With a Taliban suicide attack
claiming seven lives in Kabul on August 15, there are renewed fears about security ahead of Afghanistan's presidential election next week.
While security has been a key focus of NATO and Afghan government troops during the past year, Taliban militants have waged their own campaign of threats and intimidation ahead of the August 20 ballot.
Taliban militants hope to undermine the legitimacy of the election by reducing voter turnout.
The NATO security strategy for Afghanistan's presidential elections has included efforts to bolster the Afghan National Army, as well as build up international forces with a U.S.-led surge.
In recent months, there has been a major offensive to clear militants out of strongholds in the volatile southern Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. In other areas, there also are reports of deal-making between Kabul officials and the leaders of regional militia factions.
Insecurity is at its peak in the southern and eastern Pashtun-populated regions where the Taliban and other insurgents are active. Local sources in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar suggest that the recent U.S., British, and Afghan operations in neighboring Helmand Province have forced many Taliban fighters into Kandahar, which might prove a critical threat on election day.
Afghanistan's Election Commission says that nationwide, about 500 out of a total of 7,000 polling stations might not open on voting day because of security concerns.Taliban 'Night Letters'
The Taliban strategy has included direct attacks on government buildings. It also has included the posting of so-called "night letters" on the walls of mosques and village compounds with warnings that voters will be punished.
Jean MacKenzie, the Kabul-based country director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says that there is a coordinated insurgent campaign to keep people from voting.
Along with night letters, she reports that in some parts of the country, the Taliban and other militants have shown up at mosques during Friday Prayers to warn that those found with an ink-stained finger will have it "cut off." As a safeguard against fraud, voters in Afghanistan have to dip their index finger in a bottle of ink in order to cast their ballot.
MacKenzie says that despite Karzai's reassurances, "these threats are having a very definite impact on the minds of would-be voters."
"The level of commitment or trust among Afghans in these elections was not high to begin with. Now, given this campaign of threats and intimidation, I expect that it will depress voter turnout quite significantly," MacKenzie says.
Dutch Army General Tom Middendorp, the outgoing commander of a NATO task force in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, is more confident.
He describes a security strategy in southern Afghanistan that was developed jointly by Afghan government forces and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force to ensure a secure voting process.
"What we did in Uruzgan -- we sat together with the key leaders: with the governor, with the chief of the army, chief of the police, chief of the NDS intelligence service, and the chief of the independent election committee," Middendorp says.
An Afghan man shields himself from dust behind a billboard of incumbent President Hamid Karzai in Kabul
"We looked at the map on how can we cover most of the population in the province and how can we enable them to cast their votes. And we had good cooperation there -- cooperation on the positioning of the polling centers and the security that can be providing by the Afghan security forces and ISAF. I think we now have a disposition of polling centers that covers at least 85 percent of the population," he says.
More specifically, Middendorp says Afghan and NATO security forces will be deployed on election day in an array that is similar to the successful security operations during the 2004 presidential election.
"The police developed a plan to do the close protection of all these polling centers. The Afghan National Army developed a plan to provide protection there as well -- which is the wider area protection. And ISAF has a tier three and tier four role -- which means air cover and a quick reaction force," Middendorp says.
"We really want this to be Afghan elections. We don't want to create the impression that ISAF is influencing that in any way. So it is Afghan organized and Afghan secured as much as possible."Bringing In The Militias
Security during the elections of 2004 and 2005 was provided jointly by NATO and Afghan forces. The Afghan National Army set up checkpoints closest to polling stations while international troops covered the wider surrounding areas and provided air cover.
In many parts of Afghanistan during those votes -- especially in the north -- local Afghan militias also helped provide security in wider areas around polling stations.
But with some local militia commanders reportedly joining with insurgent fighters in recent years, there have been concerns about how much cooperation the central government can get from militia leaders during the 2009 election.
MacKenzie, of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says that hasn't stopped Kabul from reportedly trying to broker arrangements where local militia help provide security on election day.
"We've heard definitely from the west -- i.e., Herat -- where they are trying to put together these militia factions to provide security for the day of the polling and for possible aftermath. We have not heard this from the north as yet. But I would not be at all surprised if that kind of thing is taking place up there as well," MacKenzie says.
"If so, it is quite dangerous. There might be Iran-type demonstrations or some violence once results are announced. And if there are protests or some kind of violence, these militias could go either way."
"The Guardian" newspaper of Britain reported that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, apparently brokered a series of secret deals with Taliban commanders in southern Afghanistan to try to ensure that voting would take place in next week's election.
But in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Wali Karzai denied having struck any personal deals with the Taliban. He said only that tribal elders in some regions had concluded such agreements with local insurgents.
"In some regions tribal elements have concluded verbal agreements with the Taliban that they will not create troubles on election day. But we have not done any negotiations with the Taliban movement and they have not agreed to anything. Nothing like that has happened," Karzai said.
Even if greater security prevents the Taliban from carrying out its threats on August 20, Afghanistan still could face additional security and logistical challenges related to the election. Many polls suggest that while Karzai is the frontrunner, he may not be able to secure the 50 percent majority needed to win outright in the first round.
If a runoff becomes necessary, the top two candidates out of the field of 35 would face off against each other in a second vote no later than October. New ballots would have to be printed and distributed, and the process would be repeated. These preparations would have to take place while the country also marks the month of Ramadan. RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique and Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Asmatullah Sarwan contributed to this report
On The Campaign Trail
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah campaigned in early August at separate rallies in Kabul. Play