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Monday, October 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Close-up
Afghan democracy exacts deadly toll

By The Associated Press and The Christian Science Monitor

ELIZABETH DALZIEL / AP
A Kandahari police officer carrying an AK-47 stands guard next to a vehicle adorned with pictures of presidential candidate Hamid Karzai during a political rally in Karzai's hometown of Kandahar, Afghanistan, yesterday.
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KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The killing in Afghanistan spirals onward, undermining U.S. claims of success in pacifying the country with less than a week to go before a historic experiment with democracy: direct presidential elections.

The deaths of three Afghan soldiers and two militants over the weekend — barely noted in news reports — brought to at least 957 the number of people reported killed in political violence this year, according to an Associated Press review. The toll includes about 30 U.S. soldiers.

With Afghanistan three years removed from the brutality of Taliban rule, President Bush has acclaimed Saturday's presidential vote a beacon of hope for the Islamic world and a prelude to even more tricky balloting scheduled for January in Iraq.

But the tally of dead in Afghanistan — a haven of tranquility compared with Iraq — is an indicator of the task facing the U.S. military and whoever becomes Afghanistan's first directly elected president — most likely the U.S.-backed incumbent, Hamid Karzai — to consolidate a shaky peace.

The number of dead was drawn from a review of hundreds of daily stories by The Associated Press since Jan. 1. The actual toll is thought to be significantly higher, because many killings in remote areas are not reported.

"Nobody relishes figures like that," said Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan. "I think we've only just begun in terms of a permanent and lasting secure environment in Afghanistan."

Afghanistan's first post-Taliban vote will draw the world's attention to Kabul, the battle-weary capital being transformed by a building boom as many Afghans bet on peace after more than two decades of horrific war.

The focus of the continuing insurgency lies in the south and east of the country, where regrouped Taliban rebels and other anti-government groups are expected to mount coordinated attacks before or on election day.

Western intelligence reports warn of militants slipping over the border from Pakistan to attack the United Nations and polling stations in and around towns like Kandahar, the former Taliban capital.

Some also talk of possible car-bomb attacks, others of attempts to hide explosive charges in fruit carts, a tactic used in the slaying of 14 children in Kandahar in January. The Taliban claimed they were planning to target passing U.S. patrols.

"For sure, we are expecting some casualties," said Talatbek Masadykov, the U.N. official in charge of a swath of southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar. Most foreign-aid workers have left the city because of the heightened threat of violence.
 
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Threat of violence

That threat is more than an abstraction for many in Afghanistan, such as Malik Ali Mohammad, just named the new district chief in the village of Khake Afghan. Last week, about 400 Taliban fighters attacked his village, and although Mohammad saved his village, he lost two sons who had been fighting beside him.

The attack was revenge for his role in the recent killing of a top Taliban commander, Mullah Roozi Khan. But Mohammad said he has little time for mourning. He will fight the Taliban "until the last drop of blood."

"I have lost two of my sons; they were my soldiers," said Mohammad, wiping tears away with the end of his turban. "I have two more sons and my own life as well, and I will not leave that district, even if they kill me and my sons."

With the election days away, the increase in violence is casting doubt on whether voters will feel safe enough to cast votes freely, whether those votes will be counted fairly and whether voters will show up. The result of a deeply flawed election could undermine the faith of Afghans in the concept of democracy.

Holding an election in Afghanistan was never going to be easy, and the lack of voting experience has opened the process to substantial flaws.

But security topped the list of troubles.

"If we don't have disarmament in Afghanistan, we will get the same faces in Parliament, and if they get into Parliament, we should all pack our bags and give up," said Andrew Wilder, head of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank in Kabul. "I'm really in favor of elections, but this is the last important opportunity to get things right."

Such a dark assessment, echoed by a number of recent reports on deteriorating security, contrasted with the bright picture presented to Congress last week by assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Armitage told members of Congress that the Afghan elections would be a "success," although he expected the Taliban to attempt to disrupt the process.

