KABUL (Reuters) - President Hamid Karzai called on Afghans to defy Taliban threats and vote, hours before polls opened in an election on Thursday that could prove the toughest test yet of his own mandate and his nation’s fragile democracy.
Nearly as much as it is a test for Karzai, the election is also a high political hurdle for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has ordered a massive troop build-up this year as part of a strategy to reverse Taliban gains.
Afghan streets were tense with police on round-the-clock shifts. Karzai insisted the Taliban, stronger than at any time since they were toppled in 2001, would fail in their pledge to disrupt the country’s second-ever presidential vote.
“Enemies will do their best, but it won’t help,” he told reporters late on Wednesday.
“I hope that tomorrow our countrymen, millions of them, will come and vote for the country’s stability, for the country’s peace, for the country’s progress.”
Karzai himself faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah.
Polls, the most recent conducted more than a month ago, show Karzai winning by a wide margin, but not by enough to secure victory in a single round.
Should he fail to win more than 50 percent, Karzai would most likely face Abdullah in a run-off in October.
Perhaps greater than the threat at the ballot box is the threat on the battlefield from Taliban insurgents, who have vowed to disrupt the voting and ordered Afghans to stay home.
In a series of statements on Wednesday the Taliban said they had infiltrated 20 suicide bombers into Kabul and would close all the country’s roads, taking no responsibility for the deaths of anyone who defied them to go to the polls.
U.S. officials say there may be some violence, but they do not think it will reach the scale needed to wreck the vote.
“The situation is serious and we need to turn the momentum of the enemy, but we can do that,” said the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.
“What we need to do is we need to correct some of the ways we operated in the past and we need to show the kind of resolve that’s it going to take, and imagination in some cases, to operate smarter to do this right,” he told the BBC.
The extent of any violence is nearly impossible to predict. The tempo of attacks has clearly increased in the weeks leading to the poll, with fighters mounting two big suicide car-bomb strikes and a building siege inside the normally secure capital.
Security in most of the country is still far better than it was in Iraq when several successful elections were held there. But the Taliban may be able to fatally damage the vote even without big attacks, if their threats keep people from voting.
More than 30,000 U.S. troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, raising the size of the international force there above 100,000 for the first time, including 63,000 Americans.
The new troops have made bold advances into previously Taliban-held areas, but have also taken by far the worst casualties of the war. More Western troops have died in Afghanistan since March than in the entire period from 2001-04.
The Afghan government issued a “request” two days before the election that international and Afghan media refrain from publishing any information about violence in the country between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. (0130-1530 GMT) on polling day.
The United Nations says it has asked the authorities to reconsider the measure. Afghan journalists said the ban, if enforced, could make the situation worse by depriving Afghans of credible information about the scope of any violence, opening the country up to the spread of unchecked rumors.
Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan, said on a visit to the region expectations for the poll’s outcome needed to be realistic.
“The election is difficult to hold in a war-time country. And we’re not sure how many polling stations will be closed because of security. Taliban has said they’re going to close them all. But I don’t know how many they will succeed in closing,” he said.
“No election is perfect. Don’t expect a perfect election.”
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Adam Entous in Karachi and Avril Ormsby in London; Editing by Paul Tait and Jon Hemming)
For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here