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Afghan election is expensive, complicated effort

KABUL, Afghanistan—How many ballot boxes can fit safely on the back of a donkey?

To find out, you run a series of tests, because donkeys are an important element in the complicated logistics needed to hold elections in Afghanistan—a country battered by war, embroiled in an insurgency and lacking such basic infrastructure as roads and bridges.

Polling stations in parts of the soaring Hindu Kush mountains and other areas are so remote that they're inaccessible to vehicles and even helicopters.

And so the U.N.-backed commission running the election is using some 1,500 donkeys and more than 300 horses to lug ballots, boxes and other materials to the farthest polling centers, some of them a 10-day journey across cliff-hugging trails, tight passes and narrow gorge-spanning bridges.

Because the routes are so treacherous, officials of the Joint Election Management Board decided to test how many ballot boxes the animals could safely carry.

"We were trying to see whether it (a ballot box) can slip down. How long the donkey lasts. Can the handler handle it?" recounted Charles Callahan, the JEMB chief of staff. "In some cases, you can only load them onto the top because the animal could topple off the cliff if they hang off the side."

To their relief, the organizers determined that a donkey can safely handle two ballot boxes stuffed with 600 paper ballots each.

"They can do it. They are sturdy animals. The ballot boxes are bigger than the donkeys," said Richard Attwood, the JEMB chief of operations.

Officials also ran tests to determine the reliability of the well-worn Soviet-era jeeps that will transport ballot boxes on dusty tracks and rocky river beds that serve as roads in many parts of the country.

The commission's international staffers are relying on experience gained in such places as Bosnia and East Timor.

The commission also ran the October 2004 election won by President Hamid Karzai. That contest involved 18 candidates. There are more than 5,000 candidates running on Sept. 18, when voters elect members of a lower house of parliament and provincial councils.

Sixty-nine different ballots are being produced: separate lower house of parliament and provincial assembly ballots for each province and a ballot for nomads, or kuchis, who will vote in a separate poll for 10 seats reserved for their community in the lower house, or Wolesi Jirga.

The ballots in the most populous provinces—Kabul, Nangahar and Herat—run seven pages each, 60 candidates per page.

Because most Afghans can't read, each ballot carries a photograph and symbol of each candidate, ranging from sailboats and gas cylinders to barbells, stethoscopes and cricket bats.

Some 120,000 election workers, nearly 1,000 trucks, 2,300 jeeps, cargo planes and helicopters will be involved. The Joint Election Management Board, which began putting the operation in place only four months ago, is reportedly short $19 million of the $149 million cost, all of it from international donors. Equipment, including hundreds of trucks and planes, is being brought in from other countries.

Some 12.4 million people—nearly half of them women—are registered to vote.

Despite the daunting challenges, officials said the process is on schedule.

One major concern remains a threat by a revived Taliban, the radical Islamic movement ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led intervention.

The insurgents have attacked election workers and polling centers. Some 20,000 troops from a mostly U.S. military coalition and 11,000 NATO soldiers are to help Afghan police and soldiers maintain security.

Companies in Canada are supplying 140,000 specially made ballot boxes and 140,000 bottles of indelible ink, while a firm in China is providing pre-fabricated polling station kits.

Companies in Britain and Austria were hired to print the 40 million ballots because no other companies could be found that could handle the massive job in such a short period of time.

A chartered Russian-made Antonov-24, one of the world's largest aircraft, is making five flights to ferry the ballots from Austria to Kabul, while Boeing jets are making 15 trips with ballots produced in Britain.

From Kabul, the materials are being transported to central election offices in the 34 provincial capitals, where they're to be distributed to 6,000 polling centers.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AFGHAN-ELECTION

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