QALAT, AFGHANISTAN — The attack came just before midnight as a force of some 400 Taliban fighters descended on the village of Khake Afghan, where Malik Ali Mohammad had just been named the new district chief. By dawn, Mr. Mohammad had saved his village, but lost two sons who had been fighting beside him.
The attack was revenge for his role in the killing of a top Taliban commander, Mullah Roozi Khan, earlier this month. But with the first-ever presidential elections being held on Oct. 9, Mohammad says that he has little time for mourning. He will continue to fight the Taliban "until the last drop of blood."
"I have lost two of my sons, they were my soldiers," says Mohammad, wiping tears from his eyes with the end of his turban. His mood shifts from sadness to fierce anger. "I have two more sons and my own life as well, and I will not leave that district even if they kill me and my sons."
With elections just days away, an increase of violence is casting doubt on whether voters will feel safe enough to cast votes freely, whether those votes will be counted fairly, and indeed, whether voters will show up at all. The result of a deeply flawed election could undermine the faith of Afghans in the concept of democracy itself.
Voter intimidation is likely to be felt most here, in the nation's Pashtun south and east. In rural areas, the violence has many Afghans and foreign aid workers questioning whether elections should be postponed until security improves. In the cities, the problem is different. Militia commanders who refuse to disarm are putting pressure on citizens to vote for their favored candidate, or to stay home.
Holding an election in Afghanistan was never going to be easy, of course, and the lack of voting experience has opened up the process to substantial flaws. Election officials admit a number of other problems, including registration fraud, tardy voter-education programs, and a lack of observers. US officials tout the fact that 10.5 million Afghans registered to vote, but UN election officials say that those numbers may be exaggerated. In the provinces of Khost, Nooristan, Paktia, and Paktika, voter-registration rates exceeded eligible voters by 40 percent.
But security tops the list of troubles.
"If we don't have disarmament in Afghanistan, we will get the same faces in parliament, and if they get into parliament, we should all pack our bags and give up," says Andrew Wilder, head of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank in Kabul. "I'm really in favor of elections, but this is the last important opportunity to get things right."
Such a dark assessment, echoed by a number of recent reports on deteriorating security, is a stark contrast with the bright picture presented to Congress last week by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Mr. Armitage told congressmen that the Afghan elections would be a "success," although he expected the Taliban to attempt to disrupt the process. To that end, the US military now has ramped up its presence to 18,000 troops able to provide quick-reaction forces to respond to violence on polling day.
On the ground, US military spokesmen admit there has been an increase in Taliban attacks.
• In the past 12 months, more than 1,000 people have been killed in attacks linked to the Taliban. More than 25 of these have been aid workers.
• In Khost on Sept. 29, a motorcyclist exploded a bomb near the governor's house, killing himself and injuring another. A similar bicycle bomb attack occurred near a police station in Kandahar last Thursday, killing only the cyclist.
• In Zabul Province bordering Pakistan, Taliban guerrillas killed at least 12 Afghan soldiers Thursday at Sori district headquarters.
Even President Karzai himself nearly became a victim of Taliban violence. In early September, a US military helicopter carrying Karzai was fired upon by a Taliban rocket near the southern city of Gardez, where Karzai had planned to attend an election rally. Karzai's security detail - a mix of US forces and private security contractors - ordered the helicopter back to Kabul.
While Taliban attacks tend to draw more media attention, a number of recent independent reports suggest that armed militia commanders present an even greater threat, and affect larger numbers of people.
According to a recent survey of Afghan voters conducted by the relief organization CARE, 87 percent said that the government should to more to reduce the powers of Afghan commanders, and 64 percent said the most important way to improve security was to disarm the militias. Only 17 percent said that Afghans would face pressure on how to vote, but of those, more than 85 percent said the pressure would come from commanders. Interestingly, only 0.84 percent said that Islamic clerics would influence their vote.
For most Afghans, "security is not about Taliban and Al Qaeda, it's local militias," says Paul Barker, country director for CARE in Kabul. "Disarmament is the most important thing. There won't be any sustainable difference in [Afghans'] lives until the guns are taken away."
In Kandahar, the very birthplace of the Taliban movement, few residents talk about the Taliban anymore. For city dwellers, the Karzai government - and particularly the governorship of the recently sacked warlord Gul Agha Sherzai - brought security, paved roads, and constant electricity.
In the city, shopkeepers tend to show their support for Karzai as a local boy who brought prosperity and peace. Typical is a shopkeeper named Mohammad Ibrahim: "I like Karzai, he is a fair man to be elected, and he's a Kandahari," he says.
His friend, a baker named Saleh Mohammad, isn't so sure whom to vote for - or how to vote. "I don't know how to vote, I don't even know what it means," says Mr. Mohammad. "I have a registration card. I was walking in the bazaar in Arghandab, and the police caught me and told me to register myself. So I did."
Opposition leaders in Kandahar say that the biggest warlord of them all is none other than Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. "Security is fine in the city, but the problem is out of the center," says a campaign official for Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai, a conservative jihadi candidate. "All the chiefs of the district are working with the government and working for Mr. Karzai's campaign. They are telling people in the villages to vote for Karzai, and if you don't vote for Karzai, we'll put the label of Al Qaeda on you."
At his home, Ahmed Wali Karzai receives a delegation of nearly 50 tribal leaders from Arghastan district, all of whom pledge to vote for his brother. Delegation leader Haji Habibullah says, "there is nothing to worry about security. No commander can put pressure on us."
But Ehsan Mohammad, a tribal representative, says that his father was assassinated by the Taliban. Another tribal elder, Khudaidad Khan, says the Taliban send regular "night letters" to threaten those who participate in the vote. "They put the letters, at night, inside our doors, but we don't care," says Mr. Khan. "This is our country. If one drop of blood remains in my body, I will fight them."
Outside of a city center like Kandahar, one hears similar bravado and enthusiasm. But for rural Afghans, the security threat is real, with real consequences.
In Qalat, the capital of restive Zabul province, security chief Lt. Gen. Amir Mohammad Noori says that his 1,500 police and 500 Afghan National Army soldiers are ready for whatever the Taliban have planned for election day. Even so, he admits that the Taliban are evenly matched, with 1,700 guerrillas in Zabul, and that they travel freely in far-off districts such as Sari and Khake Afghan.
"They are actively disturbing the election process," he says, "but until now, they haven't done any major attacks."
"We have a very strong plan for security," says General Noori. "We'll have patrols, we'll strengthen our checkpoints. The road will be closed to any armed people, unless they have a permission slip from their commander."
This is small comfort for Malik Ali Mohammad, the commander of Khake Afghan district. Mr. Mohammad says that he is disappointed by US forces, who neglected to support him in his hour of need against the Taliban last week.
"We called the American forces, but they didn't come to help us," he says bitterly. "In four and a half hours of face-to-face fighting, we didn't get any support. What can the Afghan government do for us? They don't have transportation to get to our areas. All the Americans did was take away the dead bodies after the battle was over."
His son, Jangi Khan, says that the only thing that matters is that he and the local soldiers are going to fight the Taliban, no matter what. "If we are all killed, we will save that district," he says. He stares at a picture of his dead brother and grows silent.