Journalists covering the Afghan war rely heavily on coalition forces to gain access to a hardscrabble backcountry populated by Taliban militants. So the reaction was far from muted when the news broke last week that the Defense Department was paying a controversial private firm to profile reporters seeking to accompany — or "embed" — with troops. Reporters quickly complained that it was tantamount to building a blacklist and that the U.S. military was deliberately working to sideline journalists critical of its mission.
The frantic run-up to Afghanistan's presidential elections has given way to a bitter anti-climax. Even as results trickle in, they are in danger of being overwhelmed by mounting counter-claims of fraud from the leading candidates, who appear to be increasingly less likely to back down should the final verdict not go their way.
In the days since millions of Afghans braved Taliban threats at the polls, President Hamid Karzai and his leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, have waged their own offensive, trading accusations of fraud and impending victory. It may look like politics as usual. But against a volatile backdrop of resurgent militancy and ethnic faultlines, the consequences for Afghanistan's fragile democracy are harder to predict.
In the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, Amina, 32, says she was awoken by the explosion of rocket propelled grenades at the edge of her neighborhood on election day. It was one of at least nine rockets that targeted polling stations around the city. She waited several hours troubled by second thoughts before she finally setting out to vote, her four-year-old daughter in tow. "I was very afraid. But I voted because it's my right, just like men do," she says. "Our democracy is young and we must be brave."
The U.S. and many Afghans may see Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum as the epitome of the worst brand of warlord politics, but to President Hamid Karzai he represents a bloc of votes crucial to winning reelection. The feared Uzbek warlord, who returned to Afghanistan from Turkish exile on Monday, urged some 10,000 people gathered in his home district to vote for Karzai. The president needs to win more than 50% of the votes cast on Thursday to avoid a runoff election. And Dostum figures his endorsement will deliver 500,000 additional votes to the incumbent.
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.
When he's not canvassing the Afghan backcountry in his beat-up Toyota mini-bus, Ramazan Bashardost, 48, arrives at his presidential campaign headquarters — a gray tent — at 5:30 each morning. It sits across the street from the Afghan parliament and is open to the public, without the gun-wielding bodyguards that surround other high-profile candidates. "My name means 'friend of humans'," he offers, by way of explanation. "I am here for everyone."
Malalai Joya was suspended from parliament and has to travel with armed guards after her outspoken criticisms of Afghanistan's government.
The escape of veteran New York Times correspondent David Rohde from Taliban captors was a rare piece of good news from the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands. For more than seven months, there was almost no public word on his fate. Western news agencies kept silent about the kidnapping of the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, the Afghan reporter Tahir Ludin and their driver, out of concern that international attention might jeopardize their safety. The trio was betrayed by a Taliban commander with whom Ludin had arranged meetings several times before.
The highway that runs between Kabul and the southeastern city of Kandahar is the most brutal evidence of the Taliban's IED offensive. The road is a showcase U.S.-funded project, meant to connect two of the country's most vital commercial centers. But today it is an automotive graveyard, littered with burned-out carcasses of vehicles and disrupted by crumbled bridges.
There are large-scale civilian deaths in Afghanistan that make headlines, and then there are the small incidents that are barely noticed at all. That was the fate of 12-year-old Benafsha Shaheem.