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August 16, 2009 

US condemns return of Afghan warlord as vote looms
By Jason Straziuso, Associated Press Writer
KABUL – A powerful and controversial Afghan warlord returned from exile in Turkey late Sunday — in an apparent attempt by President Hamid Karzai to attract ethnic Uzbek voters in this week's presidential poll.

Afghanistan says ex-militia chief free to return
KABUL (Reuters) - Exiled Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum can return to Afghanistan at any time, the government said on Sunday, after his supporters threatened to withdraw backing for President Hamid Karzai in the August 20 election.

Karzai's image down as Afghan election approaches
By Robert H. Reid, Associated Press Writer – Sun Aug 16, 11:54 am ET
KABUL – He was once the toast of the town, a charming, urbane Afghan tribal leader voicing Jeffersonian ideals in perfect English, gliding effortlessly through the halls of power in Washington and the baking tents of the Afghan desert.

Taliban directly threaten Afghan polls
by Nasrat Shoib
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) – The Taliban on Sunday threatened for the first time to attack Afghan voting stations, escalating their bid to derail imminent polls despite deadly government operations against rebels.

Karzai Takes on Presidential Rivals During Two-Hour Debate
By Joshua Partlow Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, August 16, 2009 2:44 PM
KABUL, Aug. 16 -- After failing to show up for the first televised debate, President Hamid Karzai took on two rivals on Sunday night who described his government as mired in corruption and deficient in bringing jobs and security to Afghanistan.

Can "good war" in Afghanistan survive bad headlines?
Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent -Analysis Reuters via Yahoo! UK & Ireland News
Afghanistan's presidential election amid a U.S. troop build-up and surging Taliban violence brings pressure on Washington to show results in a war the president has made the centrepiece of his foreign policy. Skip related content
The August 20 presidential vote comes after the deployment of some 30,000 extra U.S. troops that has raised the level of American forces to 62,000. Combat deaths are rising and polls show a softening of public backing for the eight-year war.

Afghan election campaigns in full swing as poll nears
Sun Aug 16, 2009 11:21am EDT By Jonathon Burch
TALOQAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Supporters of Afghanistan's main presidential candidates came out in their thousands on Sunday in a last burst of campaign excitement with days to go before the ballot.

Mud-slinging on Afghan vote trail
By Lynne O'Donnell
KABUL — (AFP) – They may be backed by warlords and rely on donkeys to get their supporters out to vote, but contenders in Afghanistan's elections are making promises and trading insults like politicians anywhere.

Karzai counts on tribal vote to win Kandahar
The second-largest city in Afghanistan provided the springboard for the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and is key to Thursday's historic presidential poll. Seeking a second term, Hamid Karzai is relying on ethnic affiliations to give him a crucial victory in his Pashtun heartland. But the Taliban have threatened dire consequences for those who dare to come out and vote

Afghanistan vote can proceed thanks to British military campaign
British officials yesterday claimed that 70 per cent of Helmand will be able to participate in Afghanistan's presidential elections as a result of British and American efforts to secure the province.
By Ben Farmer in Kabul 16 Aug 2009 Daily Telegraph (UK)
British troops incurred their heaviest losses of the campaign as they fought to drive Taliban insurgents from a stronghold north of Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah in the run-up to Thursday's poll.

We must fight on, says Brown, as Afghanistan deaths pass 200 mark
Death of two wounded soldiers brings number of British military losses to 201
Paul Gallagher, Mark Townsend, Jon Boone and Peter Walker guardian.co.uk, Sunday 16 August 2009 10.56 BST
Britain must remain in Afghanistan and "honour its commitment" to make the country stable, Gordon Brown said after the deaths of two more soldiers took the UK toll in the conflict beyond 200.

Afghan govt says over 30 rebels killed
Sun Aug 16, 9:52 am ET
KABUL (AFP) – The Afghan defence ministry said Sunday that more than 30 rebels, including foreigners, were killed in an operation pounding Taliban centres in a bid to secure a northeast troublespot for key elections.

Pre-Vote Blast in Kabul Signals Taliban Intent
Insurgents Seek To Keep Voters From the Polls
By Joshua Partlow Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, August 16, 2009
KABUL, Aug. 15 -- A suicide car bombing outside the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan's capital Saturday was the most serious indication yet of the Taliban's designs to disrupt Thursday's presidential election through violence.

How did a suicide bomber penetrate Kabul's NATO headquarters?
By Jonathan S. Landay, Mcclatchy Newspapers – Sat Aug 15, 4:41 pm ET
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan authorities are trying to determine how a suicide bomber breached tight security in Kabul's diplomatic quarter on Saturday and detonated an SUV packed with explosives in front of NATO

U.S. Turns to Radio Stations and Cellphones to Counter Taliban’s Propaganda
New York Times By THOM SHANKER August 15, 2009
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is establishing a new unit within the State Department for countering militant propaganda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, engaging more fully than ever in a war of words

Row over Afghan wife-starving law
By Sarah Rainsford BBC News Sunday, 16 August 2009
An Afghan bill allowing a husband to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex has been published in the official gazette and become law.

Afghan troops recapture district from militants
KABUL, Aug. 16 (Xinhua) -- Afghan troops regained the control of a district in the southern Helmand province, a statement of Afghan Defense Ministry said Sunday.

US ambassador praises NZ troops in Afghanistan
pm NZPA via Yahoo!Xtra News - Aug 15 9:50 PM
New Zealand's Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan are so good at running a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) that it is used as a model for others, United States Acting Ambassador Dave Keegan says.

Afghan forces kill 4 insurgents in west
KABUL, August 16 (Xinhua) -- Afghan forces in conjunction with the NATO-led international troops have killed four Taliban insurgents in Herat province west of Afghanistan, provincial police spokesman Noor Khan Nikzad said Sunday.

Canada hands off part of Kandahar province to U.S.
By Drew Brown, Stars and Stripes Mideast edition, Monday, August 17, 2009
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canada has handed over about half of its battle space in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province to newly arrived U.S. soldiers, allowing Canadian forces to concentrate on

Kandahar dreamers test Taliban edicts
By M Ilyas Khan BBC News, Kandahar, Afghanistan Sunday, 16 August 2009
Nearly everyone who lives in Kandahar city, the capital of Afghanistan's southern province by the same name, has acquaintances among the local Taliban militants.

Signs of Taliban rift hearten Pakistan, U.S
By Kamran Haider And Adam Entous – Sun Aug 16, 10:25 am ET
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. and Pakistani officials meeting on Sunday said they were heartened by signs of a rift between Pakistani Taliban factions after the apparent death of militant leader Baitullah Mehsud.

China-built hospital inaugurated in Afghan capital
KABUL, Aug. 16 (Xinhua) -- Shafakhanai Jamhuriat or Republic Hospital, constructed with financial support from China, was formally inaugurated Sunday, said a statement released by the Public Health Ministry.

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US condemns return of Afghan warlord as vote looms
By Jason Straziuso, Associated Press Writer
KABUL – A powerful and controversial Afghan warlord returned from exile in Turkey late Sunday — in an apparent attempt by President Hamid Karzai to attract ethnic Uzbek voters in this week's presidential poll.

The U.S. immediately condemned Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum's return and raised concerns about his alleged involvement in "massive human rights violations."

Dostum is alleged to have been responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war. President Barack Obama has ordered his national security team to investigate allegations in the New York Times that the Bush administration failed to investigate the reported deaths.

Karzai has cultivated several warlords as allies with an eye toward Thursday's presidential election. But the alliances are drawing strong criticism from the international community.

An official at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said Washington "has made clear to the government of Afghanistan our serious concerns about the prospective role of Mr. Dostum in today's Afghanistan, particularly during these historic elections.

"The issues surrounding him become all the more acute with his return to Afghanistan during this period. Among other concerns, his reputed past actions raise questions of his culpability for massive human rights violations," said the official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

Dostum landed at Kabul airport late Sunday and was greeted with enthusiasm by supporters, but he made no statements to reporters.

He was suspended last year as chief of staff of the armed forces for failing to cooperate in an investigation into the shooting of a rival. Karzai reinstated him to his largely ceremonial post in what was widely seen as an attempt to win votes from the general's Uzbek minority.

Witnesses claim Dostum's forces placed Taliban prisoners in sealed cargo containers and drove them for two days to Sheberghan Prison, suffocating them then burying them en masse, according to a State Department report. U.S. special operations troops were working alongside Dostum's troops at the time.

Dostum has vigorously denied any wrongdoing in the treatment of Taliban prisoners.

Regional warlords rose to power in the turmoil that followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989. Commanders such as Dostum, the late leader Ahmed Shah Massood and others held sway in some places even after the Taliban seized power in Kabul.

Many of those powerbrokers, including Dostum, joined forces with the U.S. in the 2001 invasion that ousted the Taliban. They forged alliances with Karzai — a move that his critics believe undermined the authority of the central government, promoted corruption and contributed to the Taliban revival.
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Associated Press reporter Amir Shah contributed to this report.
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Afghanistan says ex-militia chief free to return
KABUL (Reuters) - Exiled Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum can return to Afghanistan at any time, the government said on Sunday, after his supporters threatened to withdraw backing for President Hamid Karzai in the August 20 election.

Karzai is clear favorite to retain the presidency, but unless he secures more than 50 percent of the vote he faces a run-off against the second placed challenger. Two polls have him at around 45 percent.

Dostum, a former communist general and wily politician, has been in Turkey since last year when the Afghan government released him from house arrest imposed for fighting with a rival.

It was never made clear if Dostum's exile was ordered or self-imposed, but on Sunday a government statement said there was no legal reason to prevent him from returning.

