As campaigning ended yesterday for elections that
could determine both the future of Afghanistan and the role of British
troops there, the outcome threatened to hang on the impact of renewed
Taliban intimidation and the return to the fray of a former warlord,
notorious for savage acts of brutality and violence.
The Taliban warned that anyone whose fingers were stained with indelible ink,
the tell-tale sign of having voted, risked having their digits chopped off.
Hundreds of letters have also been sent out in the old Taliban capital
Kandahar, warning people to stay away from the polling stations or face a
wave of suicide attacks and "new" unspecified tactics.
But on the side of President Hamid Karzai, the pro-Western incumbent, there
are equally worrying signs. The return of General Rashid Dostum, a
politically treacherous ex-warlord, has heightened fears of yet another
vicious cycle of bloodshed and lawlessness. Forced to flee Afghanistan last
year after claims that he brutalised a political rival, General Dostum is –
to the horror of Western diplomats – now emerging as a key player who could
be instrumental in delivering an election victory for the President
Best known for allegedly overseeing a massacre of 2,000 Taliban prisoners
following the US-led invasion in 2001, General Dostum controlled large
swaths of northern Afghanistan for years. He remains the de facto leader of
the country's ethnic Uzbeks and his return is likely to consolidate their
vote behind Mr Karzai. But the warlord's triumphant return from Turkey on
Sunday has exposed Mr Karzai to renewed accusations that even if he wins the
election he will remain in hock to thugs and human rights abusers.
At least 204 British troops have died trying to defend Afghanistan's
government from the threat of the Taliban, but Western diplomats fear the
patchwork of alleged war criminals in a future administration will make it
nigh on impossible for Nato troops to garner support for the Kabul
President Karzai, who has made a series of backroom deals with unsavoury
mujahedin leaders to secure the votes they control, gave General Dostum
carte blanche to return last week, in exchange for his support. General
Dostum is said to have once strapped a soldier accused of theft to the
tracks of a tank and driven him around until the man's body was reduced to
The US embassy issued a statement expressing "serious concerns"
about General Dostum's role in today's Afghanistan. President Barack Obama
last month warned that the US may investigate the massacre of the Taliban
prisoners, locked in sea containers and baked in the desert, in the wake of
the US-led invasion in 2001 which is blamed on the warlord.
Opinion polls are still putting President Karzai in front with around 45 per
cent of the vote, but unless he wins 51 per cent in the first round, there
will be a run-off with his closest challenger, likely to be his former
foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Mr Karzai's chief critic over human
rights abuses is the third-placed candidate, Ramazan Bashar Dost. The
French-educated philosopher said: "It is time for the international
community to see that it is not acceptable that war criminals stay in power."
Voter turnout in the Pashtun south and east of the country will be critical in
deciding the outcome of Thursday's poll. In 2004, President Karzai swept to
power with 80 per cent of the Pashtun vote. In places like Helmand and
Kandahar, he claimed up to 90 per cent. But it is here, where the Taliban
now hold sway, that the new threats of intimidation might be most effective.
And even among those who do turn out to vote, Mr Karzai is unlikely to enjoy
such strong support now. "In the rural areas people won't be able to
vote at all," said Naqib, a 26-year-old working for a Western company
in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. "In Lashkar Gah it's
safer. Most people will vote for Karzai."
Even Kabul is not immune from Taliban violence. On Saturday a suicide bomber
killed seven people and injured more than 90, outside Nato's headquarters in
The question of how long British troops will have to remain in Afghanistan
remains contentious meanwhile, after the next head of the Army, General Sir
David Richards denied yesterday that there was a split with Defence
Secretary Bob Ainsworth. General Richards stressed that when he had stated
that the UK may be involved in Afghanistan for up to 40 years he was talking
about the time international help was needed, and not the duration of
British military presence.
But last night the current head of the Army demanded more equipment to tackle
the home-made bombs which have proved deadly in Afghanistan. General Sir
Richard Dannatt said countering improvised explosive devices was a "major
tactical battle that we have got to win" and called for increased
levels of surveillance to locate the bombs and the insurgents laying them.
He added that any increase in the amount of troops would have to be matched
by more kit to ensure they are appropriately equipped.
Ninety-four members of the British forces were wounded in action in
Afghanistan last month – just over double the number of casualties in June.
Mr Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, enjoys strong support in the
north, where security is better and voter turnout is likely to be much
higher. Low turnout in the south could help him to victory, or force Mr
Karzai into a second-round run-off, if he fails to get the crucial 51 per
The President's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, announced last week that he had
brokered a series of local ceasefires across the south to let people vote.