Any vote would be victory in Dahaneh

By Alfred de Montesquiou
Associated Press / August 20, 2009

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DAHANEH, Afghanistan - A week after Dahaneh was pried from Taliban control by US Marines, and little more than 36 hours before Afghans select a president, election workers finally reached this Helmand province town and began to register voters.

Their supplies were spare: a white sheet pinned to a mud wall as a backdrop for photos, a digital camera, and a tiny printer powered by a car battery atop a box of ammunition.

“I know it’s dangerous and I’m afraid, but I’m still going to vote,’’ said Ahmed Shah, a 37-year old farmer with a long beard and a wrinkled face, who was among the few dozen residents who trickled in to register. “I think there’s enough [Afghan] army and Americans to protect us.’’

After four years in the hands of Taliban militants, Dahaneh was stormed in a helicopter-borne assault by a Marine company last week, part of President Obama’s strategy to regain the initiative in the eight-year Afghanistan conflict.

As citizens registered Tuesday afternoon, ahead of today’s election, gunfire could be heard in the distance.

The town lies in the country’s south, the heart of the Taliban insurgency, where the fear of militant violence and retribution against citizens who vote could severely dent the turnout in the election and so threaten its legitimacy.

Afghan authorities say that having any villagers from Dahaneh vote, however modest the numbers, will be a huge accomplishment.

“I am the first official based here in four years,’’ said Sayad Murad Mamad, the district chief who arrived this week to start a government presence.

A mobile team from the Afghan Independent Electoral Commission opened shop in the corner of a dusty police compound courtyard.

By last night, about 70 people, including some army and police personnel, had registered.

Getting people in the district to join the voting process and adhere to the government in faraway Kabul is crucial. The ethnic Pashtun villagers in Helmand live outside any central authority and produce 60 percent of the world’s opium, which is channeled into the drug trade funding the insurgency.

Being the Taliban’s heartland, Helmand and other heavily Pashtun provinces in the south have huge importance for the election result. Incumbent president and front-runner Hamid Karzai, himself a Pashtun, needs a strong turnout in the region to boost his chance of reelection. About 40 percent of the Afghan population is Pashtun.

The Marines here are among the 21,000 US forces Obama sent to Afghanistan this year - in part to help secure today’s vote - and they are racing to reclaim territory from militants. In Dahaneh, the Taliban fighters resisted fiercely in days of intense gun battles and bombings before retreating. About 10 militants and one Marine were killed in the fighting.

The rest of the valley remains a front line. Marines control roughly the western part of the district, though thousands of hidden IEDs - improvised explosive devices - make movement perilous.