Every election in the last decade has been marred by violence in Afghanistan, where Taliban Islamic militants are fighting U.S.-backed government forces and demand the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
Violence in Saturday’s election, in which President Ashraf Ghani is widely expected to win a second five-year term, could deepen political instability, embolden the Taliban and set back efforts to get stalled peace talks back on track.
Of the 18 candidates, only Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who as chief executive of a unity government is effectively prime minister, have a realistic chance of victory.
The winner will be key to efforts to forge peace with the Taliban and efforts to reset talks between the insurgents and the United States, which were called off earlier this month.
Security will be tight as the more than 29,500 polling stations set up in schools, mosques, hospital compounds and district centres. Two senior security officials in Kabul put the number of security forces deployed at over 100,000.
Western security officials and diplomats in Kabul said U.S. forces would also provide air support for the Afghan forces – to thwart insurgent attacks and ensure safe retrieval of ballot boxes from the stations after the election.
In large swathes of the country, people will not have the choice to vote as the Taliban and Islamic State fighters are in control there. About 1,500 polling stations will be closed because security forces cannot protect them.
“The entire security apparatus is on high alert. Operations to neutralise, arrest and disrupt insurgent attacks are being conducted ahead of the elections,” said Abdul Moqim Abdulrahimzai, the director-general of operations and planning at the Interior Ministry in Kabul.
Abdulrahimzai, who is overseeing the deployment of forces, said military vehicles and soldiers were seen moving towards volatile parts of the country, which has seen an increase in attacks in recent months.
“Our job is to defend the national process, the democratically held elections and civilians,” he said.