Richard Engel: Fatal Shooting Casts Shadow Over Afghan Vote

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News analysis from NBC Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel

Kabul — The journalists from the Associated Press were in the back of their car waiting for a convoy to move. Kathy Gannon, 60, a renowned Canadian writer for the AP, and award-winning German photographer Anja Niedringhaus, 48, were traveling with Afghan election officials as they delivered ballots to Khost province in eastern Afghanistan.

The convoy, protected by Afghan soldiers and police, stopped at a local district center. A police officer from the center walked up to the car where Gannon and Niedringhaus sat waiting in the back seat, shouted "Allahu Akbar" — God is great — and opened fire. Niedringhaus was killed instantly; Gannon was shot twice, but survived. The Afghan police officer dropped his weapon and surrendered to his colleagues.

The attack was a tragedy for the many journalists, including this one, who admire and respect Niedringhaus and Gannon. It also raises questions about the loyalty of U.S.-trained Afghan forces, U.S. troops and their ability to secure the Afghan elections on Saturday.

Turning Point for U.S. Troops

The elections are in many ways a turning point for Afghanistan and the 33,500 American troops who are still on U.S. bases in this country. President Hamid Karzai, in office since U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in 2001, is barred by term limits and not running for re-election. Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement that would allow American troops to remain in Afghanistan, as training after the combat mission ends this year.

The three leading candidates in the closely contested elections have all pledged to sign the agreement, but campaign pledges have been known to be broken. If the next Afghan president does sign the security agreement, several thousand American troops could stay in Afghanistan for years to come. The election will likely mean that America’s longest war won’t end in 2014, but it will become an extended training mission in a remote and dangerous country.

While many Americans would welcome the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, the White House and many at the Pentagon want to keep at least some American troops here for the foreseeable future. The troops are an insurance policy to try to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't collapse into civil war like Iraq. Keeping residual U.S. troops here would also allow the United States to continue its mostly covert war by Special Operations Forces and the CIA in remote parts of Pakistan. Those missions, usually only reported when something goes very wrong, are still being launched on a regular basis. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was launched from Afghanistan.

Fair Vote as Important as Winner

The government of Afghanistan has a chance to deliver a blow to its enemies simply by having a fair vote on Saturday. The Taliban and other militant groups fight — sometimes with Afghan support — because they claim the Afghan government is corrupt and was put into office in 2009 after an election that was blatantly fraudulent.

Unfortunately, the militants are correct. If the new vote is fair and the next government battles corruption, the Taliban will have a far harder time justifying why it puts bombs in the road and executes politicians, election volunteers and journalists. If, on the other hand, Saturday's vote is another scam, Afghanistan could see a sharp rise in violence, perhaps worse than any this country has seen in a decade. The leading candidates and their supporters, often divided on ethnic lines, could end up fighting each other with words and guns. Another bogus vote would give the Taliban a credible motivation to keep fighting: Afghans would start fighting Afghans and Americans might be stuck in the middle.

A corrupt election would be a disaster. Friday’s attack on the reporters from the AP casts many doubts on the Afghan security forces. They are supposed to be securing the polling stations; if they can’t be trusted and can’t secure the vote, this country could have a rocky future ahead.