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High-risk bid to register Afghans

On a violent trip through Afghanistan, a UN team urges Taliban tribesmen to vote in fall elections.

By Gretchen PetersCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2004


The first RPG explosion sounds like a car backfiring in the distance - a thud, then a gentle plume of smoke. "Gulf One, No Fear Three Papa," barks Capt. Kelley Liztner into his radio, calling for an Afghani governor's vehicle traveling one mile ahead. "Have you been hit?"

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The radio crackles: "Yes."

There's another burst, this time closer to the convoy inching through a treacherous boulder-strewn pass.

The attackers had bided their time for this strike, waiting until the group carrying UN and US State Department officials entered a perfect kill zone: There's no place to hide at this crucial moment on an eight-day journey in early June through Taliban country to persuade local tribes to come under the central government umbrella.

In the end, Taliban forces fired 11 rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) at the convoy. Incredibly, no one on either side appears to be injured. For Mohammad Gulab Mangal, the new governor of troubled Paktika province, it's just another battle in the long fight to lure Taliban villagers in from the cold.

"Our enemies are afraid," he says. "They see us coming with a message of peace and ... stability, and the only thing they can do is fire a warning to people not to participate."

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt presidential and parliamentary polls expected to take place in October. Three separate bomb attacks in the eastern city of Jalalabad have killed six people, including three women on June 26 working to register female voters. In southern Uruzgan, meanwhile, the Taliban have brutally massacred more than a dozen people after finding them with voter registration cards.

The spike in violence has led to the suspension of election and reconstruction work across much of the country, leading some to argue that elections must be delayed until spring, an eventuality President Hamid Karzai calls unacceptable.

Amid that backdrop, the "carrot and stick" mission Governor Mangal is leading through hostile Paktika province - an area roughly the size of Connecticut - is as complex and ambitious as it is risky.

The delegation comes bearing farm equipment for cooperative districts. There are workers from Global Risk Strategies, a private contractor working with the UN, to map out sites for voting and voter registration.

The group also comes ready to protect itself. More than 300 US troops from the 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment, Afghan soldiers, and local police accompany the diplomats.

"We feel that working together we can tip the balance so that people will participate in the national process, both in reconstruction and in the election," says Sebastien Trives, the UN's architect of the mission. "And every single person here has an important role to play."

It's not an easy journey. As the fleet snakes its way through minefields and down spine-crunching roads, the convoy gets lost in villages and mired in sand traps. On a recent segment of the journey, most villages welcome the delegation in Pashtun fashion: performing tribal dances, firing guns into the air, or charging across the desert on brightly adorned horses.