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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Afghanistan delays vote in Kandahar after killing of commander

The assassination dealt a stunning blow to the western-backed government

Austin Scott Miller (L), the US commander of Nato's Resolute Support Mission in the country, attends a meeting in which a Taliban militants opened fire and killed General Abdul Razzaq Dawood. EPA
Austin Scott Miller (L), the US commander of Nato's Resolute Support Mission in the country, attends a meeting in which a Taliban militants opened fire and killed General Abdul Razzaq Dawood. EPA

Saturday's parliamentary election in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar is to be delayed by a week after the killing of one of the country's most powerful security chiefs dealt a stunning blow to the Western-backed government.

A powerful security official and the local intelligence chief were killed in an insider attack shortly after meeting the top US commander in Afghanistan on Thursday, in an attack likely to shake the confidence of the government ahead of elections. The Kandahar governor Zalmai Wessa, was wounded in the attack.

Kandahar police chief General Abdul Raziq and the local head of the National Directorate of Security Abdul Momin were killed when a member of the provincial governor's elite guards turned his gun on his colleagues and American troops who were leaving a high-level security meeting at the Kandahar palace on Thursday.

General Miller was not injured but the regional intelligence agency commander was killed and the provincial governor severely wounded, decimating the leadership of one of the country's most strategically important provinces.

The Taliban’s claim that General Miller was a target could impact peace talks between the group and the US, who met face to face for the first time in Doha this summer.

Known as the most powerful force in southern Afghanistan and described as a "one man army", General Raziq was renowned for flouting rules and violating human rights but also credited with keeping Kandahar relatively stable and free from Taliban presence.

A 2011 profile by the American magazine The Atlantic titled "Our man in Afghanistan" described General Raziq as a key US ally, who received billions in dollars of American aid to fight the Taliban. But he was also accused of torture and corruption.

General Raziq survived several attempts on his life over many years. He narrowly escaped an attack last year in which five Emiratis were killed and the UAE's ambassador to Afghanistan was severely injured. Ambassador Juma Al Kaabi later died of his injuries.

The decision to suspend the vote in Kandahar province was taken over the objections of some officials who warned that any delay would threaten the whole process and hand the Taliban a major propaganda victory.

Saturday's election had been seen as a major test of the government's credibility and ability to organise a nationwide ballot ahead of the more important presidential election next April.

But the shock of Razeq's death meant the people of Kandahar were "morally not ready to vote", Hafizullah Hashimi, spokesman of the Independent Election Commission, said.

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The Taliban issued a fresh warning not to take part in the election on Friday, telling people to stay at home and saying it would shut down roads and would be "closely monitoring all developments".

On top of the mounting security concerns, the elections were already dogged by serious technical and organizational problems, notably around the use of untested biometric voter verification equipment rushed in after allegations of widespread voter fraud.

Thursday's attack underlined how precarious the situation remains in Afghanistan after more than 17 years of war despite preliminary contacts between Taliban and U.S. officials to find a basis for future peace talks.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said it was too soon to say what effect Razeq's death would have but added that the US military's mission was unaltered.

"We need to find who's done this," General Mattis told reporters travelling with him in the southeast Asian city-state of Singapore. "But right now, we are going toward the election and we will continue to defend the Afghan people."

He said he did not believe the attack would affect US military movements around Afghanistan or General Miller's security arrangements.

It was unclear how the attack would affect moves towards a peace process, following a meeting last week of Taliban officials and the US special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, but it complicates an already difficult situation.