As the US commander warns that the Taliban have seized the initiative and expanded their reach, a presidential election whose outcome recently appeared a foregone conclusion has suddenly turned into a real contest. The incumbent, President Hamid Karzai now faces a growing challenge from Abdullah Abdullah, comrade of the lengendary guerilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.
Taliban on the advance as Afghan elections approach
After Britain's incoming army chief warned that the UK will be commited to Afghanistan "for the next 30 to 40 years," the newly arrived US commander in Kabul, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has said that the Taliban are on the advance. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal: "Gen McChrystal said the Taliban are moving beyond their traditional strongholds in southern Afghanistan to threaten formerly stable areas in the north and west. The militants are mounting sophisticated attacks that combine roadside bombs with ambushes by small teams of heavily armed militants, causing significant numbers of US fatalities, he said. July was the bloodiest month of the war for American and British forces, and 12 more American troops have already been killed in August. " 'It's a very aggressive enemy right now,' Gen McChrystal said in the interview Saturday at his office in a fortified Nato compound in Kabul. 'We've got to stop their momentum, stop their initiative. It's hard work.' " In The Times, the military analyst, Anthony Cordesman, wrote: "In Afghanistan Nato/ISAF faces challenges that go far beyond the normal limits of counter-insurgency and military strategy. It must carry out the equivalent of armed nation building, and simultaneously defeat the Taliban and al Qa'eda. It must change its strategy and tactics after years in which member countries, particularly the United States, failed to react to the seriousness of the emerging insurgency. The nations of the alliance lacked a unity of purpose, failed to provide enough troops and placed serious national caveats and limits on their use. They let the enemy take the initiative for more than half a decade. "The result is that the Taliban have been winning the war for control of Afghanistan's territory and population while Nato/ISAF has focused on the tactical and combat aspects. The insurgents may have lost virtually every military clash, but they have expanded their areas of influence from 30 of Afghanistan's 364 districts in 2003 to some 160 districts by the end of 2008, while insurgent attacks increased by 60 per cent between October 2008 and April 2009 alone." The New York Times, reporting from Logar, the province immediately south of Kabul said: "Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers seized a five-story building in an attack on this provincial capital on Monday and battled Afghan and American forces in the town for several hours, leaving at least four dead. "Violence is escalating throughout the country before Afghanistan's national elections on August 20, and more international forces have been deployed to expand security. The Taliban have warned people not to vote and have said they will seek to disrupt the election. "As fighting took place here in Pul-e-Alam, the capital of Logar Province, President Hamid Karzai was introducing his election manifesto in Kabul, an hour's drive to the north. Surrounded by ministers and supporters, including former governors and police officials, Mr Karzai said that if he were re-elected, his priority would be bringing peace and security to the country; he promised to more than double the strength of the Afghan police and army forces by the end of his second term." Mr Karzai's closest rival in the presidential race is Abdullah Abdullah, who was Afghanistan's foreign minister until 2006 and was a comrade of the lengendary guerilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as the "Lion of Panshir". Reporting for The National, Hamida Ghafour said: "Abdullah, 48, dressed in a crisp suit and tie, announced his candidacy in May. Not much was heard from him at first, but suddenly he is everywhere: on the television, radio, his saturnine face plastered on posters all over Kabul. "He is currently criss-crossing the country - at least those parts in which he is less likely to be killed by Taliban insurgents - to persuade the electorate to tick his name on the ballot on August 20. Those who cannot read, and only 28 per cent of the population are literate, can mark the trio of pots that is his personal emblem. " 'Give me power so I can return power to you,' is one his slogans and the touches of populism resonate with a people struggling with the daily crush of life. "It hasn't been an easy campaign. One of Abdullah's aides was murdered and two campaign offices blown up, but violence is unlikely to deter a veteran of the Soviet jihad." At Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Abubakar Siddique said: "Abdullah is promising political transformation, the crux of which is to change Afghanistan's five-year-old presidential form of government to a parliamentary one led by a prime minister answerable to the parliament. He wants to devolve power to the local level with elected governors, mayors, and local administrators. "Although Afghanistan's political elite compromised on the issue after heated debate during a Loya Jirga in 2004, Abdullah suggests that apart from the United States, presidential systems have not succeeded. " 'When you see a presidential system, it has led to autocracy. And unfortunately, what's happening today is that distance between the people and the government, which is growing - the government which is not accountable to the people,' he says." In an election in which the winning candidate needs more than 50 per cent of the votes in order to avoid a runoff election in early October, Jean MacKenzie wrote in Foreign Policy: "Abdullah may well amass enough votes to spoil Karzai's immediate victory, but he is unlikely to squeak into the presidential palace without some help from the third-most powerful candidate, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. "Ghani is a brilliant and temperamental former finance minister, credited with getting Afghanistan back on its feet immediately after the collapse of the Taliban regime. It wasn't easy: He had to contend with empty coffers, several competing currencies, and an international community in favor of temporarily dollarizing the economy. Ghani managed to create a stable monetary system, and set the stage for investment and development, but quit abruptly in 2004 over disagreements with Karzai. "Ghani has the advantage of being Pashtun in a country where the majority of the electorate comes from that ethnic group. Abdullah claims a Pashtun father, but is more closely associated with the Tajiks. "Also, Ghani is one of the few leading contenders whose hands are not stained with blood from the tumultuous civil war period, in the mid-1990s. He left Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, and spent 24 years accumulating advanced degrees and prestigious jobs in the United States. He has a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia, has done stints in the World Bank, and was reportedly in the running to replace Kofi Annan as secretary-general of the United Nations. "He is running a distant third, if the one even remotely credible poll, conducted in May by the International Republican Institute, is to be believed. But Ghani's brilliance was on prominent display in a televised debate with Abdullah last month, watched by an estimated 10 million Afghans. It did Karzai little good when he backed out at the last minute, especially when the sponsors opted to leave the president's empty podium on center stage. Ghani is campaigning vigorously, and insists that he can win. This is highly unlikely, but he could provide Abdullah with some much-needed gravitas."