"General Abdul Rashid Dostum can travel abroad and can return home as an Afghan citizen and on the basis of the constitution," the government statement said.

"He has total freedom in this regard. There is no legal block for his frequenting and for choosing a place."

Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, received 12 percent of the popular vote in the 2004 election won by Karzai, but is not standing this time. His supporters had pledged to support Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, in return for positions in the next government.

Karzai will win the election, opinion polls suggest, but by less than the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off against the second-placed challenger.

Dostum was a key part of the alliance that toppled the Taliban in 2001, but has regularly been accused by human rights groups of widespread abuse, in particular allowing the massacre of several thousand Taliban prisoners in 2001.
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Karzai's image down as Afghan election approaches
By Robert H. Reid, Associated Press Writer – Sun Aug 16, 11:54 am ET
KABUL – He was once the toast of the town, a charming, urbane Afghan tribal leader voicing Jeffersonian ideals in perfect English, gliding effortlessly through the halls of power in Washington and the baking tents of the Afghan desert.

Since his rise in 2001, President Hamid Karzai's image has changed. Western critics now accuse him of weak leadership, cutting deals with warlords, tolerating drug smugglers and ignoring rampant corruption that has fed the Taliban insurgency.

Despite his critics both in Afghanistan and abroad, the 51-year-old Karzai appears the favorite in Thursday's presidential election, although a late surge by his chief rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, could force a runoff if none of nearly 40 candidates wins a majority.

Karzai's alliances with regional powerbrokers and his origins as a Pashtun, the biggest Afghan ethnic community, have placed him in a strong position despite widespread public dissatisfaction with the government.

A survey funded by the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute and released Friday shows Karzai leading a field of three dozen candidates with 44 percent, against 26 percent for his closest rival. If neither wins 50 percent, a run-off will be needed.

The prospect of a second five-year term for a wartime president widely seen as ineffectual and indecisive is greeted more with resignation than enthusiasm among Western governments that were once Karzai's strongest champions and helped engineer his rise to power after the U.S.-led invasion overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that the U.S. would work with "whomever the people of Afghanistan select" but would be "very specific about what we need to see coming" from the next administration — including effective local governance and a vigorous campaign against corruption.

Karzai dismisses many of the Western complaints about his leadership, saying the West would prefer a compliant Afghan leader to one who challenges his international partners publicly on such issues as airstrikes, civilian casualties and imprisoning Afghans without charge.

"When Hamid Karzai was quiet and there was no trouble between us, Hamid Karzai was a good man," he joked during an interview last month with The Associated Press. "And now that there is a little trouble, he's a bad man."

James Dobbins, who served as President George W. Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan, believes the personality traits that won Karzai praise when the war began are the same ones that he is faulted for now.

"Karzai is a conciliator and a unifier," Dobbins, now an analyst with the RAND Corp., told The Associated Press. "He's not the kind of decisive and energetic figure who can push through controversial programs and discipline fractious or corrupt supporters."

Although Karzai himself has not been accused of corruption, allegations that his his younger brother Ahmed Wali Karzai is involved in the drug trade have circulated in Kabul for months. The younger Karzai denies the allegations.

Karzai's decision last April to pardon five convicted drug leaders, including the nephew of a close political ally, enraged Western officials working to combat drug trafficking and was seen as a bid to draw votes.

Criticism of Karzai stands in marked contrast to the adulation that surrounded his rise from obscure Afghan exile living in Pakistan to the leader of an impoverished nation devastated by a generation of war.

Karzai, the son of a Pashtun tribal chief, broke with the Taliban after he became concerned the movement was falling under the influence of foreign Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida. He refused an offer to become the Taliban-government's U.N. ambassador and moved to Pakistan in 1995.

His father was assassinated in 1999, purportedly by Taliban agents, and he became leader of the half million-strong Popolzai, a Pashtun tribe.

After the 2001 invasion, Karzai was one of the few Pashtun exiles to organize resistance to the Taliban from inside Afghanistan, a move that nearly cost him his life when his party was struck by a U.S. bomb in a friendly-fire incident and three U.S. Special Forces soldiers traveling with him were killed.

Karzai was chosen at an international conference in Germany in December 2001 to lead a transitional post-Taliban administration, and won a full five-year term in an election three years later.

He seemed so well-suited to his role that in the early years of the Iraq war, as they struggled to find a credible replacement for Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials used to say they needed "an Iraqi Hamid Karzai."

All that changed with the Taliban resurgence, the burgeoning Afghan opium industry and allegations of corrupt government.

Karin von Hippel, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, believes some critics are too quick to blame Karzai for mistakes committed by the U.S. and its allies, that diverted resources from Afghanistan to Iraq after Taliban rule collapsed in 2001.

"We have a lot to answer for in terms of the short-term gains vs. long-term objectives," von Hippel said.
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Taliban directly threaten Afghan polls
by Nasrat Shoib
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) – The Taliban on Sunday threatened for the first time to attack Afghan voting stations, escalating their bid to derail imminent polls despite deadly government operations against rebels.

In the final campaign countdown, President Hamid Karzai took part in his first live television debate with two of his main rivals Sunday, promising to restore security after a daring Taliban attack targeted NATO.

The Taliban threat was made in leaflets, pinned up and dropped in villages in the south, and authenticated by a spokesman who said the militia would accelerate its bloody campaign of violence on the eve of the elections.

Afghanistan's 17 million voters will go to the polls Thursday to elect a president for the second time in history, as well as 420 councillors in 34 provinces in a massive operation clouded by insecurity and logistics headaches.

"This is to inform respected residents that you must not participate in the elections so as not to become a victim of our operations, because we will use new tactics," said one leaflet distributed in Kandahar city and seen by AFP.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi confirmed the leaflets were authentic and that commanders were ordering the masses to boycott the vote.

"We are using new tactics targeting election centres... We will accelerate our activities on election day and the day before," the spokesman said.

The leaflets marked the first direct threat from the rebels to attack polling sites. Late last month, the Taliban ordered voters to stay away from the polls and join the ranks of the militia in waging holy war to "liberate" Afghanistan.

Karzai's controversial alliances with warlords came under fire during a first television election debate attended by an Afghan head of state.

In a 90-minute head-to-head broadcast live, he was criticised by outspoken anti-corruption campaigner Ramazan Bashadorst and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani over the alleged deals, which could see Karzai win the vote.

The president hit back, pledging the "protection of Afghanistan and national unity and removal of war and guns from Afghanistan".

The defence ministry Sunday claimed security forces killed more than 30 rebels, including 10 foreigners, in an overnight operation pounding Taliban centres in a bid to secure a troublespot near the Pakistani border before the polls.

The US military said an air strike and ground clashes killed "approximately 25 militants" when Afghan and US troops assaulted a rebel training camp to stop a commander's plans for a pre-election attack using foreign fighters.

The overnight operation took place on turf of the powerful militant group controlled by Jalaluddin Haqqani, a hero of the 1980s resistance to Soviet occupation turned Taliban ally, and his son Siraj, an Al-Qaeda cohort.

US, NATO and Afghan troops have launched multiple operations -- particularly against Taliban flashpoints in the south -- hoping to protect the elections.

The defence ministry said Afghan and NATO-led troops also wrested a southern district from insurgents, hoisting the Afghan flag over Naw Zad on Sunday. The government said at least eight districts were still outside its control.

Taliban threats and soaring attacks have raised widespread concern that poor turnout on Thursday could jeopardise the legitimacy of the elections.

A suicide bombing outside NATO headquarters in Kabul killed seven civilians and wounded 91 others on Saturday, one of the most audacious attacks in months.

It was a "warning that the Taliban can attack any time," said analyst Waheed Mujda. "The tactics they use make them very difficult to stop."

There are more than 100,000 foreign troops based in Afghanistan, where US and British fatalities have reached record levels since the 2001 invasion ousted the Taliban regime and installed a Western-backed administration.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown insisted troops were doing a "vital" job in Afghanistan as the British military death toll shot up to 201.

NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen paid tribute but said that "stabilising Afghanistan to prevent the return of terrorism that threatens us all remains a critical security task".
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Karzai Takes on Presidential Rivals During Two-Hour Debate
By Joshua Partlow Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, August 16, 2009 2:44 PM
KABUL, Aug. 16 -- After failing to show up for the first televised debate, President Hamid Karzai took on two rivals on Sunday night who described his government as mired in corruption and deficient in bringing jobs and security to Afghanistan.

In the nearly two-hour debate against former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost, Karzai calmly defended his record and sought to portray Afghanistan as vastly improved from when he took over leadership of the country in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban. Karzai will face off with Ghani, Bashardost and others in a field of 41 candidates who are vying to win the presidency in Thursday's vote.

"Afghanistan, which has suffered a lot, was totally lost. I saved it," Karzai said.

The event Sunday, sponsored by Radio Free Europe and held in an auditorium operated by Afghanistan's national television station, marked the first time during the campaign that Karzai has publicly debated his opponents. But the candidate considered the closest challenger to Karzai, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, chose not to participate.

Bashardost, an ethnic Hazara who has been running his campaign from a tent in Kabul and has vowed to operate without security guards if he wins, was the most colorful candidate Sunday. He attacked the government's corruption and incompetence, and said Afghans are attracted to the Taliban's style of swift, brutal justice because they receive no help with their problems from local officials. He said he would throw out the officials who "are just putting dollars in their pockets."

"There is a hole in their pockets that will never be filled," he said. "We should have a president who has integrity and who will not be the slave of the foreigners, but rather respect the national interest of Afghanistan."

