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Afghan Election Tensions, New Violence Renew Security Concerns

September 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A top Afghan intelligence official was killed Wednesday in a suicide attack outside of Kabul. The blast came amid new allegations of fraud in the country's presidential election. Gwen Ifill talks to New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins in Kabul.

JIM LEHRER: That follows our Afghanistan report.

Gwen Ifill talked with Dexter Filkins of The New York Times in Kabul earlier today.

GWEN IFILL: Dexter, thank you for joining us.

What can you tell us about the suicide bombing in Eastern Afghanistan that we have been reading about?

DEXTER FILKINS, The New York Times: Well, there was a bombing today, a suicide bombing, killed, I think, 23 people.

One of them was Abdullah Laghmani, who is the — the deputy chief of intelligence here. He’s a very — you know, he’s known to be a very capable guy. The intelligence service here is very capable. He was sort of in charge of — of — of — he was the liaison with all the services in the various provinces.

The Taliban had been trying to kill him for a long time. They bragged about it today after — after he was killed. He’s from — his last name is Laghmani, and he’s from Laghman Province, which is just east of here, which is a pretty quiet place. And he had gone home.

He was meeting some local people in a mosque. And, as he walked out, a suicide bomber just came out of nowhere and pulled the pin, big bomb, big bomb, and — and killed him and 22 other people.

The Taliban put out a communiqué shortly afterwards saying, you know, we did it.

GWEN IFILL: What does the targeting of such a senior intelligence official tell us about security there?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, he wasn’t in Kabul. I mean, Kabul is pretty safe. I mean, I’m in Kabul here.

I just heard a couple of mortar explosions before — just a few minutes ago, before the broadcast started, but it’s pretty safe here. He’s out in the countryside. And — and, really, whenever you leave the capital, it’s not very safe.

I mean, Laghman is safer than other places. But, you know, the Taliban have been hunting this guy for a long time. And they wanted him dead. And, you know, all it took was just a — a brief opening. And, if you’re willing to blow yourself up, it’s kind of hard to protect against that sort of thing. So, I don’t think it tells you much, except, you know, that the Taliban is pretty ruthless and they’re pretty determined.

GWEN IFILL: There’s been much discussion on this side of the Atlantic about General McChrystal’s report, which is laying groundwork for what people expect to be the sending of more troops to Afghanistan.

How is that being received, if it is at all, on the ground? You have been spending some time with the troops.

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, well, I have just — I have just come from — from Helmand Province, which is where the 10,000 Marines just — just went.

Boy, it’s very, very hard there. You know, I was embedded with the 2nd Battalion of the Eighth Regiment. We were just south of a city called Garmsir along the Helmand River. They’re fighting every day. You know, it’s 125 degrees in the shade. There’s a lot of IEDs.

I mean, I think that battalion has only been there for seven weeks now, and I — they have lost about 15 guys, I think. It’s very, very hard. And I think if you — if I just take the guys that I was with, you know, there — there’s probably 250 guys, a pretty — it was a big company of Marines.

And they are trying to secure an area that basically goes for about three kilometers in each direction, and that’s it. I mean, that’s 250 guys and three clicks either way. That’s not very many. And that just shows you kind of what they’re up against.

Charges of election fraud

Dexter Filkins
New York Times
For the next five years, they're not going to be considered legitimate by -- by the Afghan people. And I think that's the risk here, unless -- unless some of this fraud -- these fraud allegations get cleared up.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the election count, which is under way, and has been under way for some time. Now, there are pretty widespread complaints about fraud. What are you hearing?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I mean, I just -- I did a story -- I did a story for this -- my newspaper this morning, and I sat with some people yesterday.

And I have to say, it was -- it's about the most brazen act of corruption I have ever had fall into my lap. I mean, it's the sort of thing reporters dream about. I mean, here was a -- here was the district governor of a place called Shorabak. It's in the south. He was appointed by President Karzai.

And he just laid out, he and his -- he and his sort of former -- his fellow tribal elders -- he just laid out in great detail how Karzai's people came in, didn't let anyone vote, sequestered all the ballots, strong-armed everyone, and basically forged 23,900 ballots, all for President Karzai, and sent them to Kabul.

Now, that's -- you know, that's one case in one district here. And I can tell you, I have heard of dozens of cases like that. I -- I really don't have time to look at them all. I mean, I think the danger here is that -- is that you're going to have a government that comes to power here, whether it's Mr. Karzai or somebody else, under a very dark cloud.

And, for the next five years, they're not going to be considered legitimate by -- by the Afghan people. And I think that's the risk here, unless -- unless some of this fraud -- these fraud allegations get cleared up.

But I -- I just -- I went over today to the -- there's a commission here that's investigating some of these complaints. It's got, I think, three of -- three of the five members are appointed by the United Nations.

And they have received, I think, 2,700 complaints. More than 600 of them, they say, are substantial enough that they could affect the outcome of the election. So, you know, that -- that's just an idea of kind of the scale at least of the alleged fraud. And I think, just from my own looking around here, some of it seems pretty real.

GWEN IFILL: What has President Karzai's response been to these allegations?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I mean, he's denied everything, as -- as you would expect. And, you know, he's kind of hunkered down in the palace and not really saying much of anything.

I think what was interesting in the case that I looked at yesterday and wrote about this morning was, it all happened in Kandahar Province. Kandahar Province is where Karzai's from. His -- his younger brother, Ahmed Wali, is the head of the provincial council there. He's known as the king of the south.

There are many, many allegations of corruption coming out of Kandahar Province, thousands, involving -- involving thousands, tens of thousands, of ballots.

And I think -- so, you know, the -- most of these allegations, at least most of the allegations I have heard about, have been directed at Karzai, and because he -- you know, he's the -- he's the president. He has the apparatus of the state to use at his disposal. He has the police.

And, so, there you have it. I mean, I think the danger here -- or I -- actually, I think the likelihood here is that this is going to take many, many weeks to sort out. I mean, there's -- you know, there's 650 really substantial complaints of corruption that have to be investigated before they're going to declare a winner.

So, I mean, I don't -- you know, that could take a long time. I mean, it's hard to get to some of these villages where some of this -- some of these things have been alleged. I mean -- I mean, if you take Shorabak, where -- where -- where I talked to these people today, it's -- it's in the middle of nowhere. You know, it's the fourth century here.

Political and military troubles

Dexter Filkins
New York Times
There are a lot of unhappy people in this country, and some of them are willing to take up arms against the state.

GWEN IFILL: Is there a connection to be drawn between the troubled political situation and the troubled military situation that's happening on the ground now?

DEXTER FILKINS: I don't -- I don't think it's a direct connection, but, of course, the two are connected.

I mean, the -- the politics -- you know, war is the continuation of politics by other means. I mean, I think the -- you know, to the extent that there -- there are a lot of unhappy people in this country, and some of them are willing to take up arms against the state.

And I think holding an election is a kind of -- it's a -- it's a big attempt to bring some of these people into the tents, you know. And to the extent that that election is seen as flawed here and marked by fraud, then I think, you know, that -- that tent starts to look pretty -- pretty shabby.

GWEN IFILL: Dexter Filkins of The New York Times, as always, thank you for your great reporting.

DEXTER FILKINS: Thanks. Thanks very much. Appreciate it.