For months, residents of the southern frontier city where the Taliban was born have awoken to "night letters" left on their doorsteps and pasted on walls ordering them to boycott Afghanistan's second-ever presidential election, on Aug 20. Those letters have now turned into death threats. The latest, seen by TIME, is purportedly authored by Mullah Ghulam Haider, the alleged Taliban commander in Kandahar city. It says those who vote will be considered "enemies of Islam" and could "become a victim" of "new tactics." It does not offer details. Another letter promises to cut off the fingers of people with blue ink stains, a sign they have voted. Last week, hundreds of these letters were plastered on city walls and outside of mosques until morning police patrols tore them down.
If the threats suppress voter turnout among the Pashtuns of the south, who make up 40% of the population, they could undercut the legitimacy of the election. It would spell trouble for President Hamid Karzai, who is still the favorite, though he is trying to avoid a troublesome runoff with Abdullah Abdullah, the former Foreign Minister and Northern Alliance candidate whose campaign has gained momentum of late. If southern voters stay home in large enough numbers, say analysts, there is a slight but not impossible scenario that northern voters could dictate the election's outcome in favor of Abdullah, further destabilizing the region. (Although half-Pashtun, Abdullah is identified with Panjshiri Tajiks.)
Mullah Omar, the elusive one-eyed founder of the Taliban, has reiterated his call to disrupt the election. Responding to overtures from the government for an election cease-fire, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said via e-mail, "We don't feel it is important to have contact with the slavish and corrupt administration, and we don't need them to contact us." He pledged that the election "will be sabotaged in everywhere possible." On Aug. 16, three rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) were fired into Kandahar city, killing a young girl and injuring four children. The following evenings, small-arms fire could be heard on the outskirts of the city. On Aug. 18, a minibus was bombed in the Maiwand district of Kandahar province, killing nine civilians.
Some people, however, play down the warnings from Haider and the militants. Abdul Qader Noorzai, head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commsion in Kandahar province, says people "are tired of the Taliban's threats and don't take them as seriously" after repeated promises of suicide attacks never came. He notes that the militants' stated intent is to avoid civilian casualties in order to cast in sharper relief U.S. culpability for the deaths of Afghans in errant air strikes and night raids. (Insurgents have been responsible for 60% of civilian deaths so far this year, according to U.N. figures.) If there is lackluster turnout in Kandahar, he says, it really means that people are "fed up with a government that has broken too many promises."
Or people could be legitimately worried. Few would dispute that the Taliban is making inroads into its original stronghold. Militant radio stations in the region are broadcasting anti-election threats, echoed in local mosques, about not going into town. And black turbans, the telltale accessory of the Taliban, roam freely in the suburbs, say locals. On his return to Kandahar over the weekend, Mohammed Amir, a 26-year-old truck driver, says he saw about 20 Taliban setting up a roadside bomb. "They were not scared," he says. "They were not even in a hurry."
Election officials have already warned that about 10% of the 7,000 planned voting stations may not open due to insecurity, mostly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. In Kandahar city, Afghan and NATO forces have reinforced checkpoints and shut down traffic near central voting stations. Police chief General Mirwais Khan says that while several surrounding districts are "hostile," security is "assured" for a peaceful election in the city as a whole. The Afghan intelligence chief has confirmed reports that Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half-brother and head of the Kandahar provincial council, has brokered deals with some influential Taliban commanders and warlords for a temporary cease-fire in some of the country's most violent areas.
Sentiments on the street are mixed. "If those RPGs hit our campaign headquarters, imagine how many casualties we would have," says Fariba Ahmadi Kakar, a member of parliament who supports Karzai. She says she's not satisfied with the extra security measures in place and wants the vote to be postponed. On the other hand, Agha Wali, 32, says he's sure polling stations will be safe and that he plans to vote for Ashraf Ghani, the policy-oriented former Finance Minister. Shafiqa, 21, insists through the cloak of her burqa that she will cast a vote to re-elect Karzai "no matter how bad" the situation is on Thursday. "If I die," she adds, "it will be with pride that I did so for my country's election."
Jason Motlagh's travel to Afghanistan and South Asia was funded by the nonprofit Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.