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Afghanistan & Pakistan

Security Forces Working to Assure Afghans of Election Safety

18 August 2009

By Stephen Kaufman
Staff Writer

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Washington — The general charged with coordinating the contributions to security for Afghanistan’s August 20 national elections by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says the biggest question facing the country is whether its people have the confidence and the will to participate in the democratic process in the face of threats from violent extremists.

“We've got to do everything that we can to get about reassuring the population of the intentions of their government, [and] to protect and secure them from the threat of the insurgent groups that exist here,” said Brigadier General Damian Cantwell, an Australian Army officer who is chief of ISAF’s Election Task Force.

Cantwell and ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Eric Tremblay of the Canadian forces talked to reporters at the Pentagon August 18 via a satellite link from Kabul.

Cantwell said the Afghan people need to “be convinced that this is their chance to shape their political future,” and the vote for the country’s next president and the members of provincial councils marks “a critical step forward” for a country that continues to face violent attacks from the Taliban and other insurgents.

In the face of Taliban threats, “every vote cast by any Afghan in these elections, regardless of who he or she might vote for, is a personal statement against the Taliban and a rejection of their pretty sinister alternative future that they're offering to the people of Afghanistan,” Cantwell said.

Cantwell said the Afghan police and security forces are leading the planning and execution of efforts to secure the approximately 6,500 polling places around the country, with ISAF deployed in the outermost tier in “a low-profile but agile posture.”

“We're never quite sure what the enemy will do, but we do have a series of solid plans in place,” he said, and all three components of the 300,000-member security apparatus that will be deployed have been engaged in various scenario rehearsals and training exercises in preparation, he said.

In the three-tiered arrangement between Afghan and international security forces, Afghan police will operate within close proximity of the polling center and Afghan National Army units will be farther out, prepared to respond if the police need assistance. (See “Afghans Taking Lead on Election Security, Fighting Violations.”)

“ISAF will be prepared to provide air-over watch capabilities and also ready ground forces if we need to move to where any security incidents may arise,” Cantwell said.

But he said it is critical for the Afghan people to see their own security forces as “a credible response” to threats, and as being proactive in protecting their safety.

Tremblay said that while the number of attacks from insurgent groups has increased in recent days from an average of 32 per day to 48, that figure still would indicate that less than 1 percent or 65 of the 6,500 polling places, likely would come under attack on election day.

“Clearly, they do not have the capacity to intimidate and prevent 15 million Afghan voters that have registered for these elections,” Tremblay said.

Cantwell said that despite threats to voters and polling places, “we think we should be able to provide reasonable access to about 85 to 90 percent” of the total number of registered voters. Turnout is less likely in certain areas of Helmand and Kandahar provinces and other sections that “have been held by the Taliban and other insurgent groups for some time,” he said.

He said recent security operations in places such as Helmand province have actually managed to open up areas and allow members of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission to register voters they would have otherwise been unable to reach.

Clinton Stresses U.S. Impartiality

In an August 17 statement, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the Obama administration “remains impartial” in the August 20 vote.

“We do not support or oppose any particular candidate. Like the Afghan people, we want to see credible, secure and inclusive elections that all will judge legitimate,” she said.

She urged that all efforts be taken to make the process secure and free of fraud, and to allow any complaints to be addressed “fairly and quickly.”

Although election day “will not be without its challenges,” the secretary said, with public debates and visits by presidential candidates, Afghans “have seen unparalleled campaigning, debate and dialogue in their country.”

She praised the country’s media and its leaders for making politics accessible to the people “in new ways” and commended Afghans for their courage in conducting the election despite wartime challenges.

Clinton said it could take several weeks before the final results of the election are known, and she called on the candidates and their supporters to “behave responsibly” before and after the vote.

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