Karzai attempted to shift blame for the nation's problems away from his government. He said Western troops helped incite Taliban violence in recent years through invasive searches of Afghan homes and by causing civilian casualties. He also stressed his view that Afghanistan's problems with violence and terrorism come from outside countries, and are not a homegrown problem.

He emphasized how Afghanistan's budget revenue and per capita income had grown during his tenure. "The lifestyle has gotten better in this country," he said.

Karzai said that if elected he would convene a grand council, or loya jirga, including the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups, to try to forge a peace deal. Bashardost questioned whether the Taliban is ready to negotiate.

Ghani, a candidate praised for his technocratic and managerial skills, emphasized the need to reform the government and improve coordination between Afghan and international security forces. He said billions of dollars have been spent on the Afghan police but there is little to show for the money. He reiterated his plan to have 3,000 senior Afghan officials declare their assets publicly to help prevent corruption. And he stressed the need to improve job opportunities for women, vowing to create a new government department to focus on women's affairs.

All three candidates said they want to wean Afghanistan from its reliance on foreign soldiers and push Afghan security forces into a leadership role, although they did not specify any time frame for when they want U.S. forces to depart.

The debate, while civil, was not completely smooth. Karzai stopped his first answer short when he had another minute left, then told the moderator that "two minutes is not enough" when he wanted to answer another question at greater length. More than an hour into the debate, Karzai called for a break so the candidates could pray. The debate resumed after about 10 minutes.

Recent polls indicate that Karzai is the front-runner, with support in the mid-40 percent range, followed by Abdullah, with about 25 percent, and then the other candidates. Karzai would need to break 50 percent to win a second term in Thursday's first round of voting. If he does not, then there would be a run-off scheduled for about six weeks later, involving the top two vote-getters.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
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Can "good war" in Afghanistan survive bad headlines?
Paul Eckert, Asia Correspondent -Analysis Reuters via Yahoo! UK & Ireland News
Afghanistan's presidential election amid a U.S. troop build-up and surging Taliban violence brings pressure on Washington to show results in a war the president has made the centrepiece of his foreign policy. Skip related content
The August 20 presidential vote comes after the deployment of some 30,000 extra U.S. troops that has raised the level of American forces to 62,000. Combat deaths are rising and polls show a softening of public backing for the eight-year war.

President Barack Obama, by following up on his campaign vow to wind down the unpopular Iraq war and shift resources to the older campaign in Afghanistan, has drawn fresh public attention back to that country -- increasing pressure to show progress.

"We all feel the impatience and pressure of the American public and the Congress, which legitimately wants to see progress," Said Richard Holbrooke, U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Asked to define success in that campaign, he said: "In the simplest sense ... we'll know it when we see it."

"They (the Obama administrations) haven't fully developed exactly how they are going to demonstrate to the American people and Congress that they're using the money and resources effectively to achieve progress," said Brian Katulis of the Centre for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.

Impatience is rising, polls are starting to indicate.

In the first major survey after a record 44 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan in July, a CNN/Opinion Research Corp poll showed popular support for the war at an historic low, with 54 percent opposed to the war and 41 percent in favour.

NO TERRIBLE OUTCOME?
Other polls have shown a similar slide in support for the war in Afghanistan this year, which had consistently enjoyed greater support than the Iraq war.

"Americans have sort of soured on the 'good war' concept as Afghanistan doesn't seem to be getting any better," said Nick Mills of Boston University's journalism department.

In a reminder of the threat, the Taliban on Saturday claimed responsibility for a suicide car bomb that killed seven people outside the headquarters of the NATO-led international force, in the heart of Kabul's most secure district.

Violence has surged recently, with the Taliban stronger than at any time since they were driven from power eight years ago. The militant group has mounted bold attacks on provincial government buildings and vowed to disrupt the election.

Thursday's election pits incumbent Hamid Karzai against 35 challengers. Two recent polls have Karzai with a comfortable lead over his nearest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, but not enough to avoid a second round run-off.

Brookings Institution foreign policy analyst Michael O'Hanlon said that whoever wins, "there's not going to be a terrible outcome" because Washington could work with any of the top candidates.

But he added that because of endemic corruption, narcotics, poverty and violence, the election offered not a fresh start for Afghanistan, but a "modest boost in the right direction."

ONE-YEAR WINDOW?

Holbrooke said Washington will look to Kabul once the election is settled "to reinvigorate, or invigorate if it's a different president, the leadership" in fighting corruption and drugs and boosting agriculture and rule of law.

"What they're hoping for at the very least is increased legitimacy for Afghan leaders at the presidential level and then in the provinces," said Katulis.

Analysts say that despite dipping polls, Obama has so far held onto the support and patience of the U.S. public and Congress, but this may not last.

"If there's really bad headlines coming out of the elections, there could be pressure on the Obama administration to change course," said Mills.

"We need to be in a position to be able to show progress -- within a year," U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates told a news conference.

A measure of progress, he said, would be "a situation, as we have seen in Iraq over the past two-and-a-half years, where more and more of the security responsibility will flow from the international security forces to Afghan security forces."

Analysts also give Obama a year to show progress. Mid-term Congressional elections in November 2010 will give U.S. voters a chance to voice weariness with the war.

"I think President Obama would have at least the grudging tolerance of the American people through 2010," said O'Hanlon.

"If we haven't seen progress in the course of next year, however, I think all bets are off."

(Additional reporting by Deborah Lutterbeck)
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Afghan election campaigns in full swing as poll nears
Sun Aug 16, 2009 11:21am EDT By Jonathon Burch
TALOQAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Supporters of Afghanistan's main presidential candidates came out in their thousands on Sunday in a last burst of campaign excitement with days to go before the ballot.

The few surveys that have been published show incumbent president Hamid Karzai in the lead, but not by enough to avoid a run-off against his surprisingly strong challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

By law, campaigning ends at midnight on Monday, three days before Thursday's vote.

Karzai disappointed thousands of people in the southern city of Kandahar who were hoping he would make an appearance at a rally addressed by one of his half-brothers, Ahmad Wali Karzai, Kandahar's provincial council chief.

Kandahar is Karzai's home town as well as the heartland of the Taliban, whose fighters have vowed to disrupt the poll with attacks.

In his own regional power base in the north, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main challenger, was mobbed by thousands of supporters who stormed a gate to surge into the compound where his helicopter touched down.

He was hoisted onto a pickup truck and driven through the town of Taloqan, surrounded by crowds of adoring supporters including children wearing T-shirts imprinted with his face.

"I told the crowd we have already won," Abdullah told Reuters after delivering a short, sharp speech that won ecstatic applause at a stadium that included a section set aside for women in burqas.

"Karzai has said when he wins he will offer me bread and tea and a job in his government, " Abdullah said. "I said 'thanks for the offer, but it won't help' ... I have already won."

TEST FOR WESTERN FORCES
For the Western countries who now have more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, the result of the vote may be less important than ensuring it takes place at all.

Taliban fighters, stronger than ever since they were driven from power eight years ago, have vowed to disrupt the poll. The United Nations says their threats and violence have already interfered with preparations and curbed campaigning, and may keep many Afghans from going to the polls on Thursday.

In a sharp reminder of the violence, a suicide car bomber struck outside the headquarters of U.S. and NATO troops on Saturday, killing seven Afghans and wounding scores.

There are also fears that fraud could jeopardize the legitimacy of the vote, making violence worse. Abdullah played down concerns that his followers could respond with unrest if they feel they have been denied a victory.

"In the unlikely event that Karzai wins, I will encourage sensibility ... but this is unlikely because I have already won," he told Reuters.

The latest survey by the U.S.-funded International Republican Institute, conducted in July and released last week, found Karzai leading with 44 percent of the vote to 26 percent for Abdullah.

Ramazan Bashardost, a member of the Hazara ethnic minority and former planning minister who runs his campaign from a tent opposite parliament in Kabul, would place third with 10 percent.

There were originally over 40 official challengers, most with no hope of election, now whittled down to 35.

The vote is a test for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has declared Afghanistan his administration's main foreign focus. More than 30,000 extra U.S. troops have arrived in Afghanistan this year, most sent by Obama as part of an escalation strategy.

The new U.S. reinforcements have launched the war's biggest offensives, alongside British troops who since last month have suffered their worst battlefield casualties in a generation.

Britain announced the deaths of two more soldiers, bringing their total losses in Afghanistan to 201 dead. The sudden surge of casualties has made the war a hot political issue for Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who defended it in a televised statement.

"It is to make Britain safe and the rest of the world safe that we must make sure we honor our commitment to maintain a free and stable Afghanistan. Failure to do so would make the world more dangerous."

(Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR, and Peter Griffiths in LONDON; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by David Fox)
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Mud-slinging on Afghan vote trail
By Lynne O'Donnell
KABUL — (AFP) – They may be backed by warlords and rely on donkeys to get their supporters out to vote, but contenders in Afghanistan's elections are making promises and trading insults like politicians anywhere.

Just days before Afghans choose their president, the main candidates are criss-crossing the country to get the vote out, and like lawmakers from Washington to Whitehall, their rhetoric is testing hyperbolic heights.

To hear the top contenders tell it, their rivals are thieves, drug lords and human rights abusers. They are bad for democracy, cut deals with criminals, are cheating Afghans of a future, and only got into politics to get rich.

The election scheduled for Thursday will see up to 17 million people -- of a population estimated between 26 million and 32 million -- cast their votes in presidential and provincial council elections.

It is Afghanistan's second presidential poll and incumbent Hamid Karzai is expected to prevail over a field of 41 -- although five have announced via the media their decision to drop out.

