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Afghanistan: Violence Spiraling As Elections Near

Afghanistan is going through what is probably its most difficult period since the Taliban militia was driven from power by a U.S.-led coalition of forces in 2001. Assassinations of moderate Islamic clerics and foreigners have risen, as have the deaths of American and Afghan troops. Some of the increased insurgent activity can be linked to the coming parliamentary elections on 18 September. But beyond that, is the broader situation worsening as well?

Prague, 22 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The parliamentary elections -- the first in Afghanistan for nearly 30 years -- are viewed as key to establishing a functioning institutional system based on the rule of law.

On the same day, provincial elections will also take place, giving Afghanistan democratically elected levels of government ranging from provincial councils, to the national parliament, to President Hamid Karzai.

Political analyst Christopher Langton of the London-based International Institute for Security Studies says the parliamentary vote, and provincial elections to be held the same day, are critical.

He says they will demonstrate whether the people really believe in a new, democratic Afghanistan, and whether the government will finally be able to move forward.

"Firstly [they will] show how much support there was for the election in the country as a whole, and then, what is the result -- I don't just mean in the voting, I mean, [they will show if] the government will now begin to deliver on social and economic reforms," Langton said.
The Taliban itself was driven into the mountains after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but has lately reemerged as an active guerrilla force.

Afghanistan's Islamic militants, primarily the ousted Taliban militia, have been quoted as vowing to disrupt these coming elections. And they have left a trail of increasing bloodshed in recent months.

They have been targeting pro-government Islamic clerics, officials, electoral workers, and foreign aid workers, as well as Afghan and coalition troops.

In the latest attack on clerics, Taliban guerrillas on 21 August claimed responsibility for shooting moderate mullah Abdullah Malang, deputy head of the religious council of Panjway District in Kandahar Province.

Malang is the fifth pro-government mullah to be killed. The Taliban says such clerics have defied the jihad, or holy war, declared against the Western-supported Karzai government.

However, a Taliban spokesman, Abdul Latif Hakimi, now says the organization has no intention of attacking polling stations. Hakimi spoke by phone to Radio Free Afghanistan.

"We have never said that we want to disrupt the upcoming elections. It is not important for us to disrupt the elections. All claims that we want to disrupt the elections are fabricated by the press. They want to defame our struggle. We didn't attack election centers before, and we won't start now," Hakimi said.

Given their record in the last few months, it's hard to take the Taliban comments at face value. Kabir Ranjbar is the head of the Afghan Lawyers Association and an expert on Afghan affairs. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that Hakimi's comments may mean the Taliban is seeking a future political role.

"They want to join the political process and that is why they have suggested [this move]. They published this statement and this is their first step to show to the Afghan people and the government that they will take more steps in that direction," Ranjbar said.

The Taliban itself was driven into the mountains after the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but have lately reemerged as an active guerrilla force. Analysts don't agree whether this is a last spark before the movement is extinguished, or whether the Taliban has been able to regroup and remain a viable threat.

Analyst Langton in London says a clue to that may well lie in how the Taliban deploy during the coming winter:

"They are relatively well-equipped, and of course they are well-motivated. It will be interesting to see, when winter comes -- starting at the end of September, shortly after the elections -- whether they plan to [retreat] back to the border areas near Pakistan, or whether they are going to stay where they are, having come down [from the mountains] this year," Langton said.

Certainly U.S. troop casualties have sharply increased in recent months, making this the bloodiest year for the American military in Afghanistan since 2001.

U.S. military spokeswoman Lieutenant Cindy Moore, speaking in Kabul yesterday, said the United States is not deterred in its task of bring security to the Afghan people.

"Four U.S. forces were killed [yesterday] morning and three were wounded [while they were] conducting operations south of Dai Chopan in Zabul Province. The three wounded soldiers were transported -- medically evacuated -- to a forward operating base for treatment. Certainly, these type of attacks strengthen our resolve to continue operating with the Afghan security forces to ensure peace and prosperity and security for the Afghan people," Moore said.

Just three days before that, a U.S. Marine was killed in fighting in Kunar Province. The previous day, two U.S. soldiers were killed in Kandahar Province. In total, 65 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan this year.

Apart from the insurgents, another danger for Afghan democracy lies with the existing political arena. Warlords of dubious democratic credentials are seeking to dominate the voting patterns. It they can bribe or intimidate enough voters to back them, they can wear a cloak of legitimacy and consolidate their power.

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