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Officials in Afghanistan Say They Are Prepared for Election Violence

Millions of Afghans are expected at the polls Sunday to elect members to a new national parliament and provincial councils. But remnants of the ousted Taleban government have recently been stepping up violence in an attempt to disrupt the elections, and officials are warning of more to come. VOA's Patricia Nunan examines the security situation for the poll, which is intended to help bring an end to a quarter century of war.

An estimated 12 million Afghans are expected to make their way to more than 6,000 polling stations spread across the length and breadth of a Afghanistan's formidable landscape, which is marked by deserts, mountains and sheer isolation.

Those factors alone make the September 18 parliamentary and provincial elections a huge logistical undertaking, and perhaps an even larger problem to protect.

Members of the ousted Taleban regime have threatened to disrupt the voting with violence - threats that Afghan officials, the U.S.-led anti-insurgent coalition and NATO peacekeepers of the International Assistance Force, or ISAF, are taking very seriously.

"The Afghan national police and the Afghan national army will be the primary security. Police officers will be around the polling sites if they're needed, then the police can call on the Afghan national army to support security operations," said Lieutenant Cindy Moore, a coalition spokesperson. "Certainly NATO/ISAF as well as the coalition forces will be available."

There are about 21,000 coalition troops in the country, the vast majority of them American, and a separate force of about 11,000 NATO peacekeepers.

The NATO troops are currently deployed in the north of the country, although they are due to spread out more broadly in the coming months. The coalition's primary mission is to search Afghanistan's mountains and border areas for remnants of the Taleban and al-Qaida. Much of the rest of the country continues to be ruled by warlords.

The elections follow a presidential poll that took place largely peacefully last October.

This time, voters will be choosing the 249 members of Afghanistan's new national parliament and representatives to councils in each of the country's 34 provinces. It is another step on the complex path to forming a democratic government, and putting in place the rule of law that will help Afghanistan emerge finally from a quarter century of war.

The election has already been delayed twice, due in part to security concerns. Now there will be no more delays. Few if any senior Afghan or international official believes the election will be without violence, but Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali believes the situation will be manageable.

"The elections we believe will go smoothly and without significant disturbances. And the capacity of the enemies of Afghanistan is not at the level that they will disrupt the election," said Jalali.

An estimated 1,100 people have been killed in violent incidents so far this year, compared with 850 for the whole of 2004, and insurgent violence has escalated in the last couple of months as the election approached. Among those killed have been political candidates and election workers. Afghan and coalition forces have recently launched a series of military actions in response.

Some U.S. military personnel have warned of what they call "spectacular" attacks, such as the use of car bombs or suicide bombers on voting day.

But another senior official, U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann says fears of violence during the voting have been exaggerated by the media.

"Given all the violence that there has been in Afghanistan, I don't think it's all that violent. I think this is a foreign press term first of alI, I don't think it has much perspective," said Neumann. "I think there is violence. I think there may be a violent incident.

I do not think the violence will stop Afghans from going to the polls."

Others are less optimistic.

"People - the internationals perhaps believed their own propaganda too soon that the Taleban was dead, the Taleban's finished. The Taleban's not held to international deadlines," said Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group. "So just because it didn't do anything at the election last year doesn't mean it's dead. Just because it necessarily doesn't have a spectacular attack on this election doesn't mean it's dead. We see this as an on-going insurgency for many years to come."

Even if the elections come off smoothly, the threat of violence will remain. There are more than 5,000 candidates vying for the 249 seats in parliament. That means there will be thousands of losers - some of whom, it is feared, may not step aside gracefully.

Also, members of the provincial councils may find themselves at odds with provincial governors, who are appointed by the president - and some fear power struggles may turn confrontational.

It appears Afghanistan has not yet fully escaped the shadow of its bloody recent history. The question is not whether further violence will take place, it is how well this fledgling democracy will cope with it.