His main rivals are former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, former finance minister and World Bank academic Ashraf Ghani, and the eccentric dark horse Ramazan Bashardost who campaigns from a yellow tent in central Kabul.

More than 3,000 donkeys are to be deployed, along with fleets of helicopters, planes and trucks, to get ballot papers to the most remote corners of the vastly undeveloped country.

City walls are plastered with colourful posters of candidates, showing the symbols -- a sheaf of wheat, a rose, striped vases -- that will appear next to their names on ballot papers for the majority of people who are illiterate.

In villages and towns, hopefuls in the parallel council elections are going door-to-door, while the top presidential contenders are hitting big cities for last-minute rallies they hope will win television time.

But in a country at war, where the Taliban has escalated its insurgency against government forces backed by troops from more than 40 countries, fear has swept the vulnerable rural areas that people risk attack if they vote.

The Taliban have said they will try to prevent people reaching polling stations, and election officials say more than 10 percent of the planned number could stay closed because security cannot be guaranteed.

As the Monday deadline for campaigning nears, the war of words between the presidential rivals is also heating up.

While Bashardhost rails against "the criminals and drug traffickers in power," Karzai is accused of trying to buy off his rivals with promises of "food, tea and a job" after saying he would give Abdullah and Ghani posts in his new government.

A furious Ghani issued a statement on Friday saying he had no intention of joining "the corrupt and illegitimate system Mr. Karzai has set up".

"We want an end to Mr. Karzai?s politics of hiding behind palace walls, rewarding elites and cutting deals with shady men who are bent on robbing the nation of its future," he said, in a reference to agreements the president has struck with notorious warlords to secure blocs of votes.

"Mr. Karzai has forgotten that his primary job is to feed, cloth and create jobs for the nation, not me."

Karzai has been notable for his lack of mud-slinging, preferring to draw his rivals close with deals that shore up his support and hobble his opposition.

A big bone of contention among his opponents has been Karzai's refusal to take part in televised debates.

He failed to appear at the first on July 23, saying he was too busy, so Abdullah and Ghani went at it without him.

After Karzai refused to participate in a second debate due to be televised on Thursday, Abdullah also pulled out at the last minute, prompting Ghani to brand him "deceptive and hypocritical".

For his part, Abdullah was on the receiving end of a confusing and potentially explosive episode when he was widely accused of encouraging his supporters to take to the streets if he does not win the presidency.

Abdullah denied the accusations from his rivals, branding them "political" in nature, and categorically ruled out any recourse to violence.

Yet analysts say Abdullah lost support as a result of what was seen as a deliberate slur on his otherwise populist campaign.

The victor must win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off with the runner-up. Polls put Karzai and Abdullah in first and second place.
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Karzai counts on tribal vote to win Kandahar
The second-largest city in Afghanistan provided the springboard for the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and is key to Thursday's historic presidential poll. Seeking a second term, Hamid Karzai is relying on ethnic affiliations to give him a crucial victory in his Pashtun heartland. But the Taliban have threatened dire consequences for those who dare to come out and vote
Jon Boone in Kandahar guardian.co.uk, Sunday 16 August 2009 01.33 BST

At the Mirwais hospital in Kandahar, the wards are filled with the collateral of insurgency. In one room, a father stands over the bed of a little girl whose torso is swathed in bandages, her broken leg pinned together with metal rods. The girl's face is covered with shrapnel wounds. Another man, lying listlessly on a filthy bed, says he was injured by an American bomb aimed at one of the heroin processing centres in his rural village. Suddenly, the handheld radio of Red Cross worker Benjamin Nyakira crackles with the voice of a colleague. The entire hospital has run out of stocks of blood that are keeping alive the victims of homemade Taliban bombs and hi-tech Nato ordinance.

"Blood is a big problem for us," explains Nyakira.

Mirwais hospital is desperately trying to stock up on drugs, fluids and other medical necessities, as well as blood. Call them election supplies. On Thursday, Afghanistan goes to the polls to elect a president for only the second time in its history and the Taliban have threatened to cut the throats of those who turn out to vote in the Pashtun south. The insurgency against American and British troops in Helmand has been gaining momentum for months. And in Kabul and in Kandahar, Taliban bombings have scarred the campaign trail. As Muhammad Ehsan, the deputy chairman of Kandahar's provincial council, puts it: "This is not a very good time to have an election."

Surgical capacity at Mirwais has been more than doubled. If things get really nasty, an additional two surgery teams are on standby in Geneva, ready to arrive within hours.

The few foreigners who lived in Kandahar left some time ago, leaving only "essential staff" to manage the NGOs and UN agencies over the election period. Across the city, there is a palpable tension. As every Afghan knows, there is one powerful force in Afghan politics not represented in this week's elections. But they have other ways of getting their message across.

"Just two kilometres from my house, the Taliban are telling people to reject the election. There is no guarantee that if you go to the polling station you will be safe," said Ehsan.

Unstable, tense and bakingly hot, Kandahar will be key to Thursday's election. It was from Kandahar, a city of 450,000 people, that the Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, began their march to power in the mid-1990s. Some observers believe that soon the city will be a Taliban bastion again. And it is among his fellow Pashtun voters in Kandahar and the south of Afghanistan that Hamid Karzai, the beleaguered Afghan president, must seek his new mandate, as much of the mainly Tajik north of the country appears to be dominated by his main rival, Dr Abdullah Abdullah. There are 36 candidates in this week's election, but only two – Karzai and Abdullah – have a realistic chance of victory.

To be re-elected after this week's vote, Karzai will need to win more than 50% of the ballot. Last week, one US poll gave him 44%, which would plunge him into a potentially risky run-off, almost certainly with Abdullah, who scored 26%.

To break the 50% barrier on Thursday, Karzai has been horse-trading with tribal leaders, offering positions and influence in a new government. But he also needs to convince the sceptics in the south that a new five-year term would be free of the corruption that has been rife since 2004. As in the north, there are plenty of people in Kandahar who say they will not vote for Karzai, a man they loathe and hold responsible for eight years in which security has collapsed and where government venality has become endemic.

"Actually, President Karzai is not the problem: the problem is his brother," says Abdul Rahman, a tribal elder from Ghorak, a district outside Kandahar in which he can't live because of the Taliban.

The reference is to Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's enormously powerful half-brother and the Karzai election campaign manager for the south.

According to one survey, Ahmed Wali, the elected head of the Kandahar provincial council, has some of the lowest approval ratings of any Afghan politician. He has been accused of handing out government jobs and land to his friends and allies, and extensive involvement in drug trafficking.

Despite the clout of the Karzai family name in the south, Ahmed Wali has angered so many people that some believe he has become a liability for his brother.

"He finds people in a tribe to ally with and then helps them to become powerful by arresting honest tribal elders. He is interfering in everyone's job," says Mohammad Askar, a tribal elder from the Alokozai tribe, who claimed that many of Karzai's Popolzai tribe members would also vote against the two brothers.

"No one can speak out, not the governor, not the department heads, not provincial council members," Askar added.

Aware of the disquiet and dissent, Ahmed Wali has been pulling out all the stops to mend bridges with slighted tribal elders, even telling one recent gathering that he was prepared to kneel down and beg forgiveness from anyone who thinks they have been wronged by him.

Over lunch on Thursday afternoon in his heavily fortified house in Kandahar, he appeared supremely confident about the resilience of his brother's support base in the south.

"I am not worried about the vote," he said. "People understand that violence is not President Karzai's fault. They don't blame the president for it. They feel sorry for him that he has had to face all these challenges since he became leader."

But he says the one "big challenge to his campaign" is that Taliban violence keeps much of the Karzai voter bank at home on election day. Independent election observers in the province anticipate that only three of Kandahar's 17 districts will be secure enough for election offices to open. In the country as a whole, it is estimated that as many as 700 of 7,000 polling centres will not function.

So, Karzai has been frantically trying to persuade local Taliban commanders to ignore their orders from Mullah Omar and allow voting to take place. He believes many are just as worried as him about the prospect of Abdullah, a half-Tajik politician who fought against the Taliban, becoming president. There are signs that some Taliban leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to anti-election edicts. Hamid Karzai's ability to win outright may well depend on how many.

A reputation as a northerner did not prevent Abdullah campaigning in the city that is the movement's spiritual home last week. Abdullah was born in Kandahar, although he has barely lived there. His father was a Pashtun, but his mother was a Tajik and he rose to prominence fighting in the 1980s alongside Ahmed Shah Massoud, the famous Tajik commander who barricaded himself into the Panjshir Valley, his northern stronghold.

When he touched down at Kandahar airport on Wednesday, it was clear Abdullah was entering hostile territory. His entourage scrambled into a fleet of land cruisers and sped off towards the city, veering between oncoming vehicles. This was not just the usual macho posturing common to all the main presidential campaigns. Abdullah's people were acutely aware that the huge Canadian military vehicles that trundle along this road make it a magnet for suicide bombers. Abdullah has already faced violent attacks in far less hostile areas of the country – including one shoot-out that left a driver dead. The speeches made by his allies at that day's rally were applauded by a crowd of 1,500. All attempted to burnish Abdullah's credentials as a man of the south.

As one MP put it to rapturous applause: "In times of crisis, our country has been led by a Kandahari and now a Kandahari is coming again, and he wants to build security in this place!"

Such soapbox appeals to regional pride are the stuff of democratic contests the world over. But in Afghanistan's restive south, the promise of security may be impossible to keep. Even if Karzai wins well here, the future of the city is unlikely to be resolved by democratic means.

