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Insecurity Prompts Concerns About Afghan Presidential Vote

Afghanistan's presidential election opened with giant banners going up around Kabul.
Afghanistan's presidential election opened with giant banners going up around Kabul.
As campaigning for the upcoming presidential election officially kicks off in Afghanistan, insecurity in remote areas of the country remains a key concern.

Improving the security situation was a prime reason for postponing the vote until August 20, but large swaths of the Afghan countryside have yet to be tamed.

"There is no question that the situation has deteriorated during the past two years in particular. And that there are difficult times ahead," said General David Petraeus recently.

Petraeus, who as head of U.S. Central Command oversees the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq, briefed Washington's policy elite last week on the rising insecurity in Afghanistan.

Using slides to chart the rise and fall of violence, Petraeus underscored the extent of the problem in remote regions -- of particular concern considering the logistical difficulties in holding the presidential election on August 20. Noting the spike of incidents in summer months, he highlighted the difficulties that lie ahead.

"You can see the very clear cycle here because of the weather and the winter and you can see that the past week was the highest level of security incidents in Afghanistan's history -- at least that post-liberation history," Petraeus said.

While noting the weather-based cycle of increasing violence in the summer months, he added that violence "will go up because we are going to go after their safe haven and sanctuaries, as we must."

Increasing Violence

Recent NATO statistics support his reading of the situation. According to a recent report by NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), insurgent attacks increased by 59 percent to 5,222 incidents from January through May compared with 3,283 during the same period last year.

ISAF statistics show that insurgent attacks surpassed the 1,400 mark for one month for the first time in May, when 1,450 attacks were recoded. An 80 percent surge in the number of roadside-bomb attacks raised considerable alarm, considering they are the top killer of Afghan and international soldiers.

Khalid Pashtun represents the restive southern province of Kandahar in the lower house of the Afghan parliament, where he serves on the Defense Committee. He says that the Taliban summer offensive is in full swing, but that he believes that the rising number of international troops on the ground can stave off a further rise in the violence.

A man walks past posters of presidential candidates in Kabul.
"I think that if the international forces keep up the current levels of pressure, fighting, and commitment, then I think the situation will be bearable and under control. But a lot depends on the armed opposition," Pashtun says.

"Eyewitness reports during the past three days suggest that large numbers of Taliban are moving into Afghanistan from western Pakistan," he adds. "If the international forces' reaction to those insurgents weakens from the current levels, then we will see that the environment for holding elections deteriorate to a level where they couldn’t be held."

Pashtun suggests that, unlike past trends when rising insecurity in Pakistan correlated to diminishing levels of violence in neighboring Afghanistan, violence is simultaneously flaring up in both countries. He attributes this to a recent Taliban decision that orders all Pakistani militants to fight in their own country while encouraging Afghans to concentrate on the war in their country.

Providing Security

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashari tell RFE/RL that the ministry's forces have no presence in 10 districts of the country's troubled southern regions, and that they have no "accurate and reliable information to say who is controlling those districts and what is happening there."

Bashari also sees an increase in roadside-bomb attacks and ambushes and suggests that the number of Afghan policemen killed daily might rise. He says increasing the number of Afghan security forces, combined with the provision of better equipment and training, would help the situation.

"We think that we can provide good security during the election. However, [in] those places where we have ongoing fighting, security problems will exist but that does not mean that the elections are not going to happen in those places," Bashari says.

"The elections will happen and the police forces will do their best to provide security for Afghans and pave the ground for them to go and vote."

U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal speaks to the troops.
In the absence of robust Afghan security forces, the onus of providing security during the elections will fall on the international forces -- particularly U.S. forces. Washington has already increased its troop levels from 32,000 late last year to 58,000 currently, and plans to increase them further to 68,000 late this year.

Given the U.S. troop-contribution levels, NATO defense ministers agreed to change ISAF's command structures to give greater control of the alliance's military operations in Afghanistan to incoming U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal and his deputy, General David Rodriguez.

In his first address on Afghan soil on June 15, McChrystal responded to long-standing Afghan demands for improved security by promising that "the Afghan people are at the center of our mission." He told his troops that "we must protect them from violence, whatever its nature. We must respect their religion and their traditions."

"Each of us, from rifleman to regional commander, from village to city, must execute our mission with the realization that displaying respect, cultural sensitivity, accountability, and transparency are essential to gaining the support and trust of the Afghan people," McChrystal said.

"If we gain that trust, we cannot lose. If we lose that trust, we cannot win."
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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