TOPICS : No fair elections without security

Jim Lobe

While more than 140,000 US troops in Iraq continue trying to impose security in advance of the June 30 handover to the new Iraqi administration, the security situation in nearby Afghanistan continues to deteriorate. With national elections just three months away, observers here say that tribal warlords, as well as resurgent Taliban forces, appear as strong as at any time since the Taliban was ousted 30 months ago, making it increasingly unlikely that the balloting, if it goes forward as scheduled, will be judged free and fair by international and other observers. While US and international media attention has been focused almost exclusively on the problems encountered by US occupation forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, where the US has some 20,000 troops mostly chasing Taliban and al Qaeda forces, has been pushed far into the background. That was made painfully clear last week when visiting President Hamid Karzai received virtually no media attention at all despite his address to a joint session of Congress and his joint appearance with President Bush himself for a White House Rose Garden press conference.

Officially, Washington remains upbeat about Afghanistan. Addressing a group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Monday, Ambassador William Taylor, the State Department coordinator for Afghanistan, insisted that UN officials had registered more than four million voters to date and that as many as 100,000 more were being registered each day. At the same time, the envoy admitted that the security situation leaves much to be desired and could easily interfere with the fairness of the upcoming election. The lack of security was made distressingly clear just in the last few days, as the Karzai-appointed governor of Ghor province was chased from his capital after clashes between the provincial army chief and a rival militia that reportedly killed at least 10 people. US military casualties have also risen sharply. In addition, more aid workers have been killed by suspected Taliban forces than at any time since US-backed forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001. As a result, many non-governmental organisations have withdrawn their staff, bringing reconstruction efforts to a standstill.

In addition to the US troops, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has some 6,500 peacekeepers in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), all of whom, however, are confined to Kabul. Another 250 German-led troops make up a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) assigned to Kunduz, a relatively quiet northern city. NATO pledged to provide the equipment and troops to supply another four PRTs to strategic cities around the country in order to extend Karzai’s authority well into the countryside and stabilise the situation through the deployment of rapid-reaction forces there, but these have not been forthcoming — to the great frustration of the US, as well as Karzai himself.

A fair election “is definitely not going to take place if these militias are still operating,” said John Stuart Blackton, a counter-insurgency specialist who directs Strategic Advisory Services, a military consultancy group. He noted that the schedule for the disarmament and demobilisation of at least 100,000 militiamen is lagging behind.” — IPS