Friday, October 15, 2004

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Taliban leader Mullah Omar was not on the crowded Afghan presidential ballot, but he may wind up the biggest loser of all from last Saturday’s vote.

The failure of the fundamentalist Islamist movement that once ruled Afghanistan to disrupt the country’s first presidential election will demoralize the militia and hurt its efforts to attract new followers, U.S. and Afghan officials said this week.

For months, Taliban leaders warned they would mark Election Day with bloodshed and chaos, but the threats turned out to be hollow. Attacks were limited to isolated land-mine blasts and minor clashes.

Afghan security forces stopped a large fuel truck loaded with rockets and explosives on the outskirts of southern Kandahar the day before the vote. The Taliban suffered the biggest casualties over the election period when 24 insurgents were killed in central Uruzgan province in a U.S. air strike that same day.

Col. Dick Pedersen, commander of U.S.-led forces in southern Afghanistan, said the unexpectedly large turnout on voting day showed that backing for the Taliban had waned.

“I think the Taliban have lost popular support and the Afghan people have spoken,” he told reporters in Kandahar, the southern province that was the spiritual home of the Taliban regime until its ouster by an American-led military campaign in 2001.

Afghan officials and Western security analysts said it was too early to write off the Taliban faction, but agreed the very visible failure to carry out its threats was a blow to the militia.

Kandahar Gov. Mohammed Yusuf Pashtun said the success of the voting would demoralize the militia and damage its ability to recruit young militants.

“The Taliban are still there. They are not destroyed, but we hope the successful election will demoralize them. I am talking about the small groups, the underdogs,” he said.

The Taliban’s senior leadership numbered only about 100 and relied heavily on their ability to find young recruits, Mr. Pashtun said. But he predicted they would continue guerrilla insurgency in Afghanistan’s ethnically Pashtun south and southeast.

Afghanistan interim President Hamid Karzai had been in talks with Taliban commanders in the weeks leading up to the election, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

The government’s effort to bring moderate Taliban leaders into the political process could have undermined their ability to conduct attacks on election day.

“Apart from the very tight security, the other factor which could be behind this, in my opinion, is that there have been some negotiations between the government and the Taliban to convince them not to disrupt the polls,” said Hamidullah Tarzi, a former finance minister and leading political analyst.

Mr. Karzai, widely seen as the favorite to win the election after the votes are counted in the coming weeks, had to draw his support from the same Pashtun communities in the south and southeast that traditionally have supported the Taliban faction.

“If there had been any disruption in the south and southeast, the victim could have been Karzai,” said Mr. Tarzi, adding that attacks in the more peaceful north could have benefited Mr. Karzai’s main presidential rival, Yunus Qanuni.

Western security personnel in the south cautioned that support from more than 18,000 U.S.-led troops was crucial in helping the Afghan army and police curb Taliban violence on Election Day.

“Now that the election is over, if the U.S. [officials] take their eyes off the ball, the Taliban can easily start attacking government officials in southern provinces who are very poorly protected,” said a Western security official who worked on the election.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Afghanistan this year, including several U.S. troops attacked during the run-up to the election. There were also assassination attempts on Mr. Karzai and his running mate, Ahmad Zia Massoud.

But the sharp rise in attacks on Election Day, expected by officials, failed to materialize.

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