, using the Arabic acronym name for the Islamic State group.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani marked his ballot at the start of voting. In a televised speech afterward, he congratulated Afghans on the election and praised the security forces, particularly the air force, for getting ballots to Afghanistan's remotest corners.
North of Kabul, thousands of outraged voters blocked a road after waiting more than five hours for a polling station to open, said Mohammad Azim, the governor of Qarabagh district where the demonstration took place.
Election commission member Abdul Badi Sayat said dozens of teachers who had been trained in the new biometric system had not shown up at the polling stations. It wasn't clear whether that was related to a Taliban warning directed specifically at teachers and students telling them to stay away.
The election commission had registered 8.8 million people to vote. Wasima Badghisy, a commission member, called voters "very, very brave" and said a turnout of 5 million would be a success.
At a polling station in crowded west Kabul, Khoda Baksh said he arrived nearly two hours early to cast his vote, dismissing Taliban threats of violence.
"We don't care about their threats. The Taliban are threatening us all the time," said the 55-year-old Baksh, who said he wanted to see a new generation of politicians take power in Afghanistan's 249-seat parliament. He bemoaned the current parliament, dominated by warlords and corrupt elite: "They have done zero for us."
In the run-up to the elections, two candidates were killed, while polling in Kandahar was delayed for a week after a rogue guard gunned down the powerful provincial police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq. In Kabul, security was tight, with police and military personnel stopping vehicles at dozens of checkpoints throughout the congested capital city