- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | As Afghanistan’s second-ever presidential campaign season came to a close Monday, authorities moved to tighten security in the face of Taliban threats to disrupt the vote with attacks on polling stations.

Fears persist that militant violence could affect balloting in the Pashtun-dominated south with adverse results for President Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun front-runner. Mr. Karzai needs more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

The head of the Afghan intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh, announced Sunday that some militant commanders have agreed not interfere with the elections. Afghan security forces will observe a one-day cease-fire.

Just days before Afghans go to the polls, reports said some Taliban militants were mobilizing toward populated areas with the intention of stepping up attacks.

A roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan killed a U.S. service member Monday, while an American civilian working for the military died after insurgents attacked a patrol in the east, officials said, according to the Associated Press.

The military death brings to 22 the number of U.S. troops killed in August, as foreign and Afghan forces step up their fight against the Taliban-led insurgency raging in much of the country’s south and east.

In Kandahar, the southern birthplace of the Taliban, witnesses said by telephone that they heard gunfire on the outskirts of the city Monday evening — a day after three rocket-propelled grenades were fired into the city, killing a girl.

For several months, the Taliban has distributed so-called night letters threatening to punish would-be voters. One letter in circulation says people with blue ink on their fingers will have them cut off.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, confirmed that all who vote would be considered “enemies of Islam” subject to reprisals, and not just those in the south of the country.

Afghan officials concede there will not be voting in several volatile districts outside the city. But Gen. Mirwais Khan, the police chief of Kandahar, said Afghan and NATO forces are working hard to ensure the streets are peaceful Thursday.

In Kabul, caravans of supporters of the candidates took to the streets waving posters and shouting slogans from mounted loudspeakers.

Abdullah Abdullah, Mr. Karzai’s former foreign minister and now his leading challenger, held a rally at the capital’s main sports stadium — once a Taliban execution site - lambasting the president for failing to confront corruption at the highest levels of his government.

“Do you want to vote for the president who releases killers from jail, who releases opium traders from jail?” Mr. Abdullah asked more than 10,000 supporters, many wearing blue hats and T-shirts with his image.

A helicopter airdropped thousands of leaflets calling for change, including Mr. Abdullah’s photograph and election number to help the illiterate vote for him.

Mr. Karzai kept a lower profile after allowing notorious Uzbek militia leader, Abdul Rashid Dostum, to return to Afghanistan on Sunday night from exile in Turkey despite strong opposition from the United States.

Western officials have opposed Mr. Karzai’s choice of Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a former Tajik mujahedeen leader accused of human rights violations, as vice president.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it had “serious concerns about the prospective role of Dostum in today’s Afghanistan, and particularly during these historic elections. … Among other concerns, his reputed past actions raise questions of his culpability for massive human rights violations.”

In the months leading up to the vote, Mr. Karzai has engaged in backroom deals to enlist the support of influential warlords carrying ethnic vote banks.

The return of Mr. Dostum was timed to appease ethnic Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan whose support Mr. Karzai is trying to secure.

Meanwhile, checkpoint guards across Kabul intensified their policing of vehicular traffic while additional concrete blast walls were placed in front of some key government ministries.

A suicide car bomb attack outside the headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force on Saturday killed seven people and injured more than 90.

The insurgents’ penetration of the most heavily fortified neighborhood of the capital appeared intended to drive home the message that they can strike where they choose.

Elections officials last week projected that about 10 percent of 7,000 planned polling stations across the country would be closed because of insurgent violence, mostly in the south, though final totals will not be known until election day.

That total has been revised down to just more than 440 stations, or 6 percent, according to the Independent Election Commission.

About 100 polling stations were closed because of poor security when Mr. Karzai won the election in 2005.

Noor Mohammad Noor, the election commission’s spokesman, said more than 100 stations would not open in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold where U.S. Marines have been engaged in a fierce offensive this summer to regain ground ahead of the elections.

Nearly as many will be shut down in Wardak and Ghazni provinces, south of Kabul, where security has deteriorated significantly over the past several years.

“We recognize that the security situation in these areas is abnormal,” Mr. Noor said. “But we encourage people to ahead and vote wherever possible.”

This article was reported with a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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