Experts say that Kandahar has been comprehensively infiltrated at every level by insurgents who are methodically taking control of the city. "When the Taliban take over, it will be a steady process whereby eventually they will be the main power and authority," says one of the few foreigners who lives in the city.

Apart from the occasional tank on the streets, the presence of the Canadians, who have a base inside the city, is virtually invisible – except for a barrage balloon tethered high in the sky armed with a super-powerful camera.

As the Taliban menace from the sidelines, Ahmed Wali Karzai's fellow provincial council member, Haji Ehsan, is gloomy about the prospects for voter turnout: "Even if the Taliban change their minds in the next few days, [turnout] will be much, much lower than in 2004."

The consequence of threats, stay-at-home voters and the desperate manoeuvres of the Karzai electoral machine may be massive electoral fraud. An attempt to update the electoral roll saw huge numbers of poll cards handed out to phantom voters. In Kandahar, "Britney Jamilia Spears" appeared in the lists.

Long lists of imaginary female relatives have been concocted by male voters. In many cases, Independent Election Commission (IEC) officials were happy to hand over registration cards, supposedly because they wanted to respect cultural sensitivities and not force women to appear, as required, in person.

According to a report by the Afghanistan Analyst Network, a group of Kabul-based foreign experts, some IEC officials fear that as many as 3m voters on the register to do not exist. Thousands of registration cards may also have been bought from voters unwilling to take the risk of going to a voting station.

IEC spokesman Zekria Barakzai claims that the combination of indelible ink on the fingers of voters and of election observers should stop fraud. But not, in the words of one western monitor, "if they buy off the whole voting centre".

Security on the day will be crucial. Even in areas where polling centres open, many election organisations will be wary of sending their people to such hostile places. Then there is the unpredictable influence of local militia commanders, who Ahmed Wali Karzai says will be used to help guarantee security in some areas.

For months, western diplomats, led by US special envoy Richard Holbrooke, have been lowering expectations.

In the words of one: "There will be mismanagement, chaos and corruption and fraud. The question is, how much? Every election in this region has its flaws."

The worst-case scenario is that the combination of Taliban threats, bought votes and ballot-box stuffing will lead to what is being called the "Tehran scenario": thousands of angry Afghans on the streets complaining at a stolen election. Abdullah's campaign manager has already warned that, if his man does not win, his supporters will take to the streets.

One evening last week, Haji Ehsan was enjoying the relative cool in his garden. Ehsan, who is going to vote for Karzai, predicts that ethnic loyalties will trump issues such as competence or policies.

"To be honest, I like Ramazan Bashardost [a maverick anti-corruption candidate]. He is not corrupt and his hands are not covered in blood. He wants good government and he did a good job as planning minister. But he is Hazara and Afghanistan is a tribal society. He hasn't got a chance."

For President Karzai, it is hardly a ringing endorsement. But on Thursday, as insurgency, fear and disillusionment stalk the president's southern heartland, even a half-hearted one will do.
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Afghanistan vote can proceed thanks to British military campaign
British officials yesterday claimed that 70 per cent of Helmand will be able to participate in Afghanistan's presidential elections as a result of British and American efforts to secure the province.
By Ben Farmer in Kabul 16 Aug 2009 Daily Telegraph (UK)
British troops incurred their heaviest losses of the campaign as they fought to drive Taliban insurgents from a stronghold north of Helmand's capital Lashkar Gah in the run-up to Thursday's poll.

In tandem with a United States Marines push south towards the Pakistan border, the operation ensured that 80,000 more Afghans in Helmand can vote.

But the alliance has since come under strain as American commanders demand the British transfer control of Musa Qala because they judge the Army is too overstretched to hold the key town.

Musa Qala was first taken from the Taliban in 2006, but fell back into insurgent hands after a British-brokered peace deal with local elders fell through.

The town was retaken in 2007 and has remained symbolically important for the British.

With four days to the country's first Afghan-led presidential poll, Taliban insurgents have intensified efforts to intimidate voters and warned for the first time they would target polling stations.

President Hamid Karzai, the front runner, also took part in a television debate against two of his closest rivals, Ashraf Ghani and Ramazan Bashardost.

However his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out of the debate, on state broadcaster Radio and Television Afghanistan, an announcer said.

Polls say Mr Karzai remains the favourite to win but widespread disillusionment with corruption, slow redevelopment results and worsening violence means Dr Abdullah could force him into a two-way run off.

Taliban threats pinned to mosque walls around the city of Kandahar late on Saturday warned the insurgents would use "new tactics" to undermine the vote.

Ghulam Haidar, the Taliban's operational Kandahar commander, wrote: "You should not participate in the elections and should not go to the polling centers because officials might be there and there might be attacks against them."
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We must fight on, says Brown, as Afghanistan deaths pass 200 mark
Death of two wounded soldiers brings number of British military losses to 201
Paul Gallagher, Mark Townsend, Jon Boone and Peter Walker guardian.co.uk, Sunday 16 August 2009 10.56 BST
Britain must remain in Afghanistan and "honour its commitment" to make the country stable, Gordon Brown said after the deaths of two more soldiers took the UK toll in the conflict beyond 200.

The dark milestone was reached yesterday when a soldier from 2nd Battalion the Royal Welsh died at Selly Oak military hospital in Birmingham. He was wounded while on vehicle patrol on Thursday near Musa Qal'eh, in Helmand province.

This morning, the Ministry of Defence said that the 201st casualty, from 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, also died yesterday from his injuries after being caught in an explosion on a foot patrol near Sangin in Helmand.

Neither man was named, but the families of both have been informed.

Sixty-four of the deaths happened this year, with 31 in July and August alone. The great majority of the casualties died in bombings as insurgents honed their tactics through the use of improvised explosive devices.

The prime minister said the new deaths were tragic, but insisted the soldiers' "vital mission" was worthwhile.

"Every man and woman fighting for their country is someone's son or daughter, someone's brother or sister, or someone's father or mother," he said. "Every death leaves a hole in a family's life that will never be filled. We are hugely indebted to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and today my thoughts are with the families and friends of all those soldiers who have died in Afghanistan serving our country.

"Today is a day of mourning, and also a day of reflection. I want to thank the entire armed forces and the families and communities which sustain them. We will honour and support those who have been killed or wounded in the field of battle. And we will give those who fight on all the support that they need to succeed in this vital mission."

Britain's roll of honour ranges from six 18-year-olds to a 51-year-old senior aircraftsman, and includes the most senior British soldier to die in combat for 27 years and a female intelligence officer.

A Taliban suicide bomber struck Nato's headquarters in Kabul's most fortified district yesterday and the British ambassador warned of further attacks ahead of Thursday's elections.

Seven people were killed and almost 100 wounded, including several international soldiers, when the bomber detonated his explosives on the doorstep of Kabul's international military headquarters. Analysts viewed the attack as an attempt to prove that the Taliban are capable of striking anywhere.

A Nato worker on the base said the death toll could have been far higher if many of the Afghan staff had not made it into the heavily fortified compound.

It emerged that General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, was holding his morning media briefing at the time of the incident. The complex where the attack took place, known as HQ ISAF, is in the heart of Kabul's answer to Baghdad's Green Zone, a network of fortified embassies and government offices close to the presidential palace.

Mark Sedwill, Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, told the Observer the Taliban were highly likely to replicate yesterday's audacious strike in an attempt to derail the presidential elections.

Speaking in Kabul, Sedwill said: "It's likely there will be one or two attacks of a fairly significant kind, perhaps early in the election day, to try to intimidate people. In some areas, we know they will try to target election officials."

He predicted that in the south of the country voter turnout on Thursday could be as low as 40%.

The attack is the latest in a series of increasingly sophisticated strikes. In the south of the country, a force of 9,100 British troops has suffered heavy losses in driving the Taliban from districts of Helmand province ahead of the polls.

A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, confirmed the attackers had been targeting the Nato headquarters and the nearby US embassy as part of a campaign to disrupt the elections and said the attack followed orders from the Taliban leadership for Afghans to boycott the polls.

However, details emerged last night of a covert operation backed by Britain that could see thousands of Taliban fighters and their Afghan allies rejecting the orders of Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and taking part in the elections.

Sedwill revealed that negotiations with local Taliban commanders and pro-election Afghans were being stepped up across southern Afghanistan. "It is quite likely that large numbers of these essentially tactical allies of the Taliban will participate in the elections," he said. "It [the Taliban] is not a monolith and much will depend on the decisions by local tribal leaders and Talib commanders."

He warned that the Taliban were set to step up their campaign of disruption. "It's likely there will be an effort to intimidate people by saying: 'We may not get you on polling day, but we will exact vengeance if you go out and vote.' What we don't know is whether they will attack polling stations."

The increased tension coincided with the release of details of the attack on Thursday in which two British soldiers in southern Afghanistan died trying to save an injured friend. Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton, 23, was wounded along with two colleagues in the initial attack in Sangin, Helmand province. Rifleman Daniel Wild, 19, and Captain Mark Hale were carrying the injured man on foot to a helicopter landing zone when they were hit by a second explosion that killed Hatton and Wild. Hale later died of his injuries in hospital at Camp Bastion, the UK's main military base.
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Afghan govt says over 30 rebels killed
Sun Aug 16, 9:52 am ET
KABUL (AFP) – The Afghan defence ministry said Sunday that more than 30 rebels, including foreigners, were killed in an operation pounding Taliban centres in a bid to secure a northeast troublespot for key elections.

"Tens of terrorists were killed as a result of Operation Thunder Five in the province of Khost," the ministry announced in a statement.

"The operation was launched a while ago for election security, with support from national police, border police and international forces," it said.

