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American forces scramble to expand security before Afghan vote

They want to ensure that as many Afghans as possible can vote in next week's presidential polls.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 12, 2009

An Afghan policeman stands in front of election posters as another inspects a car along a street in Herat, western Afghanistan Wednesday. Afghanistan will hold its presidential elections on August 20.

Raheb Homavandi/ Reuters

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Next week's elections in Afghanistan will pose enormous challenges to American and NATO forces to provide enough security for Afghans to get out the vote.

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For this much-anticipated election, in which there are nearly 40 presidential candidates, American forces are working to increase the number of polling places across the country. Currently, there are about 29,000 polling places open, say Afghan officials. Military operations begun Wednesday in Helmand Province aim to open more. Such operations have already created more available polling places than were expected previously, said Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell Tuesday.

The goal is to ensure that the vote is seen as legitimate in all areas and among all tribes and ethnicities in Afghanistan by enabling as many parts of the fractured nation to vote as possible.

"As the operations have progressed, the numbers that would not be safe enough to open are shrinking," Mr. Morrell said.

About 16 percent of the country's nearly 400 districts are considered to be under a "high security threat," says Martin Austermuhle, a spokesman for the Afghan embassy in Washington.

A force of about 300,000, including US and coalition forces as well as Afghan police and army will provide security on election day, according to a spokesman at the Afghan Embassy in Washington.

With so many candidates in the presidential field, there is the distinct possibility that a runoff election would have to be held, probably in October, extending the amount of time US, NATO, and Afghan forces would have to be diverted from normal security operations.

Among his own people, President Hamid Karzai is considered a weak leader and has been nicknamed the "Mayor of Kabul" because of his ineffectiveness outside the Afghan capital. Some polls suggest he is running short of the definitive 50 percent threshold that will determine whether a runoff would be needed.

But other candidates may bow out to join a new Karzai administration, potentially propelling him to win.

In addition to the presidential elections, there are about 3,000 candidates vying for provincial council seats across the country. This election will be the first one in which the Afghans themselves are coordinating polling, and American officials say that officially they are only assisting in security.

Last month, the United Nations said that about 17 million ballot papers and nearly 100,000 ballot boxes have been secured and delivered across the country, citing the work of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission.

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