26 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The head of U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan says the remnants of the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies are stepping up plans to disrupt Afghanistan's first direct presidential election on 9 October .
U.S. Army Lieutenant General David Barno issued the warning yesterday in a press conference in Kabul.
"Clearly, for all terrorist organizations in the region, disrupting this free election that is pending here in Afghanistan -- and of which they are not a part -- appears to be a shared objective," Barno said.
Barno said Al-Qaeda members and other non-Afghan fighters are operating in the rugged mountain area that borders Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal regions.
"We see some indications that Al-Qaeda is apparently encouraging attempts to disrupt the election process," Barno said. "We also see Al-Qaeda and foreign-fighter involvement. Particularly in the southeast -- in the Paktia, Paktika, Khost area, in that border region opposite North and South Waziristan, which is where the Pakistanis have been conducting a number of their operations."
Taliban elements remain active in southern provinces like Oruzgan, Zabol, Helmand, and Kandahar. But Afghan officials say they scored an important victory overnight when senior Taliban commander, Mawlavi Ghafar, was killed in an ambush in Oruzgan Province. Ghafar became a top Taliban commander after he was released from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
With the deployment in the past week of an additional 1,000 U.S. troops to provide election security, about 19,000 U.S. soldiers are now stationed in Afghanistan.
Barno downplayed support for the insurgency, which has led to more than 1,000 deaths in Afghanistan in the past year, saying that terrorism is being waged by a "tiny minority."
"As we see where the Afghan people are physically laying out which side of this fight that they line up on, and as we see the actions by what in any measure are a relative very small number, it's very clear that the minority of terrorists out there are attempting to hijack a process that has broad support by the vast, vast majority of the Afghan people as shown by the registration," Barno said.
With the deployment in the past week of an additional 1,000 U.S. troops to provide election security, about 19,000 U.S. soldiers are now stationed in Afghanistan. That is nearly double the number of U.S. troops in the country early this year.
Germany's lower house of parliament is to vote in the coming days on whether to extend the mandate of German soldiers in Afghanistan by one year. Approval would allow some 2,100 Germans to continue serving in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) until October 2005.
Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai is the apparent front-runner among 18 presidential candidates currently campaigning ahead of the 9 October vote. If no single candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the presidential race will proceed in a runoff.
One of Karzai's chief opponents, former Education Minister Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, has been speaking out against plans to disarm and demobilize such militia forces -- a key aspect of internationally backed, post-Taliban reforms.
"You have two choices: You can either surrender to the foreigners and accept whatever they want you to do, or you can honor your jihad and you can choose the future of your country as an independent person," Qanuni said.
Qanuni's remarks echoed the sentiments of his most powerful political ally, Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim.
Other presidential candidates continue to call for a postponement of the vote because of the lack of security that has made it difficult to campaign across the country. Among them is Abdul Satar Sirat.
"We think that the security situation at the current time is not conducive to holding free and fair elections at the designated date," Sirat said recently.
Sirat, a supporter of former Afghan king Zaher Shah, had been widely expected to become the head of Afghanistan's interim government after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. But in part because of U.S. support, Karzai was chosen instead at the international conference in Bonn that framed Afghanistan's post-Taliban future.
(compiled from wire reports)[For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated webpage "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05."]