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In One Afghan Province, the Taliban Safe-Guarded the Elections

Kunar residents Sabir and Ajmal, over-looking the Paich Valley, which included the district where Taliban safe-guarded voters against IS attacks. They did not want to show their faces due to security reasons. (VOA/A. Tanzeem)

On Saturday, Sept. 28, the morning of Afghanistan's fourth presidential election, Sabir walked toward the polling center from his home in northeastern Afghanistan, almost sure the exercise was futile.

He was one of six staffers at a polling center in Manroo district in Kunar province. Waradesh, his village of around 300 homes, is set across from Kandaharo, one of several villages in the district that Islamic State wrested from the Taliban almost six months ago.

"On Friday morning, we received information that Daesh (Islamic State) got together in Kandaharo and was planning to attack us on Election Day. They had threatened to take all the election material away," he said.

Take a chance for $12

Despite the threat to his life, and a fear that IS might come for them, Sabir, who was unemployed, said he and a couple of other villagers showed up to work.

"I went to work that day to earn money," he said. He earned $12.

In the nearby village of Leichalam, Ajmal, 28, thought anyone who tried to vote would be in peril. IS had been warning people not to participate in the elections. Two weeks before polling, some IS members announced in the village's Tangai mosque that they would shoot at anyone seen going toward the polling centers. Word quickly spread. People got the message.

"Members of Daesh used to have meals with us. They usually did not bother us unless someone had a link with the government. But we were still afraid they would cut our fingers if we voted," Ajmal said.

Both Sabir and Ajmal used fictitious names for fear of being targeted. They came to Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province, with two other men from their area to talk to a VOA team.

'Rare phenomena'

Something strange happened on the eve of the election. The Taliban took control of the area from IS and encouraged people to participate in the elections.

"On the morning of the elections, I reached the polling center at 6 a.m. and saw Taliban literally 20 meters away from the center. We were surprised and initially couldn't figure out what was happening. We couldn't tell whether they were Daesh or Taliban," said Sabir.

He would soon find out.

"They (the Taliban) announced that people who wanted to vote should go and do so. They will not be harmed. People were shocked," Sabir said.

The announcement was contrary to what the Taliban's central spokesmen had been saying for weeks. Multiple statements issued by the group warned people to stay away from the polls and vowed to attack any election-related activity.

In pre-poll violence, the group claimed multiple attacks, including one in Parwan province that killed at least 30 people and wounded more than 50 others during a rally for incumbent President Ashraf Ghani.

Villagers slow to trust Taliban

Local journalists credited the move in Kunar to the Taliban's clash with IS in the area. Kabul-based political activist Faiz Mohammad Zaland, generally considered pro-Taliban, called it a "rare geographical phenomena — an effort by a local Taliban faction to break IS's hold on an area and establish its own writ."

It took some time for the villagers to process the fact that the Taliban was allowing them to vote. Around 9:30 a.m., Sabir said, they started coming to the polls.

"In Tangai area, I personally saw Taliban with Pikas (PK machine guns), with Kalashnikovs, with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades), and I saw them asking people where they were going, and then letting them go to vote," said Ajmal, who still had ink on his finger several days after the vote.

Women take part in election

In the end, around 150 people voted in Sabir's polling center, including nearly two dozen women.

After running IS out of Leichalam, the Taliban made a list of local people who were IS members or their sympathizers, and started burning their houses. Their commander was a man from Logar province known as Ayubi.

Village elders begged the Taliban not to burn houses belonging to the local population. Initially, the militants rejected the request. In the end, they only burned the houses of IS members and not those of people with suspected links to the terror group.

The day after the election, the Taliban did the same in Kandaharo. In all, they burned approximately 20 houses, the locals said. Two IS members surrendered in Kandaharo but were not killed.

The Taliban continues to control the villages they took from IS.