Afghan poll official ambushed, UN sees challenges
The United Nations' Afghan envoy described next month's election as the most complicated ever, as another attack on an election official on Tuesday underscored the challenges as the war-torn country prepares to vote, Reuters reported.
"I emphasise that these are the most complicated elections I have seen," U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide told reporters as he visited a Kabul warehouse where the Afghan election commission is finalising preparations for the poll.
"I mentioned to you how inaccessible the country is, how challenging the whole logistical operation is, and also the fact that the country is a country in conflict." he said.
Away from the capital, Abdullah Abdullah, one of the leading challengers to President Hamid Karzai, said one of his local campaign officials had been shot and wounded and a bodyguard killed in Afghanistan's volatile east.
It was the third attack on a candidate or campaign official in six days. On Sunday, Karzai's senior vice-presidential running mate Mohammad Qasim Fahim escaped unhurt from a Taliban ambush, just as another minor candidate had last week. [ID:nSP411867]
Abdullah, once a close aide to widely revered Tajik guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Masood, said campaign official Mohammad Ismael was in hospital but his injuries were not life-threatening.
He said he did not think the ambush, which happened as Ismael drove to meet supporters in Laghman province, was the work of the Taliban but gave few other details.
"Security is a concern. This is the third time that our people have come under attack. We hope the government will investigate it but it doesn't seem like it's from the Taliban," Abdullah told a small group of reporters in Panjshir province.
The election, the second in Afghanistan's short history as a democracy, is being held amid increased violence, with thousands of U.S. Marines and British troops launching major operations in southern Helmand early this month, sparking a Taliban backlash. [ID:nLR336228]
Attacks across Afghanistan this year had already reached their worst level since the Taliban's austere Islamist government was ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces -- led by Fahim -- in 2001 and have escalated since the Helmand offensive began.
The Helmand operations are the first under U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its Islamist allies and stabilise Afghanistan. Thousands of extra troops are being poured in, in part to secure the elections.
The number of U.S. and NATO troops in the country has reached 101,000, according to the Pentagon. U.S. troop levels will rise from the current 62,000 to about 68,000 by year's end, more than double the 32,000 at the end of 2008.
Britain is the second largest contributor with 9,000 troops, but mounting casualties during the latest offensive is straining British public opinion.
On a visit to Washington, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband did not respond directly when asked in an interview whether more British troops would be heading to Afghanistan.
"I think that depends on the situation on the ground and the burden-sharing among the allies, because this is a 42-country effort. It's important that all countries play their appropriate part." Miliband said on the PBS program "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
He said the increased security for the Aug. 20 elections was crucial because "credible government is critical for the political and military drive forward in Afghanistan."
EU election monitors and respected think tank the International Crisis Group have already expressed concerns over security, the Brussels-based ICG warning last month that poor security could result in widespread voting fraud.
U.N. envoy Eide said: "The aim is to make as much of the country as secure as possible for elections to take place."
He praised the work of election officials who face the difficult task of organising a poll in a country of vast deserts, and high, craggy mountains and lush valleys. [ID:nSP484425]
Afghanistan's 17 million-odd eligible voters will cast their ballots in some 7,000 voting centres or 28,500 smaller voting stations across Afghanistan's 34 provinces and 356 districts.
A fleet of 3,500 trucks will carry voting materials to the polling stations, as well as 3,000 donkeys "to get people to the most remote areas," Eide said.
Karzai is a clear front-runner ahead of a field of 38 challengers led by Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani -- a former finance minister and high-ranking World Bank official.
"It has not been perfect but it has been a good and informative campaign so far," Eide said. "I think it's been a quite vibrant debate where the candidates have, as we urged them to, behaved with dignity."