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Afghanistan: HRW Says Presidential Elections Troubled

Presidential elections in Afghanistan set for 9 October may already be in trouble. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalizad acknowledges as much and has called for patience. He said rebuilding a free Afghanistan will take years. Now comes the internationally influential group Human Rights Watch with a report today saying the country's warlords are hijacking the elections with pressure and intimidation. Even the commander of the U.S. coalition there, Lieutenant General David Barno, said Al-Qaeda operatives and remnants of the country's former ruling Taliban are disrupting preparations for the elections.

28 September 2004 -- Human Rights Watch (HRW) has said it all before.

The watchdog group issued a warning in July last year that gunmen and warlords, many originally backed by the United States, had taken control of much of the country.

Brad Adams, executive director of HRW's Asia Division, put it this way at the time: "These men and others have essentially hijacked the country outside of Kabul. With less than a year to go before national elections, Afghanistan's human rights situation appears to be worsening."

HRW says in a major new report today -- with the elections less than two weeks away -- that that prediction has been realized. In the words of researcher John Sifton, "The warlords are still calling the shots."
Because of the under-manning of international forces by both the United States and its NATO allies, the people guarding polling sites often will be the local militias ordinary Afghans fear most.

The report says that regional armed militias across the country have held onto political power and are using force, threats, and corruption to dominate the election process.

Worse, says the report, a number of the warlords commanding these militias are allied with the U.S. forces. Sifton said that because of the under-manning of international forces by both the United States and its NATO allies, the people guarding polling sites often will be the local militias ordinary Afghans fear most.

Ambassador Khalizad acknowledged yesterday in Kabul that intimidation by warlords threatens to affect the vote. He called for patience for a rebuilding that he said will take years.

Khalilzad praised presidential candidate Abdul Rashid Dostum, a commander whose militia helped U.S. forces drive out the Taliban, for placing his militia under the control of the new national army so he could run in the election. The ambassador denied charges by some presidential candidates that he himself was putting pressure on them to pull out in favor of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.

"I have never pressured them to withdraw from the race in favor of...Karzai. You know, my role here is to help and if people think they need my help I'm prepared to offer it, and if sometimes people think that they cannot talk to each other and that they can communicate something through me to somebody else, I do listen to them and on occasion do provide a service," Khalilzad said.

The commander of the U.S. coalition in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno, said yesterday in Kabul that agents of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda are helping Taliban remnants in Afghanistan to undermine the elections. But he said that coalition efforts have hampered Al-Qaeda and forced it to operate from neighboring Pakistan.

"We see relatively little evidence of senior Al-Qaeda figures, or Al-Qaeda personality figures, being here because they can feel more protected by their foreign fighters in remote areas inside of Pakistan. Well now, the Pakistani military has had a substantial effect against them and disrupted what has been a relatively safe haven for them," Barno said.

Karzai is widely favored to win the election, but his legitimacy would be challenged if he is forced to form a government with leaders of regional armed factions.

(compiled from wire and staff reports)