KABUL — Hundreds of polling stations could be closed in Afghanistan's most violent regions, raising concerns that many ethnic Pashtuns will be unable to vote in next month's presidential elections. That could undermine the legitimacy of the election, cause turmoil and possibly deprive President Hamid Karzai of a first-round victory.
Afghan authorities plan to establish about 7,000 polling centers across the country for the Aug. 20 balloting. But security officials are unsure whether voting can take place in about 700 of them, said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission.
At least 500 will probably not open because of security fears, according to a Western official working on the elections. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to comment publicly on the process.
Nearly all those polling stations are located in Pashtun areas of the south and east where the Taliban insurgency is the strongest, the official said. Most are in the Pashtun provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Wardak and Ghazni.
Taliban spokesmen have called on Afghans not to vote in the election but have not explicitly threatened to attack polling stations.
A low turnout in Pashtun areas could cost Karzai support among his fellow Pashtuns, who tend to vote by ethnicity even though many of them are disenchanted with the president because of his ties to the Americans. Karzai's chief rival in the 39-candidate field, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, is popular in northern Tajik areas, which are more peaceful and more likely to have a strong turnout.
Karzai is widely assumed to be the front-runner but if he fails to win more than half the votes in the crowded field, he would face a runoff with the second-place finisher in October. Karzai could be vulnerable if his opponents rally around an alternative candidate in the runoff.
If Abdullah runs stronger than expected, Pashtuns may not accept the outcome. If Karzai claims a first-round victory, it is also uncertain that the Tajiks would believe the results were valid.
Abdullah is half Pashtun but is closely associated with the Tajiks because he was a top adviser to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, a top Tajik commander. Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaida two days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
With so much uncertainty, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, called the upcoming ballot "the most complicated elections I have seen."
About 17 million registered voters are eligible to vote for Afghanistan's next president and provincial council members. Even without the threat of violence, the logistics of setting up polling centers in an impoverished country of deserts, towering mountains, few roads and poor infrastructure are challenging.
Authorities plan to use 3,100 donkeys to ferry ballots to some of the country's most inaccessible regions that trucks and even helicopters cannot reach.
Eide said it "is not in the interest of anybody" that a "significant proportion of the population" is unable to vote so that "the result does not reflect the will of the Afghan people."
"It's important for all of us to see these elections reflect the will of the people," he said.
Interior Minister Hanif Atmar said some polling stations may have to be changed but pledged that Afghan security forces would be present at all voting sites.
Nevertheless, fears of violence are running high. On Tuesday, gunmen opened fire on a provincial campaign manager for Abdullah in eastern Afghanistan. The campaign manager was wounded and a driver was killed.
The attack occurred one day after the convoy of one of Karzai's vice presidential running mates, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, came under fire in northern Afghanistan. Fahim, the former commander of the Afghan alliance that ousted the Taliban in 2001, escaped injury but a cameraman working for his campaign was wounded.
Interior Ministry officials say there have been about 20 attacks against politicians or their aides in the past three weeks.
Meanwhile, the NATO-led force said an Afghan civilian was killed and five others wounded Tuesday after its troops clashed with insurgents in Zabul province in the south. It said six civilians were treated at a NATO base but one died.
The issue of civilian casualties has been a constant source of friction between Karzai and the U.S. military commanders. Soon after assuming command of NATO and U.S. forces last month, Gen. Stanley McChrystal ordered troops to limit the use of airstrikes to prevent civilian casualties.