SHA JOY, Afghanistan
The bazaar resembled a ghost town. The usual hustle and bustle of people was gone, save for a few young boys riding colorfully hand-painted bicycles. It was election day in this Afghan town, and the residents were afraid.
"The Taliban are everywhere," said Abdul Quyum, the Pashtun District Chief of Sha Joy. "The people of Sha Joy don't trust their own government. They are afraid of the Taliban. They are afraid they will be deserted by the U.S. and NATO forces. It is a very difficult situation."
American troops patrolling with Afghan soldiers found it impossible to identify Taliban insurgents and sympathizers. Rumors of attacks designed to disrupt the vote were common, making it hard to sift through intelligence to find the elusive truth.
"We heard a vehicle loaded with weapons is heading this way," an Afghan National Police officer said to U.S. Army Platoon leader Lt. Ben Massagee. "There haven't been many people outside today," the Afghan officer added.
The Saturday elections saw more than 2,000 candidates across Afghanistan competing for 249 open seats in the country's lower house of parliament. The Taliban warned people not to vote in the weeks ahead of the election. Attacks during the vote left 14 people dead. Early estimates by observers indicate that around 40 percent of people turned out to vote amid widespread charges of fraud and vote rigging.
Sha Joy was a microcosm of what happened across Afghanistan on election day.
Leading up to the vote, persistent reports reached U.S. officers that insurgent fighters were gathering in the southern mountain ranges, several miles from their forward operating base.
On election morning, several rockets whistled from the hillsides where the insurgents had been spotted. One rocket managed to hit a perimeter barrier on the north side of the U.S. base. The explosions and small arms fire were loud enough to rattle the residents living in the numerous villages surrounding the district center.
Two residents in Musazai village, a few miles from Sha Joy, reportedly were killed when their vehicle hit a pressure-plated improvised explosive device.
"Everyone in the village heard the explosions," said Najib, 11, one of the few children to venture outside his walled compound with his friend, Hassan, 9, that day. He and his friend spoke to The Examiner through a Pashtun translator. They lived in Khan Khalay, a small grape farming village outside the bazaar.
"I was a little afraid," he said. "None of the women in my village voted. I think only my father."
Distrust for the central government and the fear of a Taliban resurgence have far outweighed the stabilizing efforts by the U.S.-led coalition. This year's parliamentary elections in Sha Joy reflected the fragility of democracy here.
On Saturday, when The Examiner headed into the district for a six-hour patrol, the streets were almost barren. U.S. troops did not go into the four polling sites, three within the bazaar center and another just outside. Afghan National Security forces handled those duties.
As of Monday, the ballots were still on their way to Kandahar to be counted. Early estimates from local officials suggest that roughly 1,400 of an estimated 71,000 citizens in Sha Joy went to the polls. The population estimate is skewed because a census has not been taken in the district since the mid-1970s, said Army Capt. Max Pappas, with the Provincial Reconstruction Team.
"This is the most hotly contested district in Zabul between the government and the Taliban," Pappas said. "The Taliban intimidated the people, but they weren't able to stage a massive attack. At least that's a good sign, but this is far from over."
Sara A. Carter is The Washington Examiner's national security correspondent. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.