Afghan Security Concerns as Election Nears

With less than a week until parliamentary elections, Afghan government officials and U.S. military commanders warn of an increase in Taliban attacks. More than 1,000 people have been killed in fighting, among them 10 candidates and election workers. International organizations are evacuating some foreign staff.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

In Afghanistan, Taliban militants have stepped up attacks before the parliamentary elections next week. At least 1,000 people, mostly Afghans, have been killed in the fighting. The dead include at least five election workers and five candidates. US and NATO commanders say they are working together with the nascent Afghan National Army and police to ensure security for the elections. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Kabul.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

A few years ago, Maulavi Kela Moudin(ph) was a top official in the Taliban's much-feared Department of Vice and Virtue. In those days, he stood on Kabul's streets with a bullhorn, ordering the arrest of passing Afghans with Western-style haircuts. Today, Kela Moudin has made peace with the US-backed Afghan government. He and several other former Taliban officials are now running for seats in Afghanistan's national parliament.

Mr. MAULAVI KELA MOUDIN (Political Candidate): (Through Translator) Different types of people can co-exist in the same society. I can say that Taliban government was our government, and this government is our government, too.

WATSON: Sitting in a gas station, dressed in a white turban and sporting a long black beard, Kela Moudin says he has nothing to do with those former Taliban comrades who are still fighting against the Afghan government.

Mr. KELA MOUDIN: (Through Translator) I've got my own policy, and they've got their own policy, and if our policies do not keep up with each other, then I can say that they are my opponent, and everybody has got his own choice.

WATSON: Later, an aide said Taliban militants recently fired a rocket at Kela Moudin's house. US, NATO and Afghan commanders agree the ongoing insurgency poses the single biggest threat to the upcoming elections. Lieutenant Colonel Tony Fagan predicts that as the voting draws near, the Taliban will shift its strategy away from direct attacks against coalition troops.

Lieutenant Colonel TONY FAGAN: When they've had those attempts, whether it's against US or Afghan national forces, they've had severe losses. So we think they're going to pursue attacks against soft targets, candidates or workers using mines or improvised explosives.

WATSON: A number of candidates and election workers have already been killed, and Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group says the violence is escalating.

Ms. JOANNA NATHAN (International Crisis Group): There are no-go areas for large amounts of the south and east. We're hearing of some of the largest ambushes and battles that have been seen. And that's partly because the coalition forces are out there hunting them down more aggressively perhaps, but it also shows that this is going to be an ongoing insurgency.

WATSON: The dusty smugglers haven of Gardez lies in eastern Afghanistan, close to where the Taliban is most active.

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WATSON: Less than 20 miles from here, in a town called Zormat, insurgents killed the father of an election candidate. The would-be politician promptly withdrew from the race and then fled the country. Dr. Rafiullah Bidar, a Russian-educated human rights activist based in Gardez, says that the Taliban continues to control large parts of the surrounding countryside, especially at night.

Dr. RAFIULLAH BIDAR (Human Rights Activist): (Through Translator) Out of the 23 districts in Paktika province, nearly 18 have no government or security forces to speak of. It'll be very difficult to hold elections there.

WATSON: Bidar says about a month ago, some fighters began showing off new Japanese motorcycles, satellite telephones and weapons as they boasted about funding coming in from outside the country. Last year, the Taliban failed to make good on threats to derail Afghanistan's presidential election. The Afghan National Army has grown since then and is being deployed alongside US-led troops around the country. Lieutenant Colonel Tony Fagan appears cautiously optimistic.

Lt. Col. FAGAN: We are--by no stretch of the imagination are we going to tell people there won't be additional deaths or injuries caused by the Taliban as we get closer to the election. We just feel that the Afghan people are going to show up, and they're going to vote.

WATSON: The momentum does seem to be against the Taliban. Fifty-eight hundred candidates are competing for seats in the national parliament and in provincial councils. Some 12 million people, nearly half the population, are registered to vote. And in Gardez, which is so close to the Taliban threat, the dusty streets are wallpapered with campaign posters. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Kabul.

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