"More than 30 have been killed," ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zahir Azimi told AFP after the operation in Spera, in southwestern Khost near the border with Pakistan.

Independent confirmation of the death toll was not possible and the NATO-led military deployed in Afghanistan had no immediate details.

Afghanistan's defence ministry said troops pounded Taliban centres, "overpowering" the enemy who either escaped or were killed.

"Among those killed are 10 foreign nationals," said the ministry.

US, NATO and Afghan troops have launched multiple operations -- particularly against Taliban flashpoints in the south -- in a bid to safeguard imminent Afghan elections overshadowed by Taliban threats and mounting violence.

On August 20, 17 million Afghans are due to elect a president for the second time in history, but Taliban threats to block roads to polling booths and widespread fears of suicide attacks have clouded preparations.

The governor of Khost, which borders a part of Pakistan where Taliban commanders carved out safe havens in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, told AFP last week that countless offensives were underway.

"Since the beginning of the month, we did 45 operations in the province to clean up insurgent strongholds. During the first two weeks of August, security forces killed 51 Taliban," said the governor Hamidullah Qalandarzai.

Thousands of US Marines have poured into Taliban-controlled regions as part of a sweeping new war strategy under US President Barack Obama aimed at quelling the insurgency.
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Pre-Vote Blast in Kabul Signals Taliban Intent
Insurgents Seek To Keep Voters From the Polls
By Joshua Partlow Washington Post Foreign Service Sunday, August 16, 2009
KABUL, Aug. 15 -- A suicide car bombing outside the U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan's capital Saturday was the most serious indication yet of the Taliban's designs to disrupt Thursday's presidential election through violence.

The Islamist militia, which is fighting NATO and Afghan forces for control in wide swaths of the country, has fired rockets into Kabul in recent days, but the attack Saturday was the most brutal in the heart of the capital in six months. At least seven Afghans were killed, and more than 90 people were wounded.

If such violence succeeds in scaring voters away from the polls, Afghanistan faces a serious long-term problem. A low turnout, particularly in Taliban strongholds in the south, could cast doubts on the legitimacy of the election results.

"It is the Taliban who are trying to deny Afghans their political rights," said a senior U.S. official in Afghanistan, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "That's a lesson that ought to come home to all of us."

President Hamid Karzai, the front-runner in the election, said in a statement that the attack was an attempt by the nation's enemies to "create fear among the people." But he added that Afghans "are not afraid of any threats, and they will go to cast their votes."

Guarding voting sites and securing roads to the polling places has become the top priority for NATO forces. Of the 17 million registered voters, a turnout of more than 50 percent would be considered high, some U.S. officials say. In recent days, American military officials have received intelligence reports warning of suicide bombings and other catastrophic Taliban attacks, as well as quieter acts of intimidation. Insurgents issued similar threats of violence, and carried out some of them, ahead of elections in Iraq.

"Letters at night, threats and that sort of thing to try to dissuade people from going to the polls," the senior U.S. official said. "My impression is frankly there's much more in the way of intimidation than actual violence."

In the heated environment of the campaign's final days, the bombing became a political issue, with Karzai's rivals arguing that he is responsible for the escalating violence in the country.

"I'm absolutely sure that we cannot bring peace in Afghanistan when the criminals of war are in power in Afghanistan," said Ramazan Bashardost, a presidential candidate. "I believe the Taliban war is not against American or British troops as much as it is a war against the Taliban enemy, which means" Karzai.

The Taliban quickly asserted responsibility for Saturday's car bombing at the security checkpoint outside the diplomatic compound that houses the U.S. and NATO military headquarters and the U.S. Embassy. Reached by telephone, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said a fighter named Ahmed detonated his four-wheel-drive vehicle carrying more than 1,000 pounds of explosives in order to kill Americans and disrupt the election, which he described as an "American process."

The bombing occurred at 8:30 a.m. about 30 yards from the main compound entrance on a heavily guarded street. The explosion blew a hole in the road, crumbled concrete walls and shattered windows of buildings hundreds of yards away. The less-fortified row of buildings opposite the compound sustained the greatest damage, including the office of the Afghan Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation and the government television and radio station.

Mohammad Rafi, 22, a cook at Super Burger, was preparing a salad when the explosion shattered the plate glass window of his restaurant. He fell to the floor as shards rained down.

"Only God knows why they did this. I pray that God destroys them," Rafi said. "We just hate the suicide bombers."

Diplomats said that windows were shattered inside the compound but that damage was relatively light, with barriers mitigating much of the force of the blast. Indian ambassador Jayant Prasad wandered out of the compound surrounded by guards and said the windows of his residence and those of the Spanish ambassador's were blown out.

Western military spokesmen said that "several" international troops were injured but that none was killed. One U.S. military official said it appeared that no Americans were seriously injured.

Many of the wounded Afghans were taken to a nearby hospital. Raz Muhammad Alami, the technical and operations deputy minister at the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, said 57 people from his ministry were injured, 36 seriously.

In the crowded recovery room for women, bombing victims moaned in pain and some appeared unconscious. One ministry employee, Freshata Nazami, 21, said she was walking along a window-lined hallway and fell to the floor when the blast occurred. "It was such a disastrous day," she said from her hospital bed, with dried blood spots on her face and shirt. "My head was injured. I was running to the basement. When I got to the basement, I lost consciousness."

"All our friends and colleagues were injured, and I don't know where they are," she said.

Officials said they expect more pre-election violence. The bombing prompted the United Nations to restrict movement of its personnel in Kabul, but the measures were lifted by the end of the day.

"Incidents like this were probably to some extent expected, although you can never predict where they will happen," said Adrian Edwards, a U.N. spokesman in Afghanistan. "This is probably one of the most complex elections attempted anywhere, and, unfortunately, insecurity is part of that complexity."

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.
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How did a suicide bomber penetrate Kabul's NATO headquarters?
By Jonathan S. Landay, Mcclatchy Newspapers – Sat Aug 15, 4:41 pm ET
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan authorities are trying to determine how a suicide bomber breached tight security in Kabul's diplomatic quarter on Saturday and detonated an SUV packed with explosives in front of NATO headquarters five days before the presidential election.

At least seven people died and 91 others were injured by the explosion, according to a Defense Ministry statement.

The blast underscored the Taliban's ability to mount attacks in the heart of the Afghan capital despite stringent measures that the government and NATO are taking to safeguard Thursday's vote.

U.S. Navy Lt. Todd Vician , a spokesman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force, said that a "handful" of ISAF troops were among those injured, but he declined to identify their nationality. Soldiers from Macedonia , along with Afghan police, handle security at the steel-gated ISAF headquarters entrance.

The wounded also included four Afghan soldiers and Awa Alam Nuristani , a member of parliament and head of President Hamid Karzai's campaign for women, the Defense Ministry said.

Taliban spokesmen took responsibility for the attack in calls to news agencies. It was the first major assault in Kabul since Feb. 28 , when 28 people died after insurgents stormed into the Justice Ministry and two other government buildings.

The ISAF compound, protected by high blast walls, razor wire, and concrete blocks, is the headquarters of U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McCrystal , the commander of the 100,000-strong ISAF. It was not known if he was inside when the explosion went off around 8:30 a.m. local time.

The blast spewed shards of metal, set cars on fire and blew out windows in nearby buildings, echoing across the capital as smoke towered into the air.

Many of the casualties were workers on their way to jobs at the Ministry of Transportation and the state-run radio and television building, which sit opposite the ISAF compound on what is usually a quiet, leafy street.

Afghan police and troops and ISAF soldiers quickly sealed off the scene as medics loaded the dead and wounded into Afghan military ambulances.

"When I left the ministry and turned into the intersection, there was a huge explosion. It was very powerful and there was smoke and dust everywhere," said Dil Agha, 35, a driver for the Ministry of Transportation . "This is very bad. These people (the casualties) were here just to earn a piece of bread for themselves."

Gen. Zahir Azimi , the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense , said the bomber was driving a grey Toyota Landcruiser.

Azimi said that an investigation was under way to determine how the bomber was able to pass through at least three police checkpoints and reach the front of the ISAF headquarters.

The bomber's ability to get as far as he did fueled uncertainty about the ability of ISAF and Afghan security forces to prevent the Taliban from making good on a vow to disrupt Thursday's election for president and the country's 34 provincial councils.

It was not clear if the headquarters was the intended target or if the bomber was bound for the U.S. embassy, which is about 150 yards further down the street, but was intercepted and detonated his explosives before he could get there. The embassy was the target of several attempted bombings last year.

The presidential palace is also in the same vicinity.

"Our enemies are trying to carry out such attacks, but we are taking all efforts using all our capabilities to prevent them," Azimi said.

Foreign embassies and ISAF headquarters implemented security "lockdowns," cancelling appointments and closing down to non-staff members.

Karzai, who is favored to win re-election to a second five-year term, blamed the blast in a statement on "enemies of Afghanistan " who are "trying to create fear among the people as we get close to the election."
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U.S. Turns to Radio Stations and Cellphones to Counter Taliban’s Propaganda
New York Times By THOM SHANKER August 15, 2009
WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is establishing a new unit within the State Department for countering militant propaganda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, engaging more fully than ever in a war of words and ideas that it acknowledges the United States has been losing.

Proposals are being considered to give the team up to $150 million a year to spend on local FM radio stations, to counter illegal militant broadcasting, and on expanded cellphone service across Afghanistan and Pakistan. The project would step up the training of local journalists and help produce audio and video programming, as well as pamphlets, posters and CDs denigrating militants and their messages.

Senior officials say they consider the counterpropaganda mission to be vital to the war.

