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Afghan Interior Minister Pledges Best Effort To Secure April Poll

Afghan Interior Minister Hanif Atmar: "We will get ready."
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghan forces will do their best to secure an early election called for by the president next month, four months ahead of when the army and police were aiming to be ready, the interior minister has said.

President Hamid Karzai last week threw the country into political turmoil, on top of the virulent Taliban insurgent threat, when he called for presidential elections to be brought forward from August 20 to April to comply with the constitution.

Karzai "is the commander in chief of our country. When he orders us to get ready, we will get ready," Interior Minister Hanif Atmar told reporters late on March 3.

While the constitution says the president's term ends on May 21 and polls must be held at least a month before that, opposition leaders agreed with Karzai 11 months ago it was impractical to hold an election in the spring as that would mean organizing it during the harsh winter.

But those same opposition leaders began to raise doubts about Karzai's legitimacy after May 21 when polls were set for August 20.

Almost no one thinks polls can be organized in Afghanistan in little over a month, so Karzai's move effectively calls the opposition's bluff and is aimed at forcing them to recognize his legitimacy after May 21 and allow him to retain the advantages of office as he goes in to the election campaign.

It is the job of first the notoriously corrupt Afghan police, then the army, backed by international forces to provide security during the run-up to the election and on polling day.

'Sad Reality'

One of the main reasons for choosing the August date was that it would give time for the further buildup and training of Afghan forces and the arrival of 17,000 extra U.S. forces ordered deployed by President Barack Obama.

Atmar, whose ministry controls the country's 80,000-strong police, said Taliban militants and their allies would attempt to upset the election.

"It's a sad reality of the Afghan situation, but we'll do our best," he said.

The Interior Ministry had already provided a report on the readiness of the police to protect the election.

"We said if it is held in April or May it will be at this level and in the autumn at this level," he said gesturing with his hands.

The United States and its European allies support the August date for elections, but have kept relatively quiet, anxious not to appear to be overly interfering in the Afghan political process, diplomats and analysts say.

The election commission is expected to announce its response to Karzai's early election demand next week and will almost certainly repeat its decision that polls before August are impossible.

A protracted period of political horse-trading will follow, analysts predict, with opposition leaders trying to either replace Karzai with an interim leader or at least extract guarantees he will not unfairly use his office to campaign.

The squabbling among the elite political class only undermines the fledgling Afghan democracy as it battles the hard-line Islamist Taliban militia.

Clashes have already risen this year above the record levels in the same period last year, which ended up as the worst year of violence since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban for sheltering Al-Qaeda leaders behind the September 11 attacks.

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