- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Fighters from Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime have not been able to organize sustained attacks that could threaten next week’s presidential election, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a House hearing yesterday.

Mr. Armitage said Army Gen. John Abizaid, the U.S. commander for the region, said Islamist insurgents had been averaging only a few attacks a day, in part because of a “muscular” military campaign by Pakistani forces on their side of the Afghan border.

“I think temporarily [the Taliban] are on their back foot and we need to keep them there,” Mr. Armitage told the House International Relations Committee at a hearing marked by partisan bickering.

Citing the low level of violence, unexpectedly high voter-registration rates and vigorous campaigning by the 18 candidates for president, Mr. Armitage said, “I think the election is going pretty … good.”

Under often skeptical questioning from committee Democrats, Mr. Armitage said the security situation remained difficult as officials attempt to protect nearly 5,000 voting places in the Oct. 9 vote.

“We all expect the Taliban to ratchet things up to disrupt this election,” he said, but “they have not been able to do it.”

NATO officials said yesterday they expect to complete the deployment of troops pledged for election security by the end of the week. Spanish and Italian reinforcements will bring the NATO-run international security force in Afghanistan to 9,000, with another 1,000 troops on standby outside the country.

Taliban and al Qaeda forces are blamed for more than 1,000 deaths in the past 13 months, and the government of interim President Hamid Karzai has minimal control of large parts of the country.

Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, accused the Bush administration of “sugarcoating the realities” in both Afghanistan and Iraq ahead of the U.S. presidential vote Nov. 2.

Committee members clashed sharply when Mr. Armitage was questioned about a comment he made during a European tour earlier this month that terrorists “were trying to influence the election against President Bush.”

Mr. Armitage said his phrasing was “careless,” and that the point he was trying to make was that U.S. intelligence indicated that al Qaeda and its allies would try to increase their attacks in the days before the U.S. vote.

The Democratic attacks provoked an unusual outburst from committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, who argued that the criticism of the president was energizing the country’s enemies.

“I know it’s the political season and the election is coming,” Mr. Hyde said. “But … we ought to understand that calling the commander in chief a liar every hour on the hour, as we’ve just heard him called here, does help the other side.”

Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, New York Democrat, immediately complained he was “sick and tired of those people who question our patriotism when we exercise our rights and responsibilities as Americans and members of Congress.”

Mr. Hyde replied, “Nobody questions your patriotism. It’s your judgment that is under question.”

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