“Concurrent with the insurgency is an information war,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who will direct the effort. “We are losing that war.

“The Taliban have unrestricted, unchallenged access to the radio, which is the main means of communication,” he added. “We can’t succeed, however you define success, if we cede the airways to people who present themselves as false messengers of a prophet, which is what they do. And we need to combat it.”

The team he is putting together is the latest entry into the government’s effort to direct the flow of information in support of American policy. The campaign is scattered throughout the bureaucracy and the military, variously named public affairs, public diplomacy, strategic communications and information operations.

Officials acknowledge that the government routinely fails when trying to speak to the Muslim world and battle the propaganda of extremism — most often because the efforts to describe American policy and showcase American values are themselves viewed as propaganda.

The new campaign is especially focused on providing cellphone service, and thus some independent communications for people in remote areas where the Taliban thrive. It is a booming industry now: Afghanistan had no cellular coverage in 2001 but today has about 9.5 million subscribers.

That work is closely coordinated with American and allied forces in Afghanistan, where Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, NATO’s director of communication in Kabul, said the challenge was in protecting the population and the official communications network from insurgents — a new strategic priority.

“If we can insulate the people, separate the population from insurgents, they become less vulnerable and less susceptible to the coercion and intimidation designed to steer them away from the government of Afghanistan,” Admiral Smith said.

“The ability to communicate empowers a population,” he said. “That is a very important principle of counterinsurgency and counterpropaganda.”

In southern Afghanistan, now the center of American military offensives under the troop increase ordered by President Obama, insurgents threaten commercial cellphone providers with attack if they do not switch off service early each night.

That prevents villagers from calling security forces if they see militants on the move or planting roadside bombs; the lack of cellphone service at night also hobbles the police and nongovernmental development agencies.

Proposals to counter insurgent threats include establishing security for cellphone towers by offering local communities money, electricity or free service to guard the towers — or even erecting cellphone towers, which cost about $200,000 each, on allied military bases.

Expanding and securing cellphone service has the additional benefit of assisting economic development, officials said, as it could provide wireless access to banking systems for those who now must travel long distances for financial services.

Officials involved in the new unit say they are seeking to amplify the voices of Afghans speaking to Afghans, and Pakistanis speaking to Pakistanis, rather than have “Made in the U.S.A.” stamped on the programming.

And officials said the counterpropaganda unit would seek ways to “denigrate the enemy,” portraying militant attacks on markets, schools and public buildings as a religious violation.

“Given the archaic values of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, we must devise policies that expose the true nature of the militants,” said Ashley Bommer, an adviser to Mr. Holbrooke. “And we must shift the paradigm so that the debate is not between the United States and the militants, but between the people and the militants.”

Officials said the unit would work to counter the primary routes of extremist communications, in particular low-power radio stations and the distribution of videos, CDs and “night letters” — chilling militant notes that threaten violence if local residents cooperate with the government, America or its allies.

Vikram Singh, on loan from the Pentagon as Mr. Holbrooke’s senior defense adviser for the project, said the United States would begin by “building the capabilities of the private sectors and the governments in both of these countries to effectively communicate and engage with their own populations.”

This is particularly important, he said, in the border areas of Pakistan and across large parts of Afghanistan that for decades had only primitive communications.

In the tribal areas of Pakistan, for example, there are only four legal FM radio stations, compared with more than 150 illegal low-watt stations run by militants, according to officials involved in the counterpropaganda effort. Some of the insurgent radio stations are mobile, broadcasting from vehicles or even donkey carts to avoid detection and extend their reach.
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Row over Afghan wife-starving law
By Sarah Rainsford BBC News Sunday, 16 August 2009
An Afghan bill allowing a husband to starve his wife if she refuses to have sex has been published in the official gazette and become law.

The original bill caused outrage earlier this year, forcing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to withdraw it.

But critics say the amended version of the law remains highly repressive.

They accuse Mr Karzai of selling out Afghan women for the sake of conservative Shia support at next week's presidential election.

The law governs family life for Afghanistan's Shia minority.

Sexual demands

The original version obliged Shia women to have sex with their husbands every four days at a minimum, and it effectively condoned rape by removing the need for consent to sex within marriage.

Western leaders and Afghan women's groups were united in condemning an apparent reversal of key freedoms won by women after the fall of the Taliban.

Now an amended version of the same bill has passed quietly into law with the apparent approval of President Karzai.

Just ahead of this Thursday's Afghan presidential election, human rights groups suggest the timing is no accident.

"There was a review process - Karzai came under huge pressure from all over the world to amend this law, but many of the most oppressive laws remain," Rachel Reid, the Human Rights Watch representative in Kabul, told the BBC.

"What matters more to Karzai is the support of fundamentalists and hardliners here in Afghanistan whose support he thinks he needs in the elections."

Women's groups say its new wording still violates the principle of equality that is enshrined in their constitution.

It allows a man to withhold food from his wife if she refuses his sexual demands; a woman must get her husband's permission to work; and fathers and grandfathers are given exclusive custody of children.
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Afghan troops recapture district from militants
KABUL, Aug. 16 (Xinhua) -- Afghan troops regained the control of a district in the southern Helmand province, a statement of Afghan Defense Ministry said Sunday.

"Nawzad was liberated from the clutch of rebels at 02:00 p.m. local time (0930 GMT) today and the national flag of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was hoisted there," the brief statement said.

Early last month troops had restored government control in Khanshin district.

Over ten districts are said to be out of government control in the militancy-hit southern region.

The Afghan government with the support of international forces has decided to restore government authorities in all districts and areas held by Taliban insurgents ahead of the Aug. 20 elections.
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US ambassador praises NZ troops in Afghanistan
pm NZPA via Yahoo!Xtra News - Aug 15 9:50 PM
New Zealand's Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan are so good at running a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) that it is used as a model for others, United States Acting Ambassador Dave Keegan says.

About 140 Defence Force members have been operating the PRT in Bamiyan province since 2003 and Dr Keegan said there was tremendous international respect for the way it New Zealand's efforts.

"Its PRT is a model. Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) routinely invites people to go and look at what New Zealand is doing and try to imitate that elsewhere," he said today on TV One's Q&A programme.

"The SAS contribution in their previous deployments again attracted considerable praise and we've made that clear, as others have."

Prime Minister John Key announced last week that SAS troops were again being sent to Afghanistan.

About 70 of the elite troops will be there for 18 months in three rotations.

Mr Key also said the PRT would gradually be drawn down, a decision which has been criticised by the Labour Party.

Asked why crack troops were needed, Dr Keegan said New Zealand was part of a multilateral effort to provide security and give Afghan people a chance to rebuild their society.

"They're not doing any work for the US in Afghanistan, they're working for New Zealand in Afghanistan and they're working for the international effort to fight terrorism," he said.

"And let's face it -- these terrorists have proven themselves very agile combatants, very clear, and very harsh.

"New Zealand's SAS brings a capability to stop the terrorists from taking the kind of actions that have been disrupting Afghanistan."
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Afghan forces kill 4 insurgents in west
KABUL, August 16 (Xinhua) -- Afghan forces in conjunction with the NATO-led international troops have killed four Taliban insurgents in Herat province west of Afghanistan, provincial police spokesman Noor Khan Nikzad said Sunday.

"The ongoing operation, launched Saturday evening, so far left four rebels dead," Nikzad told Xinhua.

Among the killed insurgents, there is a son of a local Taliban commander Ghulam Yahha, he added

However, Taliban militants have yet to make comment.

Taliban militants, who vowed to derail the coming August 20 presidential election in the post-Taliban land, have intensified their activities against the Afghan government and international troops.  
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Canada hands off part of Kandahar province to U.S.
By Drew Brown, Stars and Stripes Mideast edition, Monday, August 17, 2009
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canada has handed over about half of its battle space in southern Afghanistan’s Kandahar province to newly arrived U.S. soldiers, allowing Canadian forces to concentrate on counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts in the provincial capital, according to a senior officer.

The move also effectively doubles the size of NATO-led combat forces within Kandahar province, birthplace of the Taliban movement, from two to four battalions, although they will operate under separate U.S. and Canadian commands.

The transfer of responsibility to soldiers of the U.S. 5th Stryker Brigade includes Spin Boldak district — site of an important border crossing with Pakistan — and the districts of Arghandab, Shah Wali Kot, and Kakrez, north of the city of Kandahar, said Lt. Col. Mike Patrick, chief of operations for Canada-led Task Force Kandahar.

The soldiers are among the 21,000 additional American forces that President Barack Obama ordered to Afghanistan earlier this year to combat the burgeoning Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan.

The deployment puts two battalions from the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based brigade into areas that were previously held by much smaller Canadian forces.

"What the American forces represent is the ability to cover off on the population at large inside Kandahar province," said Patrick. "They’ve filled in some places where we weren’t."

Other battalions with the 5th Stryker Brigade are deploying into neighboring Zabul province, said Col. Harry Tunnell IV, the brigade commander.

With the deployment into Zabul province, the 5th Stryker Brigade will essentially close a vital gap between U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan’s Paktika province and Kandahar province in the south. Until now, Zabul province has been only lightly garrisoned by international troops.

The 5th Stryker Brigade is equipped with the Army’s latest generation of battlefield sensor technologies and networked communications systems, which will allow the U.S. forces to "operate over large distances with full situational awareness," Patrick said.

"So, they’re almost tailor-made to take that ground that we weren’t on in force, and that we were servicing on a nonregular basis," he said. "That’s effectively allowed us to concentrate … inside of an [area of operations] wherein we’ve achieved a better ratio of security versus the population."

"They can cover a vast amount of territory with the equipment they bring to the table," he said.

