Officials in Afghanistan have begun registering voters for next year's presidential election, in which Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he will seek a second five-year term.
The vote in autumn of 2009 will also include elections for the 34 local provincial assemblies and councils in Afghanistan.
Experts are already warning that the vote is likely to be the most dangerous and challenging in the country since the Taliban regime was ousted from power in late 2001, due to insurgent violence, which has increased dramatically since the presidential election of 2004 and the parliamentary elections of 2005.
Violence across Afghanistan has increased by some 30 percent just since last year -- making 2008 the worst year for security in Afghanistan since U.S. troops entered the country seven years ago.
Zekria Barakzai, the deputy chief of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that registration so far is focusing on 14 relatively secure provinces in central and northeastern Afghanistan. "At the beginning, we have only faced some problems in transporting our [voter registration] equipment for the registration process to Nuristan Province and a few districts of Ghazni Province," Barakzai says.
Election officials have run into difficulties in some of the same areas where violence by Taliban or other insurgent fighters has increased in the past three years. Barakzai says if delays continue, authorities may have to use helicopters to transport their equipment.
Barakzai also explained that the registration process will occur in four distinct phases -- each meant to last about one month -- with work in some of the most volatile southern provinces like Helmand and Kandahar taking place in the final phase. "The first phase is where we will cover the 14 central and northeastern provinces. After that, another 10 provinces will be covered -- including Kabul and Paktia" and eight provinces in the north, Barakzai says. "The third phase includes registration in the six eastern provinces and the [western province of] Farah. Finally, four southern provinces are in the last phase."
Security during the elections of 2004 and 2005 was provided jointly by international troops, Afghan security forces and, importantly, local militias around the country.
But with some local militia commanders reportedly joining with insurgent fighters in recent years, there are concerns about how much cooperation the central government can expect from militia groups during the registration process and election day.
The lack of security could derail the election process if the Taliban are able to intimidate people into not voting.
Barakzai says there are early signs that antigovernment elements are trying to stop people from registering to vote in some districts, including reports of militant supporters preaching at mosques and warning people not to vote or get registered.
But Barakzai also says those concerns already are being dealt with by Afghan and international security forces. "We had very detailed consultations with Afghanistan's security organizations," Barakzai says. "The Afghan Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry, and the National Security Directorate and the [NATO-led] International Security Assistance Force. They have assured us that they will provide adequate security for all four phases of the voter-registration process. We are assured that we will be able to implement the registration phases successfully."
Looking forward to the presidential election itself, Kathy Gannon, an award-winning correspondent for the Associated Press who has been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1986, says the issues that have led some Afghans to support Taliban fighters in recent years could cause a backlash against Karzai on election day.
"Hamid Karzai is running a country that is mired in corruption, is mired in disillusionment, is mired in institutional collapse that has really given oxygen to the insurgency," Gannon says. "The problem also includes the incredible lack of governance there.... And the heavy-handedness of the international forces. The civilian deaths. [That's why] the insurgency right now is so strong in Afghanistan. Because it has the support of the people -- whether it is total disillusionment with the international community, with the pace of progress, with corruption, the lack of any kind of development."
For his part, Karzai appears confident that he can win reelection -- even though it is not yet clear who all of the other candidates will be.
Speaking in Washington last month during a visit with U.S. President George W. Bush, Karzai spoke to journalists about the "unimaginable progress" in Afghanistan during his three years as a transitional leader and four years as elected president. Karzai said the help of the United States and other international donors has improved the lives of ordinary Afghans while enhancing democracy, education, and health services.
"At times in this span of seven years we have come across issues that give us a feeling as if things were slowing down," Karzai said. "That is not the impression that we have in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has made progress that we would have not been able to make in 50 years or 60 years -- what you have done in the past six or seven years."
Taliban spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi, however, says Afghans should not "waste their time" by registering or going to vote. Speaking by telephone from an undisclosed location, Ahmadi has been telling reporters that the election results will be fraudulent.
Some 12.6 million people in a country of about 30 million were registered to vote in the previous elections.
Afghan officials will be assisted by the United Nations and NATO-led troops in organizing the poll and ensuring security.
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Mustafa Siddiqi and Qadir Habib contributed to this report from Prague