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Afghanistan: NATO, U.S. Will Not Accept Full Responsibility For Fairness Of Election

(file photo) With Afghan presidential elections less than two months away, NATO and the U.S.-led coalition which conducts Operation Enduring Freedom find themselves committed to two conflicting objectives. Both worry about the future of democracy in Afghanistan and insist the elections must be free and fair. Yet, at the same time, neither is willing to take full responsibility for security at the elections. This in turn has forced international organizations to not send observer missions, for fear of the safety of their staff.

Kabul, 16 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from both the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) and the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) insist that Afghanistan's 9 October elections must be free and fair.

Nevertheless, both also insist that the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the security of the poll rests with Afghanistan's own embryonic army and police forces.

As a result, the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have declined to send large groups of election monitors to Afghanistan. Both will send only small teams to the bigger cities, citing security fears in the regions beyond where warlords and militias rule.

Major General Eric Olson heads the task force that coordinates the roughly 18,000 mostly U.S. soldiers under the OEF banner in Afghanistan. He said the U.S.-led coalition will only provide "broad" security.

"The coalition will not take on the mission to secure 5,000 polling places. But the coalition working with the Afghan National Army and Afghan national police will provide security for these 5,000 polling places. The close-in security at polling places will be primarily the responsibility of the Afghan national police. That's by agreement between the central [Afghan] government and the coalition. Area security around the polling places will be Afghan National Army for the most part, and then coalition forces will have a broader area security mission in larger regions around polling sites," Olson said.

Olson does suggest it may be possible that OEF and Afghan forces could cooperate in securing the delivery of ballot boxes to regional hubs. But up in the north of the country, as well as in Kabul -- where a beefed-up ISAF is responsible for security -- officials bluntly reject even the possibility of cooperation on ballot boxes.

Marc Rudkiewicz, a French officer in charge of military planning at ISAF headquarters, told reporters in Kabul on 11 August that NATO will not assist in transporting ballot boxes. He said the alliance will only occupy a "deterrent position" to discourage major disruptions. He added that the registration process is led by the United Nations, while the task of securing polling stations falls on the 13,000-man Afghan National Army.

ISAF's new head, General Jean-Louis Py, represents a European force called Eurocorps, led by Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Spain. Speaking to RFE/RL, Py acknowledged that ISAF will be unable to ensure the free and fair conduct of the elections. He said a grass-roots ISAF security role would be "impossible."

Py said that the main concern of the international community should be the credibility of the elections, adding that the poll must be as fair as possible. He pointed to the experience of Eastern Europe, where he said initial electoral violence did not prevent stable democracy from emerging. Both NATO-led ISAF and the U.S.-led OEF focus on large-scale violence aimed at disrupting the entire exercise.

U.S. Major General Olson warned that the elections will "multiply" the opportunities for terrorists to strike at something of value. "I believe that the enemy at this point feels like he missed an opportunity to stop registration, so now he is probably going to be more prone to a desperate act to impact the elections," Olson said. "And with election activities throughout the nation as 9 October approaches, I think we can expect that he is in fact going to become more active and that we will have to be better prepared."

Privately, officials acknowledge that many avenues exist for electoral fraud. Multiple voting and the participation of foreign nationals -- mainly Pakistanis and Iranians -- are two key worries. Some officials also appeared concerned over potential abuse of a law that allows the election to be revoked should any of the candidates die during the campaign.