KABUL Almost half of Afghanistan is at a high risk of attack by the Taliban and other insurgents or is under "enemy control," a secret Afghan government map shows, painting a dire security picture before presidential elections.
The threat assessment map, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, shows 133 of Afghanistan's 356 districts are regarded as high-risk areas with at least 13 under "enemy control."
The map, which bears the logos of Afghanistan's Interior Ministry and the army as well as the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, was produced in April 2009, before a dramatic escalation of violence ahead of the August 20 ballot.
The Interior Ministry was not immediately available for comment despite several telephone calls and emails on Wednesday.
The map shows virtually the entire south of the country under extreme risk of attack, a vast swathe stretching from Farah in the west through Helmand province in the south and east toward provinces such as Paktia and Nangarhar near the Pakistan border.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the poll and have called on Afghans to boycott the vote. Their traditional strongholds have been in the south and east but their influence has steadily spread to the west and north, even to the outskirts of Kabul. It shows at-risk areas on three sides of the capital.
In a dramatic attack demonstrating their new reach, Islamist insurgents fired up to nine rockets into the capital early on Tuesday, the first attack of its kind in several years.
Attacks across the country this year had already reached their worst level since the Taliban were toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001 and escalated further after thousands of U.S. Marines launched a new offensive in Helmand last month.
The offensive, and a similar British thrust in Helmand, were the first under U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its Islamist allies and stabilize Afghanistan.
For a link to the map, click here
Escalating violence threatens to overshadow the ballot, which in turn is seen as a crucial test of Obama's new strategy and of Kabul's ability to stage a credible and legitimate ballot.
"The Afghan National Security Forces and the International Security Assistance Force are ready to secure the upcoming elections and we expect that no major security incident will take place during the elections," said Ministry of Defense spokesman General Zaher Azimy.
The United Nations confirmed the map's authenticity but said it had merely played an oversight role, helping with graphics.
"The map is an Afghan government map," said U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique in Kabul. "It's certainly not for us to speak publicly on it or comment on it or define it," he said.
The map, entitled ANSF Provincial/District Threat Assessment, 23 April 2009, provides some of the first concrete evidence of poor security that may threaten voter turnout in Afghanistan's southern Pashtun belt, President Hamid Karzai's power base.
Potentially poor turnout in the south is one of the biggest threats to Karzai's chances of re-election. He is the clear front-runner in a slowly diminishing field of 35 challengers.
A poor turnout in the south would increase the likelihood of a second round run-off if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in the first round of voting, election observers say.
That would in turn open the chance for one of Karzai's main rivals, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani, to build a coalition to take on Karzai, who has ruled since 2001 and won the first direct vote in 2004.
The ANSF threat map also appears to back up fears first expressed by think-tank the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS) that much more of Afghanistan was under threat than the government and foreign forces had acknowledged.
It said last December the Taliban held a significant presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan by the end of 2008, a dramatic increase on the previous year. Their research was based on one or more reported attacks in an area a week.
NATO and the Afghan government, however, rejected the ICOS report, formerly known as the Senlis Council, saying the Taliban were only present in the south and east.
(Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli and Jonathon Burch in KABUL; Editing by Bill Tarrant)