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Afghan Province Now Hopeful of Participating in Presidential Polls

Afghan authorities plan to establish nearly 7,000 polling centers across the country for next month's presidential polls. Though Afghanistan's election commission is concerned over security at the polls, voters in the southern Helmand province are hopeful now that US and British military operations against the Taliban have been successful.

Last month, US Marines launched Operation Strike of the Sword in Afghanistan's volatile southern Helmand province to flush out the Taliban before this month's presidential election. And three weeks later, dozens of Afghan men lined up to register to vote.

The U.S. operation followed a similar push by the British operation called Panther's Claw. "I am very happy I'm able to register here and will be able to vote in the election. I hope there are no security problems here. I just want peace to vote for anyone who I decide," said Abdul Hakim, a resident of the village of Babaji in Helmand.

"Six months ago there was fighting here, there was no security. A lot of people fled the area," said 35-year-old Abdul Samad, another resident of the village.

The mud-brick Helmand village of Babaji and its surrounding farms and irrigation canals were long a safe haven for Taliban insurgents.

Hundreds of British soldiers faced stiff resistance as they advanced south towards Babaji and the Helmand River, a strategic and lush area north of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

July has become the deadliest month for foreign forces in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001. Twenty British soldiers and at least 35 US soldiers and marines were killed in July.

"But this election will take place on schedule. And Helmand will be able to participate thanks to this offensive that General Nicholson and his colleagues are directing," said President Obama's special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke.

Major Paddy Ginn, the British officer in charge of the area, sums up the situation in Helmand. "When the Taliban are here they support the Taliban, when we're here they're very friendly and supportive towards us. What we've got to do now is to tip them over the balance so they see that the long-term future, the long-term solution, is not with the Taliban but the long-term solution is with the governance of Afghanistan," he said.

Tony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says what is being done in Helmand may become a model for what the US and NATO forces want to do in Afghanistan. "We may not have the perfect approach to shape clear, hold and build in Helmand, but it is a major initiative against a very real enemy where we will hold and we will eventually build. We may not have the phasing right this time around, but at least there is a clear effort to get it right and a clear intention to fix it," he said.

Experts say if the Helmand experiment fails it will be a learning experience that can be fixed over time. They say if the Obama administration provides the resources, a timeframe of 12 to 18 months to make real progress is very realistic.