Amid Rising Violence and Taliban Peace Talks, Afghan Campaign Begins

KABUL, Afghanistan — As Afghanistan’s presidential election campaign began on Sunday, the country’s leader was facing a series of daunting concerns, from unrelenting violence to fears that his government could be derailed by a peace deal with the Taliban.

Now there are the voters: Weary of waves of terrorism — like an attack on one candidate Sunday — they are skeptical of risking life and limb to cast ballots, especially given the widespread fraud in recent elections.

“Why should I vote?” asked Fatima Hussaini, a resident of Kabul, the capital, expressing a widespread view among the electorate.

“The government hasn’t done anything for us, and we’re not stupid enough to vote again,” declared Ms. Hussaini, who said her 2014 vote had been wasted.

Mohammad Ashraf, 41, a shopkeeper, said he, too, would not vote because he does not believe it would improve security. “I don’t want to take the risk,” he said.

Their fears were not without cause. In Afghanistan, running elections and going to the polls can be life-or-death decisions.

On Sunday, the political party office of Amrullah Saleh, an Afghan vice presidential candidate and President Ashraf Ghani’s running mate, was stormed by gunmen and bombed. Mr. Saleh survived the attack, the president reported, and the Interior Ministry said he was not injured. But 20 people were killed and 50 wounded. Among those killed were 16 civilians and four security force members, according to Nasrat Rahimi, a spokesman for the interior ministry.

The bombing underscored fears that this election, like the scandal-marred 2014 presidential vote, would be undermined by persistent terrorist attacks.

An overstretched national police force is being asked to provide security for all 18 presidential candidates and their running mates. Many Afghans fear that insurgents will attack polling sites when voting begins on Sept. 28, and that the fraud and violence that marred the 2014 election will be repeated.

Yet colorful campaign posters and billboards were raised on Sunday despite those fears, the deteriorating security situation around the country and a confusing government bid a day earlier to inject itself into the peace talks between the Taliban and the United States.

This election, already delayed twice, is playing out amid simmering anger and resentment from Mr. Ghani’s government over being frozen out of those peace talks, being held in Doha, Qatar. The Taliban have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, calling it illegitimate.

And violence has spiked in recent months, with combatants in the 18-year war seeking, in part, to gain leverage at the peace talks.

Afghan security agencies spent eight months on an election security plan that includes armored vehicles and guards for candidates’ rallies and homes, said Nasrat Rahimi, an interior ministry spokesman.

At least one prominent candidate, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, has said Mr. Ghani’s control over the election process could taint the vote.

A coalition of about a dozen candidates, including Mr. Atmar, said Sunday it would boycott the election beginning Thursday if Mr. Ghani did not remove recently appointed government officials loyal to him. Citing the election delay, Mohammad Shahab Hakimi, a spokesman for the group, said that Mr. Ghani’s term had on expired May 22, and that he no longer had the authority to act as president.

Other candidates have suggested delaying the vote so that a newly elected government does not interfere with peace negotiations.

A boycott by two-thirds of the 18 candidates would be a severe blow to an election already in doubt because of the violence and the complex peace process.

“Insecurity is concerning some candidates, raising their doubts as to whether an inclusive election is possible,” a political analyst, Ali Yawar Adili of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, wrote on the group’s website Sunday.

The eighth round of the Doha talks is expected soon, with the United States and the Taliban close to a deal that would exchange a phased withdrawal of 14,000 American troops from Afghanistan for a Taliban promise that the country would not be used by terrorists to launch attacks.

On Saturday, Mr. Ghani’s government announced that it was preparing for direct negotiations with the Taliban in two weeks. The Taliban quickly dismissed that statement, saying they would not negotiate with the Afghan side until they had reached a deal with the United States.

“And we will not sit and talk with the Kabul administration as a government,” said a Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

Taliban and Afghan representatives, including some government officials, met this month in Doha for so-called intra-Afghan dialogue, discussions intended to help reach an agreement on a road map for a political settlement and a lasting cease-fire.

The United States has set a target of Sept. 1 for some sort of preliminary deal that sets a road map for direct negotiations. It is unclear how such a deal would affect the Sept. 28 election or the status of Mr. Ghani’s government once intra-Afghan negotiations began.

At his “nation-building” campaign launch Sunday, Mr. Ghani made clear that he intended for his government to represent Afghans in subsequent talks with the Taliban. “I am the president of all Afghanistan,” he declared.

He indicated that he would not let the peace process interfere with the election.

“We don’t want those who aren’t committed to peace to sabotage this process,” he told a cheering crowd. “But we want this to happen with principles and in the right manner.”

As his supporters chanted “Long live Ghani,” the president addressed the militants directly.

“I have a message for the Taliban,” Mr. Ghani said. “We don’t look down on you. But don’t forget that each Afghan has to be respected.”

He said that while his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, laid down 11 conditions for negotiating with the Taliban, he was willing to negotiate unconditionally.

Tensions were evident even at this event, though, despite the largely supportive crowd. Mr. Ghani was interrupted by a man who shouted “Liar!” and “Demagogue!” The president’s security agents hustled the protester away.

At a wedding hall across town, Mr. Ghani’s chief executive and main election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, waited until the president’s rally had concluded so that TV coverage would shift to his own rally. Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah have coexisted in a tenuous unity government that was cobbled together with American help after the disputed 2014 election.

Mr. Abdullah criticized Mr. Ghani’s security team for silencing the rally protester. “We would never shut someone’s mouth,” he said.

Mr. Abdullah also ridiculed Mr. Ghani’s penchant for saying he is an heir to exalted Afghan statesmen and poets of eras past. He mentioned the president’s recent misreading of the famous 13th-century poet Rumi.

“The least one can do as a sign of respect is to read their poems right,” Mr. Abdullah said.

He told his supporters that he was committed to the peace process, but he did not discuss how it might affect the election if a deal were reached before then.

For many Afghans, a sense of ambivalence and fear extended not just to the weeks of campaigning ahead, but also to what kind of future their country might face after a peace deal with the Taliban.

Mustafa Arya, a former Abdullah supporter who now backs Mr. Ghani, worried that because President Trump is eager to withdraw American troops, the United States would undercut democratic gains achieved in Afghanistan since the Taliban regime was toppled in 2001.

“We want a peace deal, but not one at the cost to our dignity, or that will bring back the emirate,” he said, referring to a Taliban demand that any post-peace government be an Islamic emirate rather than a republic.

“We don’t want to go back to that period,” Mr. Arya said.