KABUL   -   Afghanistan must choose a new president this week, but every election over the last decade has been riddled with fraud and marred by violence, and fears are growing that the poll on may be the worst yet.

It comes as the war is raging with unprecedented intensity. Last week alone, dozens were killed when the Taliban flattened a hospital in an attack in the south, and a US drone strike hit a group harvesting pine nuts in the east. And looming over the poll is the future of controversial US efforts to negotiate a troop withdrawal with the Taliban, suspended after a tweet by President Donald Trump but not entirely dead.

Whoever wins the presidential poll will be in charge of trying to extend any deal to cover Afghan security forces, and negotiate first a ceasefire and then some form of shared government that does not sign away all the gains in democracy and women’s rights of the last two decades. The insurgents have vowed to target the election, and there have already been attacks on a campaign rally and one of the vice-presidential candidates. The tempo of their assaults means many people have already decided to stay away from polling stations in fear for their lives.

“Voting when there is such a bad situation means you are crazy. And I am not crazy,” said Qasim Walizada, a 29-year-old taxi driver from western Kabul. “The polling stations are not secure.”

This year is effectively a repeat of the 2014 race, when results were so twisted by fraud, and heavily contested, that the US had to step in to broker a government of national unity. There are 18 candidates but only two men who have a real chance of victory: incumbent President Ashraf Ghani and his CEO Abdullah Abdullah, who have spent five years feuding bitterly under their banner of unity, and both believe they can now seize control of the government.

But with both men running strong tickets, more fraud seen as inevitable, and turnout almost certain to be dented by security worries and disillusionment, many analysts fear that this re-run of the 2014 contest will produce a repeat of its disputed and fraud-damaged results.

“There will be a crisis after the election. Take it for granted,” said one senior Afghan source. With the US far more disengaged, a repeat of that standoff risks pitching the country into full-blown political meltdown, potentially galvanising the Taliban and undermining the push for peace negotiations between Afghans.

“I think [a repeat of 2104 results] is likely and it would have really dire consequences for Afghanistan, especially since this election is intended to showcase the continuation of democratic processes and institutions in negotiations with the Taliban,” said Ali Yawar Adili of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN). “President Ghani himself has said the election is a litmus test for the continuation of the republic.”

Campaign and government officials are trying to temper expectations on how many people will come to the polls, saying voter turnout will probably be closer to the 3.6 million ballots cast in last year’s parliamentary vote than eight million counted in the last presidential election. “Now registered voters are around nine million. I cannot set a level of what kind of turnout will give legitimacy to a future government, but we are hoping and doing our best, and expect at least more turnout than for parliamentary elections,” said Waheed Omer, director general of the Office of Public and Strategic Affairs. “People have the understanding they are standing on the crossroads of whether they want to go vote and get a legitimate government and a continuation of the republic.”

Yet diplomatic sources say even that figure may be optimistic, given the level of disillusionment in urban areas – where turnout for the parliamentary vote was already muted last year – and the effect of Taliban threats everywhere.

 Even in secure areas, some voters are fed up with both Ghani and Abdullah after five years in which they have failed to stem violence, to prevent an economic downturn, or to tackle the corruption that is endemic across the country and at all levels of government.

“None of the candidates is trustworthy,” said Sabara Akhlaqi, a 38- year-old teacher from northern Balkh province. “Whoever wins will just fill their pockets with money that belongs to the Afghan nation, and commit all kinds of crimes. And if we vote for them, we will share responsibility for what they do.”

In swathes of the country, people will not have the choice to vote; they have been effectively disenfranchised already by the war. About a third of the 7,366 polling centres will be closed because security forces cannot protect them, although it is hard to trace the exact patterns of exclusion, because the government has not provided a map of areas where stations are closed.