Afghan vote carries big risk for U.S. fight against Taliban

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's presidential election, set for Thursday amid violence, voter intimidation and expectations of fraud, holds considerable risks for the Obama administration's drive to gain the upper hand in the war against the Taliban, some Western and Afghan officials and experts warn.

"There are about a zillion different scenarios here about how the election could turn out badly," said a senior U.S. official, who requested anonymity to speak freely. "The election . . . is not going to change anything on the ground in much of Afghanistan."

President Hamid Karzai's re-election, powered by despised warlords linked to war crimes and drugs, could drive more Afghans to join the Taliban or other militant groups and stoke ethnic tensions, Western and Afghan experts say. A victory by his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, could bring a similar result, they said.

Widespread cries of foul or a delayed outcome could create a power vacuum and lead to violence.

"The election result will not have the legitimacy that it needs. That will add to the ranks of the Taliban and the disaffected and disenfranchised people. It will be a moral victory for the Taliban whichever way you cut it," said Daoud Sultanzoi, a leading parliamentarian from Ghazni Province.

The Taliban on Tuesday pursued a campaign to disrupt the vote. A suicide car bombing in Kabul that killed nine Afghan civilians, including two United Nations workers and a NATO soldier, and wounded 53 others, including two NATO troops, the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force said. The attack came hours after two rockets exploded in the presidential palace without causing casualties.

Meanwhile, a roadside bomb killed two U.S. troops and wounded three others in eastern Afghanistan, while residents in the war-wracked south reported stepped up Taliban intimidation to thwart voting.

"Only 10 to 20 percent of the people will be able to vote," Abdul Wahid Achakzai, the chief lower court judge of Uruzgan Province, said of his province in a telephone interview. "When 80 percent of the people can't vote, how can this be a transparent election?"

The south is the homeland of the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. A low turnout there could deny the election legitimacy.

There are also expectations of vote-rigging, especially on behalf of Karzai, a Pashtun who controls the central and provincial bureaucracies and whose re-election depends on Pashtun support. With 37 presidential candidates, Karzai needs to win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

There are millions of duplicate and fake voter registration cards, no list of registered voters to compare them against, a shortage of poll monitors and other serious problems that could allow fraud.

The U.S. and its allies have abandoned any pretense that the election — which also will chose 34 provincial councils — will be "free and fair." Instead, they're hoping a high enough turnout, coupled with a low level of violence and limited fraud, will produce a winner acceptable to most Afghans.

"We want to see credible, secure and inclusive elections that all will judge legitimate," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

Some Western and Afghan experts and officials are worried that whatever happens, the election will end up hurting President Barack Obama's new strategy for defeating the Taliban and preventing al Qaida from re-establishing a base in Afghanistan.

"There are no great scenarios for a long time to come. All of the scenarios right now are very bad," said an American expert who asked not to be further identified because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

Opinion polls favor Karzai, although it isn't clear he can avoid a runoff. He's assembled an alliance of ethnic anti-Taliban warlords to whom many analysts said he's over-promised posts in a new government in return for the support of the voting blocs they control.

Many Afghans hate these men, angered that they grabbed power and land using private militias paid millions of dollars by the CIA to fight the Taliban and al Qaida. They've also evaded accountability for the tens of thousands killed in the civil war that gave rise to the Taliban after the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

They include Mohammed Fahim, a former defense minister and Karzai's choice for first vice president, and Gen. Mohammad Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek accused of allowing the murders of as many as 2,000 Taliban and al Qaida prisoners in 2001 and then destroying the evidence.

In a televised debate on Sunday, Karzai defended his outreach to the warlords, saying that national reconciliation depends on them.

"If there is a need for compromise to have a developed Afghanistan, end violence in Afghanistan and preventing groups from clashing, I will compromise again and I will do that thousand times, I will do that a million times," he said.

Including the warlords, however, could fuel new support for the insurgents by sending the message that Karzai will continue spurning desperately needed reforms and tolerate cronyism, corruption and incompetence.

"I would give one year to that government before it collapsed," said a prominent Afghan political analyst who insisted on anonymity out of concern for his safety. "Nobody is going to fight for Karzai."

The U.S., which many Afghans think controls their government, would be associated with such an administration, deepening anti-American sentiment over the U.S. failure to end the war and mounting civilians casualties.

The risks aren't any less for the U.S. if Abdullah wins.

Abdullah is widely considered a minority Tajik, even though his father was a Pashtun, and many Pashtuns are frustrated at what they view as Tajik domination of senior posts in the army, police and bureaucracy.

"If Abdullah wins that means the frustration among the Pashtuns will be even stronger," the Afghan political analyst said. "The only real opposition that the Pashtuns will find will be the Taliban, and that means strengthening the Taliban."

"The group around Doctor Abdullah is responsible . . . for the corruption in the country," declared Khalid Mohammad Hussani, a Pashtun parliamentarian from Ghazni Province who backs Karzai. "When these minorities grab something, they throw themselves over it and keep it for themselves."

The election comes as U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of the nearly 100,000-strong international force, finishes a plan to implement Obama's strategy to win the eight-year war.

McChrystal is expected to call for increasing U.S. and Afghan forces while boosting civilian programs to build local governance and infrastructure, and fight corruption and drugs. He also is expected to embrace peace negotiations with Taliban commanders who reject al Qaida's ideology.

(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)


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