KABUL — Usually, an Afghan election — a $100 million, Western-funded exercise — draws foreigners to Kabul like flies to honey, with incoming flights full of consultants, international monitors, diplomats, and journalists.
Not this time. Now, it is the flights out that are full, and the incoming planes are half empty. With the possible exception of journalists, foreigners have been leaving Afghanistan like never before during an election period after attacks on foreign targets and the commission running the vote.
An attack on the offices of the Independent Election Commission went on all Saturday afternoon, with staff members hiding in armored bunkers and safe rooms while five insurgents fired rockets and small arms at the commission’s compound, having sneaked into a building nearby disguised in burqas.
There were no reported casualties among the election staff, but flights to Kabul were diverted because the airport was shut down for most of the afternoon, said its director, Mohammad Yaqoub Rasooli.
Even before the attack Saturday, many international election monitors had drastically curtailed their activities or made plans to evacuate their foreign employees, potentially raising serious questions about the validity of the election.
The National Democratic Institute, a mainstay of previous Afghan elections, sent many of its foreign monitors, including Americans, home after a recent attack on the Serena Hotel, where they were staying. Some staff members remain here.
Ahmad Nader Nadery, chairman of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said that another major monitor, Democracy International, had decided to cease its activities altogether. But a Democracy International official said the group had merely reduced its presence because of security concerns.
“The report that we are pulling out our staff and are not observing the election is inaccurate,” said the official, Jed Ober, director of programs. “We currently have a core team of six experts managing a team of 12 long-term observers.”
“Leaving the country at this critical moment causes two problems,” Nadery said. “A lot of the election bodies and monitors will be denied their expertise, and it will affect the credibility of the elections. With their not being on the ground, they cannot make observations or judgments about the credibility of the process.”
Elections that are relatively free and fair have been a minimum requirement for international donors, and many countries have made it clear that without them, they will not continue sending aid to Afghanistan at current levels.
Since the campaign began in January, insurgents have vowed to disrupt it. They have not attacked any of the 11 presidential candidates, who are heavily guarded.
Instead, they have carried out attacks on foreigners, mostly considered soft targets, as well as two high-profile attacks on election-related facilities: the one Saturday on the election commission and another on a commission branch office in Kabul on Tuesday, which killed five Afghans.
The commission’s main compound “is in total lockdown, and we have moved our staff to bunkers and safe houses,” a spokesman, Noor Ahmad Noor, said Saturday. “None of the insurgents have managed to breach our security and enter.” Early reports said two police officers were wounded and the five attackers had been killed.
UN officials said they planned to keep a full complement of election experts and technicians in Afghanistan, though many other UN agencies here were operating with reduced staffs.