- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | With less than a month to go before Afghan elections, it’s unclear whether a security plan that relies heavily on Afghan forces will be sufficient to safeguard voters at the country’s 7,000 polling stations.

The security plan, recently released by Afghanistan’s International Elections Commission, calls for Afghans to take the lead on Aug. 20, election day. Despite escalating violence in the southern and eastern parts of the country, U.S. and international forces are supposed to form only an outer perimeter around polling stations and to act only if called upon by Afghan forces.

Afghanistan’s national police and army are to be in charge, but it’s unclear whether enough trained forces will be available to secure polling locations.

“We want to show the people of Afghanistan that everything is going [to happen] by Afghans by themselves,” said Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the elections commission. “That’s very important, and that will [affect] their minds.”

In a demonstration of the dangers surrounding the elections, President Hamid Karzai’s running mate, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, survived an assassination attempt Sunday when militants attacked his convoy.

Mr. Karzai’s main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, has lost two staff members to violence this month.

Afghan and coalition security forces have been working on the security strategy for the elections since May. They are trying to make it flexible enough to guard polling centers while retaining the troop strength needed to continue military operations against the Taliban.

The resulting security web envisions concentric circles around each polling location to be drawn from the 90,000-member national police force, the 95,000-member national army and the more than 100,000-member U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, according to the Afghan Defense Ministry.

At any time, however, these troops can be pulled into military operations. By election day, only 20 percent of the national army will have received mentoring from coalition forces, while about 10,000 Afghan police officers will not have completed their training, Afghan officials say.

A U.S. brigade from the 82nd Airborne is scheduled to arrive solely to train the army, but the troops will not arrive before the vote.

General Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, admitted that the number of Afghan forces may be too low to provide adequate security.

“If we do not have enough forces, we have to go on with this limited number,” he said.

Commanders from the international force said, however, that they remain encouraged at the way Afghans are seeking ownership of the election security process.

“I’ve been impressed by the way they get about their business,” Brig. Gen. Damian Cantwell, the force’s main liaison with the elections task force, told The Washington Times. “I’m confident they’re doing the best they can, and they’re taking steps to make the best use of their limited resources.”

Gen. Cantwell said Afghan forces rehearsed election day security two weeks ago at Kabul’s airport. He said security force leaders from every province in Afghanistan participated.

The spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry said Afghan forces are conducting more than 10,000 operations in connection with election security. About two-thirds of the polling locations across the country are known to the Defense Ministry, he said. Specific locations will be announced to the public just a week before the vote to add another layer of security.

As Afghan and coalition forces clear Taliban from districts in Helmand province, the election commission is sending teams to register voters there. Nine districts remain under Taliban control.

“They want to participate in the election,” said Mr. Noor, “and they’re really hopeful for that process.”

About 17 million Afghans have registered to vote, and about 1,600 civic educators are working to increase turnout through radio and television ads as well as through cell-phone text messages.

Interest in the election appears high, with many Afghans criticizing the record of the incumbent, Mr. Karzai. Voters also will choose provincial leaders.

A poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in May showed that 31 percent of voters favored Mr. Karzai, while 7 percent preferred Mr. Abdullah.

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