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Afghanistan: Can The U.S. Ensure Security For Afghan Elections?

'There's no security without reconstruction, [and] no reconstruction without security in Afghanistan.' Afghans will elect a president in September, and the U.S. favorite -- incumbent Hamid Karzai -- is widely expected to win. But there is concern that the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan have not done enough to make the country secure enough for a meaningful vote. The leader of those military forces was in the United States last week and gave an optimistic assessment.

Washington, 17 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- There are an estimated 10 million eligible voters in Afghanistan, but so far only about 2 million have registered to take part in the September election.

Meanwhile, violence is flaring up in many areas of the country, and Afghanistan's border with Pakistan remains a magnet for members of the former Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

U.S. General David Barno, the commanding general of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, acknowledged the problems last week, but said he has developed a strategy that he believes will keep interference to a minimum and allow Afghans to choose a president in September.
"It takes time, and it won't be perfect the first time. But I think the people of Afghanistan do want to be engaged in the democratic process. So I think we should spend at least a fraction of the money that we spend on arming the Afghan resistance on helping Afghanistan make its passage to the family of free nations" -- Radek Sikorski

Speaking on 14 May at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Barno said his forces have made a shift away from a strictly military approach to one that now includes what he calls an important political element to ensure both good security and good voter turnout.

"There's no security without reconstruction, clearly no reconstruction without security in Afghanistan. In our military mission, as part of the overall effort there, it clearly encompasses both of those dynamics. So whereas earlier in our operation in Afghanistan we were focused very much on that combat, direct action, remove terrorists and focus on the 'military dynamic'; we now -- clearly last fall, clearly today -- are in a much more nuanced environment," Barno said.

Barno stressed that this does not mean he expects there will be no violence as the election nears, or that all 10 million eligible voters will be registered in time. But he says he does believe the vote will be a significant first step into democracy for a country trying to emerge from three decades of war.

Of particular concern is Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, which has long been lawless and now is believed to be a haven for Taliban and Al-Qaeda members regrouping after the U.S.-led invasion of late 2001.

But Barno expressed optimism that trouble in the border region can at least be minimized, if not neutralized, thanks to what he said was Pakistan's commitment to policing its side of the border. He said his troops now work well in cross-border coordination with Pakistani forces.

Barno acknowledged that this coordination has not yet produced spectacular results, such as the capture of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But he said he believes the region is gradually becoming stabilized.

"We do a great deal of coordination with the Pakistanis. We have what I'd characterize as complementary efforts on both sides of the borders and we share a great deal of information through these various information exchanges. We've got radios that commanders have on both sides of the border, they can talk to each other now. We've made some significant strides there, I think, over the last several months," Barno said.

Many observers say security in Afghanistan has been impossible, especially for foreign armies dating as far back as Alexander the Great more than 2,300 years ago. Some even joke that Karzai is not properly the president of Afghanistan but merely the mayor of Kabul, because, they contend, security outside the capital is nonexistent.

This is a great exaggeration, according to Radek Sikorski, a former foreign secretary and secretary of defense for Poland who now studies international affairs at the American Enterprise Institute, a private policy research center in Washington.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Sikorski, who has traveled extensively in Afghanistan, said there has been measurable progress in making much of Afghanistan secure enough that voters can elect a president who truly represents his people.

"There is basic security in most of Afghanistan. There are, of course, incidents up in the hills, particularly on the Afghan-Pakistani border. But, you know, that's a border that has never been quiet in its many-thousand-year history. So let's not expect too much," Sikorski said.

Sikorski also acknowledged that many Afghan men probably will not permit their wives and daughters to vote, regardless of the country's liberal election laws, and that there are many nomads who are difficult to register for the election.

But he said that is reason enough to increase efforts to enroll as many eligible voters as possible. Sikorsky recalled that Afghans debated vigorously at their constitutional convention last year, and seem, for the most part, to want democracy.

Sikorski also said a vigorous voter-registration campaign is the least the West, and particularly the United States, should do for a country that he said helped bring down Soviet communism and was destroyed in the process:

"It takes time, and it won't be perfect the first time. But I think the people of Afghanistan do want to be engaged in the democratic process. So I think we should spend at least a fraction of the money that we spend on arming the Afghan resistance on helping Afghanistan make its passage to the family of free nations," Sikorski said.

Yesterday in Kabul, the United Nations' envoy to Afghanistan described the country's progress toward democracy as "insufficient."

Jean Arnault said that disarming militias, creating an independent police force, and forming a single national army are necessary steps for achieving lasting stability in Afghanistan.