NATO on guard as big turnout expected in Afghan elections

Afghan police survey the scene of a suicide car bomb Tuesday in Kabul, two days before national elections.
Despite high-profile suicide bombings and attacks by the Taliban, NATO commanders believe voter turnout will be strong in Afghanistan during Thursday’s national elections.

Just two days before election day, the Taliban said it plans to disrupt the elections with continued attacks, and threatened to kill Afghans who vote. But in an effort to disrupt and counter Taliban attacks, Afghan and NATO commanders are fielding some 300,000 troops to help secure voters on Thursday, according to NATO officials in charge of election security. “We think between about 15 million to as many as 17 million voters potentially are registered and should be able to take part [in the elections],” Australian Brig. Gen. Damian Cantwell told reporters Tuesday. Cantwell is chief of NATO’s International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) election task force. Since Sunday, suicide bombers attacked a NATO convoy just outside the capital and close to the NATO headquarters in Kabul, killing dozens of civilians and several U.S. and coalition troops. Continued attacks in the east on Tuesday killed more civilians and two U.S. service members. “Of course, the turnout on the day will be shaped and tempered by the sense of community confidence that is felt and held by the community members themselves,” Cantwell said. Watch British ambassador reassure Afghans of safe election day ยป

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Recent operations, just days ahead of the election, by U.S. Marines and other NATO forces in the Taliban strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the southern part of the country have been designed to clear and hold sectors that have long been in the Taliban grip, and free up the population to vote, according to the NATO officials. While reports from the military command say the operations have been relatively successful in clearing the Taliban, it is unclear how the arrival of NATO forces will influence villagers to vote. “Areas that we’re not likely to see a strong turnout from the voters probably are in those areas that have been held by the Taliban and other insurgent groups for some time,” Cantwell said. “We’re probably talking about pockets within the Helmand and Kandahar provinces, some areas in the east of the country, even some areas — to a lesser extent — in the north and west.” Despite that, Afghan and NATO forces will provide enough security for 85 to 90 percent of registered voters to access election sites, according to NATO. Cantwell conceded, however, there are parts of the country where citizens will not be able to vote because they have been under Taliban control.

“These are areas that have been subject to Taliban and other insurgent intimidation and, indeed, occupation for some time,” he said. “I think, under the circumstances, being able to open up more polling centers than was the case in 2004 and ’05 and also, in cooperation with Afghan partners, open up areas particularly in the south where the Taliban and other groups dominated for some time, is a great success story,” Cantwell said.