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Peaceful vote diminishes Taliban

The Afghan rebels had threatened violence to disrupt Saturday's elections, but failed to deliver.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 2004


Afghanistan's first ever presidential elections were an unmitigated disaster - if you're a hard-core Taliban fighter.

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Far from staying away from the polls, the Afghan voters came out in droves. Instead of being intimidated by threats of violence, villagers walked for miles to the nearest voting station to give democracy a try. Worst of all, from a terrorist's perspective, the Taliban were unable to deliver on their promise to spread election-day mayhem. In fact, it was the calmest day in recent memory.

As the top US commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, put it, the Taliban "didn't show."

"The election was a psychological defeat for the terrorists," says Zalmai Rassoul, chairman of the Afghan National Security Council and a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai. "[Osama bin Laden's deputy] Ayman al-Zawahiri said that half of Afghanistan is under the control of the Taliban, but if that was true then how could we hold the election in Zabul, in Kandahar, in Helmand, in Khost, in all the regions where the Taliban are active? This was a big defeat."

History may mark Oct. 9 as the death knell of the Taliban as a military force. Or maybe not. This is Afghanistan, after all, where violent guerrilla movements have a way of surging and receding with the changing seasons. But while most Afghans agree that the Taliban are increasingly unpopular, and clearly unable to deliver on their threats, some intelligence officers and former Taliban themselves say that it is too early to declare victory. Finishing off this three-year insurgency may require equal measures of amnesty, negotiation, and occasional shows of military might - and more important, a stable government in Kabul free of corruption.

Plots foiled

Whether the Taliban stayed home, or the Afghan government security kept them there, election day was undeniably peaceful. There were sporadic attacks in some districts - including an armed attack on a convoy carrying ballot boxes in Uruzgan Province, in which three Afghan police were killed.

But the main story of election day was what didn't happen. A fully loaded fuel truck with explosives packed in the tires didn't explode outside a polling station in Kandahar. Instead, it was stopped by Afghan forces on the road from the Pakistani border. In Khost Province, a 12-year-old boy didn't carry explosives into a busy polling station. Police arrested him before he left his house, acting on a tip-off from neighbors.

And a group of Taliban commanders, meeting in the village of Charasiab, an hour outside Kabul, did not fire hundreds of rockets onto Kabul or nearby polling stations in Logar Province. Instead, they were arrested on the morning of election day, after a four-hour gun battle with Afghan special Task Force 333, an elite group in the Afghan National Army.

"Even in a wedding, where there are so many people, you have more arguments than we had on voting day," says Shahmahmud Miakhel, deputy interior minister.

Security forces credited

Like most Afghan officials, Mr. Miakhel says the credit for the peace rests on the strong security plan and the coordination between police, US-led coalition forces, NATO peacekeepers, and the Afghan National Army. Movement into and out of Kabul was restricted, and most cars were forbidden to travel the streets.

But Afghan intelligence officers and former Taliban say the peace may also have been due to other factors, including battle fatigue in the Taliban ranks and recent overtures by President Karzai to the fighters to disarm and join the political mainstream.