- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — U.S.-led forces trying to protect landmark Afghan elections face a rising wave of violence from about 2,000 insurgents, including al Qaeda militants, slipping in from Pakistan, an American general said yesterday.

In the latest bloodshed, Afghan police said suspected Taliban gunmen killed nine soldiers in two attacks on checkpoints in a troubled southern province.

Two weeks before the presidential ballot, Lt. Gen. David Barno said violence would “more than likely” increase, and urged NATO forces and the United Nations to steel themselves.

“We must stand firm and not allow a tiny minority of terrorists to negate the hard work, commitment and courage of millions of Afghans” who have registered to vote, said Gen. Barno, the top American commander in Afghanistan.

Taliban rebels threatening to disrupt the Oct. 9 election appear to have stepped up their campaign.

Militants killed three American soldiers last week, and U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai escaped a rocket attack on his helicopter earlier this month.

The nine soldiers reportedly died when gunmen riding in two sport utility vehicles fired on two checkpoints in Helmand province, killing six soldiers at the first and three more at the second.

Almost three years after the fall of the Taliban, the general acknowledged that his 18,000-strong force still faced a “significant counterinsurgency.”

He said there were foreign fighters among the rebels operating in southeastern Afghanistan, indicating that al Qaeda had a “shared objective” in attacking the democratic transition.

He didn’t elaborate.

Gen. Barno told a press conference that the Pakistani army was reinforcing a section of the border farther to the south to thwart Taliban rebels trying to enter there.

He said the new Pakistani troops had been shifted from Kashmir, the Himalayan territory disputed by Pakistan and India, to the area across from the Afghan provinces of Zabul and Kandahar.

Asked to quantify the size of the insurgency, Gen. Barno said the armed rebels numbered “perhaps a couple of thousand,” while insisting they were a waning force.

The U.N.-Afghan election commission says 10.5 million Afghans have registered for the vote, which Mr. Karzai is widely expected to win.

American and Afghan officials say that figure is the best evidence of popular support for the still-fragile peace process begun after the Taliban’s ouster in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States.

As Gen. Barno spoke, construction workers were fortifying the entrance to the main U.N. compound across from his already heavily guarded Kabul headquarters.

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