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Security worries loom over Afghan runoff

Afghanistan will hardly have enough time to provide full security during a presidential election runoff in November, a senior official said on Thursday.
/ Source: Reuters

Afghanistan will hardly have enough time to provide full security during a presidential election runoff in November, a senior official said on Thursday as preparations for the second round entered full swing.

With violence in Afghanistan at its worst levels in eight years of war, the runoff poll comes as President Barack Obama weighs whether to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan to battle a resurgent Taliban.

Afghanistan also faces a logistical nightmare ahead of the Nov. 7 vote that pits incumbent Hamid Karzai against Abdullah Abdullah, his main challenger and a former foreign minister, with the harsh winter closing in fast.

Karzai agreed to the runoff this week after a U.N.-led fraud inquiry invalidated enough of his votes from the August 20 first round to push him below 50 percent and trigger the second round under Afghan electoral law.

Concerns about security and a repeat of the fraud that tainted the first round have already cast a large shadow after weeks of political uncertainty.

Daoud Ali Najafi, chief electoral officer of the government-appointed Independent Election Commission (IEC), said he was worried security forces would have enough time to make the thousands of polling stations safe for voters.

"I don't think they are able to secure (polling centers) in time for the second round. Security is really a big concern for us," Najafi said.

A string of attacks around the country during the first round kept many people away from polling stations even though the Taliban, who had vowed to disrupt the election, were not able to derail the vote completely.

Urgent steps
The coming onset of winter, which makes large parts of the mountainous country inaccessible, is also a big worry.

The International Republican Institute, whose observers monitored the August vote, urged Afghanistan and its foreign backers to take urgent steps to resolve security and other concerns.

"Afghanistan faces a number of challenges in preparing for and holding a runoff election," it said in a statement.

Najafi said he had held meetings with NATO and Afghanistan's defense and interior ministries and had submitted a list of polling centers which needed to be secured before polling day.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan, which provides assistance with elections, has started distributing ballot materials around the country. It has already said many district officials would be replaced as part of efforts to prevent fraud.

The IEC has also vowed to prosecute anyone suspected of having committed fraud.

For the West, the election is a key element in efforts to stabilize Afghanistan and deny sanctuary to militants believed to have used it as a base for the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

In Bratislava, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged member states to step up their efforts to train and equip Afghan forces, warning that inaction would have serious consequences.

NATO, like Washington, eventually wants Afghan security to take over defense tasks, a mission Rasmussen said was vital for the security of the region.

The poll also poses a logistical challenge in the mountainous nation where election officials have to rely on U.N. planes, trucks and donkeys to deliver ballots to far flung locations.

As preparations unfolded, a military helicopter crashed in northern Afghanistan, causing casualties, a senior intelligence official said.

It was not yet clear whether the aircraft was Afghan or foreign.