- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

UNITED NATIONS (AP) - The United Nations’ chief said Friday he expects more attacks and armed clashes in Afghanistan as voters head to the polls in a few months, additional international troops arrive and more foreign militants flow in.

Calling 2009 a critical year, Ban Ki-Moon painted a grim picture: deteriorating security, widespread corruption, and the failure of the government and the international community to meet the expectations of the Afghan people who need aid to cope with drought and rising food prices.

“The government, security forces and population of Afghanistan, along with its international partners, face a critical test in 2009,” Ban said in a report to the Security Council and the General Assembly.

“At stake over the next six months is the relegitimization of the government’s authority through credible elections, as well as the continuation of the constitutional order,” he said.

The Afghan election commission set Aug. 20 as the date for presidential and provincial council elections, three months after the expiration of President Hamid Karzai’s term on May 22.

The question of who should be in charge of the country during that three month period is the hottest political issue in Afghanistan, and Ban said “all sides have strong arguments.”

“There is no higher responsibility in Afghanistan right now than that of the three branches of government to find a solution to the constitutional issue in a way that ensures the existence of a functioning government between May 22 and the inauguration of the next presidential term,” the secretary-general said.

Ban cited U.N. statistics showing that 2008 was the most violent year in Afghanistan since 2001, with 31 percent more incidents than in 2007, with an average of 857 incidents per month during the last half of the year compared with 625 per month in the first half.

“There are currently no indications that the security situation will improve before the summer of 2009,” Ban said.

“Factors contributing to this include the forthcoming elections, a possible rise in incidents as a result of increased international military forcs, (and) reports of increased foreign jihadist fighters in Afghanistan…,” he said.

Ban also cited statements by the insurgents that they will continue to attack government and military supply lines around the country, which are the same routes used by civilians working in humanitarian and development programs.

The secretary-general asked the Security Council to extend the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, which is helping with the election and coordinating international aid efforts, for a year.

The U.S.-led invasion ousted the Islamist regime in 2001, but the militant movement has regained control of large swathes of the country. U.S. and NATO forces have been unable to reverse the gains.

Last month, President Barack Obama ordered 17,000 more U.S. troops to bolster the record 38,000 American forces already in Afghanistan, a likely down payment on the request by ground commanders to double the U.S. force to 60,000.

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