Afghan government seeks Election Day truces with insurgents

KABUL, Afghanistan — The government here, with the blessing of its foreign backers, is trying to arrange Election Day truces with local Taliban commanders to ensure that voting can take place in the war-torn south and east, senior Afghan officials said Sunday.

The officials declined to disclose what the insurgents have been offered in return for ceasefires during Thursday's polls for president and 34 provincial councils. Amrullah Saleh, the head of the National Directorate of Security, the country's chief intelligence agency, smiled but said nothing when asked if the insurgents were being offered cash.

"We've been talking through our people . . . daily" to convince Taliban commanders to "respect international law, to protect civilians especially during the election process," Interior Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar told McClatchy. "In many places that response has been positive. Where the response has been negative, we've launched military operations."

The Obama administration and its NATO allies, their troops embroiled in the worst violence here since the 2001 U.S. invasion, are backing the Election Day truce-making effort as a way to possibly identify mid-level Taliban commanders who may be prepared to negotiate permanent peace accords, said a Western official. The official asked not to be further identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

President Barack Obama and senior U.S. and European officials have endorsed the idea of trying to undermine the insurgency through reconciliation deals with local commanders who reject the violent ideology of al Qaida, an approach used by the United States in Iraq with Sunni insurgents.

President Hamid Karzai has also made such an approach a major plank of his campaign for re-election to a second five-year term.

The Afghan government and its foreign supporters hope the election will advance democracy and political stability as part of a new U.S.-led counter-insurgency strategy that also includes increasing Afghan and international forces and boosting civilian aid, governance and reconstruction programs.

Several Western and Afghan experts, however, said they were concerned that the Election Day truce deals may allow vote-rigging on Karzai's behalf in the Taliban's violence-wracked heartland of southern Afghanistan. The experts spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

They explained that the south is dominated by the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group. Karzai, who is a Pashtun, is counting heavily on a large Pashtun vote to power him to victory.

But the Taliban, who are also mostly Pashtuns, have been working to disrupt the election by intimidating voters and warning that they'll retaliate against anyone who casts ballots. The turnout-suppression effort is being aided by sympathy for and tribal loyalties to the insurgents and — inadvertently — a shortage of police to protect polling places. Provincial governors are being permitted to fill the gap with their private militias.

An extremely low turnout, therefore, is expected across the south, much of which is remote and dangerous. Secured from Taliban attack through the truces and using duplicate voter registration cards, millions of which are believed to be in circulation, local power barons may be able to stuff ballot boxes with ballots filled out for Karzai, experts said.

"Who is going to see there is fraud?" said an Afghan expert.

Afghan officials and Western diplomats acknowledge that there will be some rigging on behalf of all major candidates, facilitated by the huge numbers of duplicate registration cards, a lack of voter registration lists and numerous other problems. But they say they believe there are sufficient protections in place, such as the candidates' poll observers, to prevent large-scale cheating.

Karzai is the favorite going into Thursday's vote. But recent polls have not given him the more than 50 percent of the vote required to avoid a runoff against his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister.

Speaking after a news conference in the Defense Ministry, Saleh said that by negotiating the Election Day truces, the government was fomenting fractures within the insurgency.

"These hundreds of Taliban who agree to back off and let the polling centers open . . . shows that the cohesion between the commanders of the Taliban is broken," he said. "We would like to exploit these opportunities after the election."

He was apparently referring to the idea of exploring permanent peace deals with local commanders who spurn al Qaida and the Taliban's hard-line leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, who is believed to be operating from Pakistan.

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