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Afghanistan: Election Officials, Security Forces Prepare For Presidential Poll

The UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body says it has completed most preparations for the 9 October presidential election. What remains is to deliver ballots and other election materials from provincial centers to the most remote polling stations. The UN's election security chief, John McComber, says security is also ready. The Afghan national police, army, and international forces are guarding against attacks by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. They also are keeping an eye on possible intimidation of voters by various militia groups that back different candidates.

Kabul, 5 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations election officials in Afghanistan say 30 October is their target date for releasing the final official results from the 9 October election -- that is, provided one of the 18 candidates wins the 50 percent needed for outright victory in the first round.

Julian Type, an adviser on international election operations with the UN-Afghan Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), told RFE/RL that 20 November is being considered as a possible date for a runoff vote if no candidate wins in the first round.

"If that's the case, the law requires the runoff election to be held within two weeks of the announcement of the result of the first round -- which would mean that the JEMB would probably delay the official announcement of the result of the first round until the sixth of November. That would not, however, in most cases, prevent a clear picture of the results of the first round from emerging. The results will be posted progressively as they become available," Type said.

Type said a second round would require new ballots to be distributed to more than 21,500 polling stations. That process already has proven difficult in rugged parts of Afghanistan, with officials using camels and donkeys to get to the most remote places. Meanwhile, Type said 120,000 local Afghans are being trained this week to administer the nationwide poll.

U.S.-led coalition forces have increased patrol flights around the country in recent days. A U.S. spokesman for the coalition, Major Scott Nelson, confirmed the flights are part of a "show of force" designed to discourage attacks by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, or Afghan militia fighters.

"For the elections, we are significantly ramping up our security capabilities. That includes aviation support -- both A-10 [attack planes] and helicopters throughout the country. [The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force] ISAF is doing the same thing, as well as, in support of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of the Interior, with Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army soldiers. All of this is coordinated in concert with the UN's [Joint Electoral Management Body] on how we support and secure the election process for 9 October," Nelson said.

The 48,000 officers of the Afghan National Police are the only people allowed to carry weapons within 500 meters of polling stations. Just outside that area, a combination of Afghan National Army troops and local officials will carry out patrols.

The "area security" beyond the army's zone of control includes local authorities as well as some 20,000 troops in the U.S.-led coalition. Another 9,000 members of the UN-mandated ISAF also are involved.
"It's not just a question of intimidation potential of Afghan militia. We've had the same allegations [of intimidation] made against Afghan police."

The UN's election security chief is John McComber. He said the greatest threat is any activity that scares voters away from casting ballots on 9 October. Concerns include solo attacks by the Taliban or in conjunction with fighters of militia commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, as well as by Al-Qaeda-linked groups. McComber also acknowledged concerns that private militias linked to some candidates might try to intimidate voters.

"There's potential. But there's much greater potential for other forms of intimidation from the traditional threat groups -- Taliban, Hekmatyar's people, others. Is that on going now? Yes it is -- the campaign of night letters. Those agents moving amongst villages trying to influence through threatening people or otherwise. So it's not just a question of intimidation potential of Afghan militia. We've had the same allegations [of intimidation] made against Afghan police," McComber said.

McComber said he expects militia forces to be prevalent in parts of northern Afghanistan that have the fewest number of international troops or trained members of the Afghan army and police.

Fighters loyal to the ethnic Uzbek presidential candidate, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, hold sway over much of those areas. Most of Dostum's fighters refuse to participate in internationally backed disarmament programs. In areas more than a half-kilometer from the polls or vote-counting houses, Dostum's militia is being tolerated as an unavoidable reality on the ground.

But McComber distanced the UN-backed security program from Dostum's fighters. "The bottom line is, they are there. They are, everyday, performing a search and security function," he said. "But we are not linking them to the election security plan. They will carry on doing what they do essentially in support of the local police. But no direct link to us."

McComber also expects militia groups that are nominally linked to Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim to be posted in areas beyond the control of the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army.

"There are some Afghan militia forces working directly with Ministry of Defense. That's a fact. Some of those are acting in this area a security role. You won't see them at polling centers. You won't see them at counting houses. In fact, most you won't even see on the roads. Those that are here are, for instance, sitting on the mountain tops around Kabul doing what they always do," McComber said.

McComber concluded that it is possible -- even probable -- that some militia fighters have been hired individually either as poll workers or as local security officers. But he stresses that the UN's security plans do not include any complete Afghan militia units.

For more on the Afghan elections, see RFE/RL and Radio Free Afghanistan's dedicated webpage "Afghanistan Votes 2004-05."