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Afghanistan Prepares For Parliamentary and Provincial Elections


As Afghanistan prepares for parliamentary and provincial elections in September, violence there is escalating -- something experts and U.S. officials say is to be expected. Taleban militants have attacked polling places and at least three election workers have been killed in the past month. Attacks against American forces are also on the rise. At least 19 U.S. troops have been killed in recent weeks. Last week, the U.S. Defense Department announced it was sending an Army airborne infantry battalion to Afghanistan.

Sixteen U.S. commandos were killed when suspected rebels in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan shot down their helicopter on June 28th. Three other U.S. servicemen were found dead in the same area. Not long afterwards, the U.S. announced it was sending at least 700 more troops into Afghanistan, to fight against terrorism and to shore up security before the country's September parliamentary elections.

The Commander of U.S. Central Command, General John Abizaid, requested the additional troops, as he has before other elections in both Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Defense Department Spokesman Lawrence DiRita. "At this moment he thinks he wants a little bit of a plus-up during the election cycle, and we did it through normal rotation adjustments in Iraq in January, and we did it in Afghanistan last year in December. So it's consistent with the pattern that he'd established."

General Richard Myers, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff called the recent loss of 19 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, a tragedy. He also said there are still remnants of the Taleban in Afghanistan, which will try to disrupt the upcoming elections. "My guess is the impact on the parliamentary and provincial elections in Afghanistan will be virtually nil. It'll be like last time. They'll [the elections] be successful and we'll have a parliament in Afghanistan and progress will continue in that country," he said.

Some experts do not see it that way. One of them, Marvin Weinbaum, a Scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. says the Taleban has been quiet for some time, but now may be trying regain some of its influence.

"The presidential elections last October saw very little activity by the Taleban and they were sort of written off as a result of that. I think the feeling is now that they want to reassert themselves. And so it's that, but their larger agenda is to, again, weaken confidence in central government and the international community."

Dr. Weinbaum also says even if the elections go as smoothly as last year's presidential elections, there is real concern about whether the new legislatures will even be able to function, in part because there are no central political parties and President Hamid Karzai has not built a political base. He says another fear is that if the national parliament is paralyzed, it could fall into the hands of still influential warlords and others.

Their primary source of power and money, the illegal poppy trade, still draws Afghans. "It's still a very difficult life for most people. Of course it has driven many of the people in the agricultural area to the growing of poppy, which has improved their situation, but at the same time this is an area where the Karzai government is endeavoring to deny them this kind of livelihood. And of course, the international community has been pushing the Kabul government in this direction as well."

He says everyone agrees, in the long run, Afghanistan cannot tolerate an economy driven by illegal drugs. But, he cautions, the eradication process must be very carefully planned, otherwise it, too, could destabilize the government.

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