- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2005

How will the Taliban contest Afghanistan’s mid-September parliamentary elections? With their only political weapons: terror strikes and fearful headlines.

Scheduled four years and a week after the September 11 attacks on America, the Sept. 18 parliamentary elections are the “second act” in Afghanistan’s democratic evolution.

The “first act,” last October’s presidential vote, dealt the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies a debilitating political defeat. Afghans not selected a president and rejected terror and fear.

Four years ago, Osama bin Laden designated Afghanistan as the launching pad for his global jihad — the world war that would make him an imperial caliph. The possibility of democratic elections in Kabul never crossed his demented mind.

The 2004 Afghan election began a democratic surge with profound effects in Central Asia. With predictable pessimism, the “mainstream” of the self-proclaimed international press missed the story. Despite violent threats from al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts, however, 8 million Afghan voters didn’t miss their chance. The election was a significant step toward victory in the civilized world’s global War on Terror — as much a war against fear, poverty and anarchy as against the petty tyrants who harbor and sustain terrorists. Afghanistan remains a damaged, looted society pulverized by three decades of war, but it now has hope.

This past June, as I walked through an Afghan village, the translator Jdhooshi, who accompanies the U.S. military police patrol, emphasized the long, hard political and economic slog.

Actually, “Jdhooshi” is a nom de guerre, but it fit the spry, gray-bearded 69-year-old Afghan. Actually, I should call him an Angeleno. For three decades, Jdhooshi lived in Los Angeles. But after September 11, 2001, he knew he had to get involved.

“This is a chance to change this place, my country, my first country,” he said. “It has suffered so much. Thirty years of war has left it with nothing. Now we, America — we are giving Afghanistan a chance. I knew I could help by working as a translator for the military. The people, they now have hope — they know some things can be different.”

“Did last year’s presidential elections make a difference?” I asked. Jdhooshi grinned, and I immediately knew the question was stupid. “Of course. The Taliban said it would not happen — but it did. But there is so much to do, so much still to do.”

Part of the “much to do” is creating and training the new Afghan National Army (ANA). The U.S.-led Coalition Joint Task Force-76 (CJTF-76) has that responsibility. Coalition officers rate the ANA as “very effective at the platoon level” (30 to 40 troops). As in Iraq, the goal is to build effective combat battalions (600 troops).

But it isn’t one-way training: “The Afghan soldiers are able to teach us how the enemy fights,” CJTF-76 commander Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya told me. “The Afghan troops are also very physically fit — and they will work the daylights out of us.”

Kamiya, a 101st Airborne Division vet, also praised their morale. “They have enormous fighting spirit, and when they are in contact [with the enemy], they do not let up.”

In late March, CJTF-76 launched Operation Determined Resolve, actually a series of military and security operations “to set the conditions for a secure election” — military lingo for stopping Taliban/al Qaeda terrorists from infiltrating Afghanistan. Operation Vigilant Sentinel, which began in early August, includes Afghan police and military units. Both operations focused on Afghanistan’s southern and eastern borders.

The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the NATO-led peacekeeping force, is patrolling the northern and western borders. ISAF has 11,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Senior military officers describe “counter-infiltration” operations in Afghanistan as “intelligence intensive.” Coalition special operations troops and aerial platforms (including Predator drone aircraft) try to keep passes and trails under constant surveillance. When a Taliban/al Qaeda infiltration attempt is suspected, or detected, helicopters lift coalition troops into “blocking positions.”

These security preparations, however, aren’t the decisive battle. As the Afghan people showed last October, ballots have extraordinary power. It is why September’s parliamentary elections will continue the democratic surge.

Austin Bay is nationally syndicated columnist.

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