The area that the Canadian-led task force will now focus on includes the city of Kandahar plus the districts of Maiwand, Ghorak, Zhari, Panjwayi, Dand and Daman, located to the west and south of the provincial capital. These areas include about 80 percent of the province’s population, Patrick said.

An estimated 914,000 people live in Kandahar province, but only about 324,000 live within the city itself, according to figures from the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif. About 590,000 people live in rural districts, the program estimates.

Most of these districts are clustered around the provincial capital.

From 2005 until last year, Canadian soldiers held Kandahar largely on their own. But with only 2,800 soldiers in its task force — and with the actual size of the fighting force much smaller than that — commanders were faced with tough choices on where to deploy their troops.

"Fully 10 of the districts (out of 17 total) were not covered by us in force," said Patrick. "We could not provide that persistent force that was necessary."

The districts where the Stryker battalions will operate are not as heavily populated, but they cover the majority of the province, and they include unguarded corridors that insurgents are presumed to use for the transport of fighters, weapons and drugs.

"We need to squelch the insurgency with coverage," Patrick said. "That’s what it comes down to."

With its soldiers engaged in some of the heaviest fighting in southern Afghanistan, Canada threatened to pull its forces out of Afghanistan unless NATO allies contributed more troops.

Last summer, U.S. soldiers with the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Infantry Regiment from Fort Hood, Texas, were slated to deploy to eastern Afghanistan, but were sent instead to Maiwand district in western Kandahar province, where they came under Canadian command.

In June, those soldiers were replaced by the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, also from Fort Hood. Those troops will remain part of the Canadian task force, Patrick said.

But even as U.S. and Canadian forces are working more closely together in Afghanistan than ever before, support for the war remains uneven with Canadian voters, and Canada’s government has committed to pulling its troops from Kandahar province in 2011.
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Kandahar dreamers test Taliban edicts
By M Ilyas Khan BBC News, Kandahar, Afghanistan Sunday, 16 August 2009
Nearly everyone who lives in Kandahar city, the capital of Afghanistan's southern province by the same name, has acquaintances among the local Taliban militants.

Fazal Ahmad Anis is one of them.

"We are all people from the same area, and Taliban also have good intelligence inside the city, so they know who's who," he says.

Mr Anis has been hosting music shows for two Kandahar-based television stations for some time, and is now setting up the city's first audio-visual studios where television plays would be produced.

Taliban consider music and television viewing as un-Islamic, and have often spoken to him by telephone about his plans, without overtly threatening him.

"Their message is clear, though, that I should give up my plans, but producing television dramas has been my dream since I was living in the Pakistani city of Quetta as a refugee," he says.

Wry smile

Kandahar, once a major centre of arts and culture in Afghanistan, has many dreamers like Mr Anis.

In the soothing, air-conditioned atmosphere of Kandahar Coffee Shop - a trendy café with a small library and a billiards parlour - a group of old and young people sit quietly around a table, watching two of them play a game of chess.

One of the players is Naimatullah Zalmay, the head of Kandahar's chess players' association.

He has been playing chess for 35 years, he says, and is among the 14-member national chess team recently selected to play in international competitions.

But like music and TV, chess is also considered un-Islamic by the Taliban and the country's powerful conservative clerics.

When I ask him if he feels threatened by the Taliban, he gives me a wry smile.

"The Taliban's position on the issue is well known, but what do you do when a high official close to our democratic president opposes our request for funds on grounds that we are indulging in un-Islamic activities?"

He doesn't name names, but one of his colleagues later tells me he was referring to Fazl Hadi Shinwari, chief justice of Afghanistan until August 2006 and still considered close to President Hamid Karzai.

Dejection and fear

During the seven years of Mr Karzai's rule, Kandahar city has developed by leaps and bounds.

Multi-storey trade centres have appeared all over the place, roads and streets have been built, and most commercial streets now have wide, tiled pavements.

But patrols by the US and Canadian armoured cars frequently force civilian traffic off the road, creating dejection and fear among people.

A bomb-shaped "spy" balloon that hangs high over the city and is said to carry US surveillance cameras is a constant reminder that things outside the city are also not satisfactory.

The governor of Kandahar province, Tooryalai Wesa, admits that his government has not been able to break the Taliban stranglehold in some parts of the province.

In some cases, these "lawless" areas extend to within 5 or 6 km of the city.

The Taliban have comparatively greater freedom to operate in the provinces of Helmand to the west, Uruzgan to the north and Zabul to the northeast of Kandahar.

Together, the four provinces form the lawless south of Afghanistan.

For now, the most immediate target of the Taliban is to prevent people across this region from turning out to vote in presidential elections, due on 20 August.

If they succeed, it will dent the credibility of the election and may spiral into a political crisis for the government, analysts say.

But if they fail, then Kandaharis hope for greater stability in the future.

Awareness show

And many are willing to have close brushes with the Taliban to achieve this.

Abdullah Abdali, a television actor, has been doing government-sponsored stage shows for public awareness in some of the most dangerous corners of the south.

Last year he went to Uruzgan to act in a play on drugs awareness.

"Going there was no problem, but once we had appeared on the stage, we felt exposed and did not feel safe to return to Kandahar by road," he says.

"We waited there three days for a US forces convoy to roll out to Kandahar, and followed it."

Early this month, he did a six-day election awareness show in Qalat, the capital of Zabul, and again took safety precautions on the return journey.

"We told our hosts - the district election commission - that we were staying the night and would leave for Kandahar the next day. Then we went out, quietly jumped into our van and left. You never know who will inform the Taliban that we are coming."
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Signs of Taliban rift hearten Pakistan, U.S
By Kamran Haider And Adam Entous – Sun Aug 16, 10:25 am ET
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. and Pakistani officials meeting on Sunday said they were heartened by signs of a rift between Pakistani Taliban factions after the apparent death of militant leader Baitullah Mehsud.

Mehsud was the overall head of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a loose confederation of 13 factions. He is believed to have been killed in a U.S. missile strike on August 5.

"I can say that since Baitullah Mehsud, there's confusion, there's disarray and there's a lot of reports of infighting within the TTP," Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told a joint news conference with Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Before arriving in Islamabad late on Saturday, Holbrooke told reporters traveling with him; "Baitullah Mehsud is gone and it looks like there is a struggle for succession among his commanders."

On Saturday night, fighters from a rival, less anti-government faction, led by Maulvi Nazir Wazir, were ambushed and 17 were killed.

An intelligence official and a spokesman for Maulvi Nazir's group blamed the Mehsud group.

"They were hiding behind the rocks and as soon as our people reached there, they opened fire. It was so sudden and quick that none of our men fired back," Shaheen Wazir, Nazir's spokesman, told Reuters by telephone.

A spokesman for the Mehsud group denied responsibility.

Taliban officials have also denied Mehsud is dead, without offering proof that he is alive.

Earlier in the day, a Pakistani air strike killed 16 Mehsud fighters and wounded 32, according to intelligence officials in the area. A spokesman for Mehsud's group, Azam Tariq, said only civilians were killed in the air strike.

"The Pakistani government is following U.S. policies and killing our people but we won't spare them. We'll take revenge," Tariq told Reuters.

DEMORALISE AND DIVIDE
Analysts say the government will be maximizing any opportunity to demoralize the Taliban and to create splits in their ranks.

It is difficult to judge the validity of claims and counter claims by the government or militants as the Waziristan region is closed off to outsiders.

Inter-tribal rivalry, and the Pakistani security agency's tactics of playing off one group against another, has created a fluid situation, where alliances can shift quickly.

While Mehsud's main focus was on fighting the Pakistani government and security forces, Maulvi Nazir's group has been heavily involved in the insurgency in Afghanistan.

Western governments with troops fighting in Afghanistan hope Pakistan will clear out Taliban and al Qaeda sanctuaries in the tribal lands.

For the past two months, Pakistani forces have bottled up Mehsud fighters in their tribal lands in South Waziristan, a rugged region on the border with Afghanistan.

While an assault on the militants' mountainous redoubt hasn't happened yet, Pakistani warplanes have attacked Taliban positions and U.S. drone aircraft have launched several missile strikes like the one that killed Mehsud.

Some U.S. officials are concerned that Pakistan could lose momentum if it waits too long to act in Waziristan, though Holbrooke didn't express any of those worries.

"We're very impressed with their success so far and we're glad to see progress that has been made but we're not going to come here and give tactical advice to the Pakistan army," Holbrooke told the news conference.

The Pakistan military is wary of becoming over-stretched, with forces still mopping up in Swat, having retaken the valley, just 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Islamabad, from the Taliban in a campaign that began more than 3 months ago.

(Additional Reporting by Alamgir Bitani; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
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China-built hospital inaugurated in Afghan capital
KABUL, Aug. 16 (Xinhua) -- Shafakhanai Jamhuriat or Republic Hospital, constructed with financial support from China, was formally inaugurated Sunday, said a statement released by the Public Health Ministry.

Inaugurated jointly by President Hamid Karzai, Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan Zheng Qingdian, Afghan Minister for Public Health Mohammad Amin Fatimi, the 350-bed hospital bore 25 million U.S. dollars provided by China, the statement added.

"With this huge support to the health system of Afghanistan, the People's Republic of China has played a very crucial role in the enhancement of service delivery in the areas of secondary and tertiary health care" said Dr. S.M. Amin Fatimie, the Minister of Public Health of Afghanistan.

The new hospital could be the most equipped hospital in the post-Taliban country.

China has contributed more than 175 million U.S. dollars in the reconstruction process of the post-Taliban Afghanistan since 2002.
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