The Australian military officer responsible for the international effort to help provide security for Thursday's Afghan presidential election says he is concerned about the potential for insurgent attacks on polling stations, but he believes Afghan and international security forces have prepared well to keep violence to a minimum. The officer spoke via satellite from Kabul to reporters at the Pentagon.
Brigadier General Damian Cantwell says Afghan, NATO and other international forces have been rehearsing their election security plan, and acting out various potential scenarios.
"We're never quite sure what the enemy will do, but we do have a series of solid plans in place," said General Cantwell.
General Cantwell says Afghan police will be in and around the 6,500 polling stations, Afghan soldiers will man an outer perimeter and ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, will be nearby to help if needed. But officials acknowledge attacks by the Taliban and affiliated groups have increased this week to nearly 50 per day nationwide, on average. General Cantwell acknowledges that is a cause for concern.
"The threat itself might be manifested in its most dangerous form in those sorts of tactics we've seen in suicide bombing in populated areas," he said. "And therefore we're doing everything we can to mitigate against those risks."
The general says the Afghan government and the insurgents are battling for the minds of the Afghan people, with the government trying to instill confidence and convince people to vote, and the insurgents trying to instill fear and keep the people at home on Election Day.
"Obviously those sorts of incidents that occurred today, tragically, and also last Saturday, will probably cause some citizens to have some concerns about moving forward and taking part in the election on the day," said Cantwell. "But this is a very hardy and resilient people. And they're quite used to hearing and seeing acts of violence. And they're quite used to seeing checkpoints and roadblocks in place. It's all understood to be part of the effort by the Afghan security partners to develop a sense of community confidence."
The general predicts that 85 to 90 per cent of Afghan voters should be able to go to the polls, with only those in Taliban-controlled areas missing out. He says election security is the top priority for international and Afghan forces, and they have decided not to engage in any offensive operations on Thursday in order to make all their forces available.
"The ministers and the senior officers in charge of the ANA [Afghan National Army] and ANP [Afghan National Police] really haven't left much in reserve, so to speak, and they are fully committed to the task that's set before them," he said.
General Cantwell says while Afghan forces have the lead for election security on the ground, ISAF will provide the ability to observe key areas from the air, and to respond quickly to any emergency. In all, officials say, nearly 300,000 security forces will be involved in the election operation.