Report: Violence could delay Afghan elections
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Faltering security and rising Taliban violence throughout Afghanistan could delay elections planned for later this year and put the international mission here at risk of failure, according to a leading think tank.
In its annual publication, "The Military Balance," the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies warned that the war in Afghanistan is entering its most critical phase since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
But the western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai remains unable to extend its authority to outlying provinces, the group said Tuesday in a statement that accompanied its 2009 global military assessment.
"Against this background there is a risk that it will not be possible to hold elections, or voter turnout may below the minimum necessary for the ballot to be valid," said John Chipman, the group’s director-general. "The integrity of the whole international mission in Afghanistan is therefore very substantially at stake."
Presidential elections are to take place in the fall, with parliamentary elections in 2010.
More than 3.7 million people, including 1.2 million women, have registered to vote, according to figures published by the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan.
The final round of registration, which started last week in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz, is to wrap up next month.
No final date for the elections has been set because of the rising violence, particularly in the south and east, where the Taliban have strengthened significantly in recent years.
On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described Afghanistan as America’s "greatest military challenge right now."
"We have not had enough troops to provide a baseline level of security in some of the most dangerous areas — a vacuum that increasingly has been filled by the Taliban," Gates told Congress.
The think tank’s warning comes as President Barack Obama prepares to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, and as greater attention shifts to Afghanistan. The Pentagon is preparing to dispatch as many as 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to combat the rising violence.
Gates told Congress he expects the bulk of those forces to be in place by mid-summer, but he warned that additional bases need to be built.
About 51,000 soldiers from nearly 40 countries are in Afghanistan under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. The United States supplies the most troops, about 32,000, who operate mostly in the east along the border with Pakistan.
Last week, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called upon the organization’s member countries to contribute 10,000 extra troops for up to four months to help provide security during the elections.