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As Afghan runoff campaign opens, Taliban again threatens voters

The August election brought weeks of violence. Now the Taliban warns there will more of the same. Meanwhile, President Karzai's rival, Abdullah Abdullah, calls for election officials to be ousted.

October 25, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Afghanistan's runoff presidential campaign formally opened Saturday with an ominous repeat from the first round: Taliban threats to disrupt the vote.

"If anyone finds themselves injured taking part in this dirty process, they have only themselves to blame," the insurgent movement said in a statement posted on its Pashto-language website. It also denounced the election two weeks from now as a foreign-orchestrated sham.

The original Aug. 20 balloting, Afghanistan's second-ever direct presidential election, was marked by violence, mainly scattered on voting day itself but preceded by several weeks of concerted attacks, including major bombings in Kabul, the capital.

Neither of the two leading candidates won the 50% plus 1 majority needed to win the first round outright. After two months of wrangling over allegations of massive vote-rigging, the runoff between President Hamid Karzai and his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, was set for Nov. 7.

As the abbreviated race kicked off Saturday, Abdullah's campaign called for the firing of a trio of senior Afghan election officials whom it blamed for allowing widespread fraud to occur. About 1 million ballots originally tallied for Karzai, and smaller numbers for Abdullah and dozens of other candidates, were tossed out last week by international fraud auditors.

A senior Abdullah aide, Fazal Sancharaki, said the three top officials of the Independent Election Commission, widely considered loyal to Karzai, should step aside.

A commission spokesman, Noor Mohammed Noor, rejected the demand. "Let them bring some evidence of wrongdoing," he said.

Karzai aides, meanwhile, expressed confidence that the president would emerge victorious but suggested that he would do little in the way of campaigning.

"We won't be having big rallies, because both candidates had enough time for that in the first round," said Wahid Omar, a spokesman for the Karzai campaign.

That is in keeping with the previous pattern. Over the summer, the Afghan leader for the most part remained cloistered in his presidential palace, while Abdullah barnstormed across the country.

Abdullah pulled in large crowds at his rallies, but Karzai drew on long-standing tribal and political alliances -- Afghanistan's version of machine politics. Even the fraud-adjusted tally gave him a wide lead of about 18 percentage points.

Afghan authorities and Western military officials have pledged to do all they can to safeguard the runoff vote. Clashes between allied troops and insurgents were heavier at the time of the original balloting, which came at the height of the traditional summer "fighting season," but occasional confrontations are still occurring.

As during the previous vote, the country's south and east are considered the most dangerous. Relatively few people turned out in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where U.S. and British forces staged major offensives over the summer. Turnout was also low in the insurgency-plagued east of Afghanistan, which borders Pakistan's tribal areas.

The drawn-out political crisis has complicated decision-making in Washington over whether to deploy more U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Karzai agreed under intense U.S. pressure to go ahead with the runoff; without that accord, the country could have remained in political limbo for months, because holding a vote during Afghanistan's harsh winter is a logistical impossibility.

If the vote goes ahead as scheduled, it will come shortly before the onset of winter, when snow blocks the mountain passes and large swaths of countryside are virtually cut off from the outside world. As it is, some remote districts are accessible only by primitive pathways; donkeys will carry ballots to and fro.

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laura.king@latimes.com

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