Afghans go the polls later this month in the country's second presidential election since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001. The biggest concern remains security as Taliban insurgents step up attacks aimed at disrupting the vote. Washington is hoping that the election will be credible enough to help turn around a flagging war effort in the country.
A Taliban attack on government buildings in a provincial capital Monday is another sign of the insurgents' determination to disrupt the upcoming election. Two policemen and three attackers died in the assault.
Officials say the escalating violence by the militants is aimed at discouraging voters from going to the polls. To ensure security, NATO troops and the Afghan army are carrying out operations against the Taliban, says NATO Brigadier General Eric Tremblay. "We will insure that security measures are in place to counter this threat," he says, "There's obviously other threats such as suicide bombers and so on."
But the international involvement has led some Afghans to question the legitimacy of the election. Some Afghans even believe foreign powers will choose the winner.
But Democrat John Kerry, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, dismissed this. "But really it's neutral and I think that's how it ought to be. So I view this like it is an Afghan election, by Afghans for Afghans," Kerry said.
However if the elections are not viewed as credible, Senator Kerry acknowledges there could be problems. "One could wind up with violence," he says, "You could wind up with an inability to govern."
Though increasingly unpopular, President Hamid Karzai is the front-runner in a field of about 40 candidates. His former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, appears to be mounting a strong challenge. Another leading contender is former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani.
While opinion polls show Mr. Karzai ahead, at least one survey shows he may not receive enough votes to avoid a runoff.
The Afghan leader has been criticized for being indecisive and ineffective. If he wins re-election, analysts such as Anthony Cordesman are pessimistic about Afghanistan's future.
"If he wins, it will be an election where people probably legitimately got to vote," Cordesman states, "but basically, his power brokering going out to people who are corrupt, self-seeking, to get blocks of votes, basically means that, will he have a legitimate election? No, he won't."
But the upcoming election is viewed differently by others. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry says it must be looked at with some perspective. "Afghanistan is the youngest democracy in the world. For older democracies, all of them say, when they look back at the first several elections, they were critical in institutionalizing democracies amongst their populations," he said.
Meanwhile, despite the obstacles, the candidates are continuing to campaign hard as the August 20 election approaches.