WASHINGTON The United States expects the Taliban to increase attacks in next month's parliamentary elections, including in Afghanistan's north where insurgents have made inroads, a senior U.S. defense official said on Thursday.
The parliamentary poll will be a litmus test for stability in Afghanistan as well as the credibility of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was roundly criticized over the handling of last year's fraud-marred presidential elections.
"The biggest single variable that is important to watch is the degree of security that there is for the elections," the defense official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
The official said the Taliban had, for example, put an "extra effort" in the once peaceful north since last year's presidential election.
"It is quite possible that the election turnout there (in the north) will be less than it was last year. But it is hard to make a judgment based on turnout because the turnout for the provincial elections will be based on the competitiveness of the local races," said the official.
The Taliban, which has been largely active in their strongholds in the east and south, has stepped up strikes in what was once a relatively secure north. On Thursday, eight police officers were killed in Kunduz.
"I am certainly concerned about the efforts by the Taliban to intimidate and affect the election process and am concerned about their plans to try and make the election day a day of violence and how that will affect, first of all, the overall willingness of the Afghans to vote and secondly the ability to carry out the elections themselves," said the official.
The Taliban has mounted a campaign to threaten the election, with more than three candidates already killed in the run-up to the September 18 poll.
More than 2,500 candidates will stand for the 249 seats in the lower house or Wolesi Jirga, including about 400 women contestants in the traditionally male-dominated society.
Overall, however, the defense official said, the Taliban was not stronger than in last year's poll with greater security in areas like Marjah in the south where "no one" voted last year and several thousands had registered this time.
More than a third of Karzai's votes were thrown out as fake after a U.N.-backed probe into last year's presidential poll and Washington is watching closely whether Karzai -- who is not a candidate -- will deliver on promises for a smoother poll.
"The possibility exists for there to be everything from corruption to vote-buying, to intimidation at the local level," said the official.
However, he stressed it was important to get observers to key voting districts. He was hopeful election commissions would be more efficient than in the presidential poll and the complaints process would be handled in such a way as to boost credibility.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)