Afghanistan Sees Surge in Attacks Before Vote
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
During last fall's presidential elections in Afghanistan, the Taliban failed to make good on vows to disrupt the vote. The big problem wasn't Taliban rockets but shoddy ink used to prevent fraud. It easily washed off voters' fingers. That is not stopping the Taliban from trying again. Next month, Afghan voters go to the polls to elect members to the National Assembly and provincial counsels and there has been a rise in violence as NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.
ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:
The US military says this week alone 16 suspected Taliban were killed in at least four separate fire fights. American A-10 war planes, attack helicopters and a massive B-52 bomber were again in the air attacking Taliban fighters who've kept up a low-level but persistent insurgency, especially along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan.
Brigadier General MARK KIMMIT (US Central Command): Some of that is seasonal but some of it probably can be attributed to intimidation to try to stop the elections.
WESTERVELT: Brigadier General Mark Kimmit is with US Central Command which oversees American military operations in the region. He says combined US, NATO and Afghan military forces have enough troops to help the Afghans protect September's polling sites. Last month, the US sent an additional battalion boosting troop strengths to 20,000 combined US and allied forces on the ground. NATO has 10,000 additional troops in Kabul and places north.
Brig. Gen. KIMMIT: President Karzai was put into power through the power of the vote. We now are going to have the provincial elections, and that works exactly and directly against everything the Taliban stood for in their view where life should be dictatorial. But the people of Afghanistan are standing up to this and the soldiers on the ground are responding to it.
WESTERVELT: That response has come at a cost. Sunday, four US soldiers were killed when their armored Humvee hit antitank mine. Seventy-four American soldiers have been killed so far this year, 50 in direct combat. It's the worst US casualty rate in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban almost four years ago.
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WESTERVELT: President Hamid Karzai's administration sees elections for the National Assembly and regional counsels as vital to stabilizing the country. They hope to extend the effectiveness of the central government by integrating local officials into civic life. At a recent independence day rally at the National Stadium in Kabul, President Karzai encouraged participation in next month's vote.
President HAMID KARZAI (Afghanistan): (Through Translator) I ask all Afghans to vote for candidates who support our religion, our country and who support our national unity and our constitution and who want peace and stability in our country.
WESTERVELT: President Karzai and US military officials say militants will not succeed in disrupting the vote, but Taliban insurgents are making their presence felt in several provinces. They've killed four election officials and attacked others. John Sifton is Human Rights Watch's representative in Kabul. He's been traveling widely in the country. He says the Taliban are trying to intimidate as many ordinary voters in eastern provinces.
Mr. JOHN SIFTON (Human Rights Watch): All these places on the border are having their entire governmental functions compromised by almost daily Taliban attacks. Zabul province is almost entirely controlled by the Taliban with the exception of the road that runs through it.
WESTERVELT: In Kabul and a few other population centers, Sifton says, there is active campaigning and something of a buzz of excitement about the vote. But there are more than 1,000 candidates for the assembly and many voters are unsure just what the regional counsels will do. Central government has dispatched teams to educate voters, but with just three weeks to go, election observers, including Human Rights Watch, are skeptical Kabul will be able to get the word out on time. John Sifton says in some places, local warlords have filled the information gap.
Mr. SIFTON: A lot of people don't understand the secrecy of the ballot. They don't understand who they're voting for. They don't understand what the parliament is and what the provincial counsels are going to do. In the rural areas, basically, people are being told how to vote. The candidates are, in many cases, just proxies for local warlords and commanders.
WESTERVELT: In a recent report, the international crisis group criticized UN and Afghan officials for paying more attention to technical issues than on vetting candidates in a country still awash in weapons and warlordism. The crisis group also warned that hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees who voted in last fall's presidential election are likely to be disenfranchised this time around due to disorganization and cost cutting. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Washington.
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