Afghanistan Juggles Fraud, War And Maybe Peace

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It has been another busy week in Afghanistan. Preliminary results from the country's parliamentary election show widespread fraud, and there is more speculation about talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Plus, war continues in the south of the country. Host Liane Hansen talks with NPR's Jackie Northam in Afghanistan.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's been a busy week in Afghanistan. Preliminary results from the country's parliamentary elections show widespread fraud. There's more speculation about talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And the war continues in the south of the country.

NPR's foreign affairs correspondent Jackie Northam joins us from the Afghan capital Kabul to fill in the details.

Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Liane.

HANSEN: Start with the peace talks. Afghan and U.S. officials say, ultimately, there has to be a political solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. There has to be some peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. There are a lot of different accounts of whether the process is under way. What do you know?

NORTHAM: Well, as you say, there's certainly a lot of talk about any sort of -the possibility of peace talks. But there are so many conflicting accounts about who is talking to whom and what level of the Taliban structure is involved.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that he's already begun secret peace talks. But there has been some backtracking or clarification of his statements. Karzai's spokesman told us that, in fact, there's been some reaching out or signals by both sides, but certainly, no sit-down negotiations have taken place.

And certainly, the Taliban's senior leadership has denied any notion of talking with the Karzai government, which it says is a puppet of the U.S. government. So really, the best we're seeing here right now is talks about talks, but really nothing substantial.

HANSEN: Is the United States already involved?

NORTHAM: Well, General David Petraeus, the overall commander here, says he supports a peace process, and has said that the U.S. has helped facilitate the safe passage of Taliban members here into Kabul.

But again, it's uncertain what level of Taliban they were, because all the signs we're getting here, all the statements by the insurgent group, it just doesn't appear that there were senior leaders of the Taliban here - which arguably are the ones with whom you want to be talking, because that's who's organizing the attacks against the U.S. and NATO forces here.

HANSEN: At the same time that the U.S. is facilitating the transport of those Taliban members into Kabul, it's kicked into high gear militarily - reports that a massive military operation is under way around Kandahar. Do you have any sense of how it's going?

NORTHAM: Well, reports from NATO and U.S. officials here say that the offensive around Kandahar region is going well, that they're clearing out the militants. And these officials also say that there's a cohesive military and civilian operation.

So, in other words, once the militants are cleared out, then you start trying to set up civil society - build up local governance, courts, institutions of society. That's the idea.

Now, if this is starting to sound familiar, Liane, you may want to spool back to about a year and a half ago when the U.S. went to a place called Marjah, just a small town in the southern province of Helmand. They cleared out the Taliban. They tried to build up a government - do the same thing that they're trying to do in Kandahar. But it hasn't held. The Taliban began moving back in, and there's a full-out fight for control of Marjah.

And that's just a small speck of a town, not Taliban-central like Kandahar. So even though signs are looking good in Kandahar right now, I think the U.S. is going to be certainly careful before calling it a full-out success.

HANSEN: And briefly, about the election. The Afghans are still trying to sort out their government. They voted in parliamentary elections. It said 1.3 million of those votes have been disqualified. What happened?

NORTHAM: Well, the election commission did come out and say nearly 25 percent of the ballots cast were discarded because of fraud, and that there's still investigations under way. So the results of these parliamentary elections are not expected till the end of the month.

And this really doesn't help give the Afghan government legitimacy, especially as it comes so soon after last year's presidential elections, which, as you remember, was also ground down in fraud.

HANSEN: NPR's Jackie Northam, in Kabul.

Jackie, thank you very much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Liane.

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