To that end, the U.S. military has increased its presence to 18,000 troops able to provide quick-reaction forces to respond to violence on polling day and to bolster Afghan security forces. Those forces are supported by 9,000 NATO troops responsible for security in Kabul and the northern provinces.

While Taliban attacks tend to draw more media attention, a number of recent independent reports suggest that armed militia commanders present a greater threat and affect more people.

Threat from warlords

According to a recent survey of Afghan voters conducted by the relief organization CARE, 87 percent said the government should do more to reduce the powers of Afghan commanders and 64 percent said the most important way to improve security was to disarm the militias. Only 17 percent said Afghans would face pressure on how to vote, but of those, more than 85 percent said the pressure would come from commanders. Interestingly, only 0.84 percent said that Islamic clerics would influence their vote.

For most Afghans, "security is not about Taliban and al-Qaida, it's local militias," said Paul Barker, country director for CARE in Kabul. "Disarmament is the most important thing. There won't be any sustainable difference in Afghans' lives until the guns are taken away."

In Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, few residents talk about the Taliban anymore. For city dwellers, the Karzai government — and particularly the governorship of the recently sacked warlord Gul Agha Sherzai — brought security, paved roads and constant electricity.

In the city, shopkeepers tend to show their support for Karzai as a local boy who brought prosperity and peace. Typical is a shopkeeper named Mohammad Ibrahim: "I like Karzai, he is a fair man to be elected, and he's a Kandahari," he said.

His friend, a baker named Saleh Mohammad, isn't so sure for whom he'll vote — or how to vote. "I don't know how to vote, I don't even know what it means," Saleh Mohammad said. "I have a registration card. I was walking in the bazaar in Arghandab, and the police caught me and told me to register myself. So I did."

Rebels on move

There were fresh signs yesterday of militants on the move.

U.S. and Afghan forces fought suspected Taliban near Spin Boldak on the Pakistani border, killing one rebel and capturing 16, said Khalid Pashtun, spokesman for the governor of Kandahar. No U.S. or Afghan troops were wounded, he said.

On Saturday, rebels killed two militia guards at the home of a former senior official in Uruzgan province, said Police Chief Rozi Khan. A third soldier died when troops came under fire as they tried to flee with a suspect captured during the battle. The prisoner also was fatally wounded, Khan said.

The attacks continue despite the predominance of militants among the reported casualties.

Based on Associated Press reports, nearly half of those killed in a little more than nine months have been militants.

About 260 Afghan security forces also have died — although that figure includes the victims of factional violence — alongside 160 civilians, more than 40 aid or reconstruction workers and about 30 U.S. soldiers.

Officials at the Afghan Interior Ministry and presidential palace were not available to comment on the figures.

Military officials and foreign diplomats said militants are able to slip back and forth across the rugged Afghan-Pakistan frontier, making it hard for the U.S. force and its Afghan allies to destroy them. Meanwhile, a government offer of amnesty to former Taliban willing to end their resistance has seen hundreds of former fighters released from Afghan jails but has failed to produce obvious political gains.

Ready for conflict

In Qalat, the capital of restive Zabul province, security chief Lt. Gen. Amir Mohammad Noori said his 1,500 police and 500 Afghan National Army soldiers are ready for whatever the Taliban have planned for election day. Even so, he conceded that the Taliban are evenly matched, with 1,700 guerrillas in Zabul, and that they travel freely in far-off districts such as Sari and Khake Afghan.

"They are actively disturbing the election process," he said, "but until now, they haven't done any major attacks."

"We have a very strong plan for security," Noori said. "We'll have patrols, we'll strengthen our checkpoints. The road will be closed to any armed people, unless they have a permission slip from their commander."

This is small comfort for Malik Ali Mohammad, the commander of Khake Afghan district. Mohammad said he is disappointed by U.S. forces, who neglected to support him against the Taliban last week.

"We called the American forces, but they didn't come to help us," he said. "In 4 ½ hours of face-to-face fighting, we didn't get any support. What can the Afghan government do for us? They don't have transportation to get to our areas. All the Americans did was take away the dead bodies after the battle was over."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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