KABUL – The Taliban warned Afghans on Tuesday to keep away from election rallies and ordered its fighters to “stand against” the planned September vote.
The threat came as fresh violence gripped Afghanistan, including a bicycle bombing in Kabul that killed five people, even while the Taliban and the U.S. were negotiating for a peace settlement.
Previous elections have been rocked by frequent attacks conducted by the Taliban and other insurgent groups trying to undermine Afghanistan’s fragile democracy, and this year’s campaign season has already proven to be no different.
The presidential election is slated for Sept.28, but the race has got off to a lackluster start and some candidates have yet to launch their campaigns.
Many observers think the poll will be postponed again — it has already been pushed back twice this year — to create space for a peace deal to be finalized between the U.S. and the Taliban.
The Taliban said its fighters should “stand against this theatrical and sham of a process to their full capabilities,” a clear instruction to conduct attacks.
“To prevent losses, God forbid, from being incurred by our fellow compatriots, they must stay away from gatherings and rallies that could become potential targets,” a message posted on the Taliban’s website stated.
The Taliban said Afghan elections do not “hold any value,” referring to the 2014 presidential poll that was mired in fraud allegations and saw the U.S. broker a power-sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Last month, on the first day of the campaign season, suicide bombers and gunmen stormed the Kabul office of Amrullah Saleh, Ghani’s running-mate, killing at least 20 people.
In a statement, Ghani’s office said security forces are “fully prepared” to protect Afghans against Taliban threats and would not allow anyone to disrupt polls.
“Participation in elections and choosing a leader through direct voting is the religious and legal right of the Afghan people,” the statement read.
“The Afghan government has made all preparations to hold a free, fair and transparent election.
Zaman Sultani, a South Asia researcher at Amnesty International, said the Taliban threats demonstrate a “chilling disregard” for human life.
“At a time when the Taliban claims to be pursuing peace, it is threatening to carry out war crimes by attacking civilians at election rallies,” Sultani said.
Privately, many Afghans say they have no intention of voting, given the security risks and the perception of fraud.
The U.S. and the Taliban are currently meeting in Doha for an eighth round of talks aimed at striking a peace deal that would slash the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
Both sides have cited “excellent progress..”
“We are discussing the final remaining points,” Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told AFP on Tuesday.
“With that, the peace agreement will be completed and then we will decide on the announcement of the date of the agreement.”
According to the U.N., more than 1,500 civilians were killed or wounded in the Afghan conflict in July alone, the highest monthly toll so far this year and the worst single month since May 2017.
At least five people were killed and seven injured in Kabul on Tuesday when an explosives-rigged bicycle detonated near an Afghan government vehicle, the interior ministry said in a statement.
“A sticky bomb placed on a bicycle exploded while a vehicle carrying personnel of the counter narcotics directorate was passing,” the statement read.