Deadly Taliban attack underscores threat to disrupt Afghan elections

A suicide attack on a police station in the eastern city of Jalalabad left at least 10 police officers dead. A presidential election is due on April 5.

Rahmat Gul/AP
Afghan Army soldiers and police search the surrounding area after the Taliban staged a multi-pronged attack on a police station in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Thursday, March 20, 2014. Taliban insurgents staged the attack, using a suicide bomber and gunmen to lay siege to the station, government officials said. Two remotely detonated bombs also exploded nearby.

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The Taliban's pledge to disrupt Afghan elections next month appears to be holding strong with today's attack on a police compound in Jalalabad, one of the country's largest cities. 

The multipronged attack started when an explosives-laden car was driven through the compound gate. Several individual suicide bombers followed, kicking off a battle that lasted three hours, The New York Times reports. At least 10 police officers were killed, including the district police chief. 

The Taliban claimed responsibility, as they did for a fatal attack in Faryab Province on March 18. Their threats and assaults have turned the election campaign into a test of nerves for the candidates, who have continued to hold rallies and other events. Assuming it proceeds as planned, the April 5 presidential poll would be Afghanistan's first democratic transition of power. Voters are also due to elect provincial councils. 

The Taliban wrote on Twitter that after the police compound, they moved on to other targets – including the provincial governor's office, according to Stars and Stripes.

The March 18 attack in Faryab Province killed at least 16 people, mostly civilians, at a bazaar. Referring to incident, Naqibullah Fayeq, a member of parliament from Faryab Province, told The New York Times that “We believe today’s bombing was part of efforts to scare people. Today’s attack had only election motives.”

“Today’s killings will never stop the people of Faryab from casting their votes,” Mr. Fayeq continued. “People understand that the only way to free themselves from this government is the election.”

The Taliban gave notice on March 10 of their intent to disrupt national elections:

"We have given orders to all our mujahideen to use all force at their disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections -- to target all workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices," the Taliban said in an emailed statement.

"It is the religious obligation of every Afghan to fulfil their duty by foiling the latest plot of the invaders that is guised in the garb of elections."

They are going to great lengths to discourage voters from going to the polls on April 5. In a tweet from their English-language account, they announced another attack targeting the election:

Nangarhar Province includes Jalalabad. The polling station attack could not be verified. 

The stakes are high for the presidential election, and the United States is watching the effort closely. A key issue for the US is President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign an agreement that would allow US and NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. The US hopes that whoever is elected will take that step, which the US considers essential to maintaining at least the level of stability the US and US-supported Afghan National Army have managed to bring.

Last month, the top US commander in Afghanistan spelled out the importance of the bilateral security agreement – and the election. The New York Times reports:

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the commander, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., said that as long as a new president of Afghanistan was in place by August, he was confident that a new security agreement would be signed to allow American and international troops to leave a residual force in the country, as military commanders would like, and as President Obama has said is his preferred option.

But General Dunford warned that if Afghanistan’s coming elections did not produce a new president by August, the residual force and the long-term stability of Afghanistan would be threatened.

“The risk to an orderly withdrawal begins to get high in September, because of the number of tasks that need to be accomplished,” General Dunford said. “We still have plenty of flexibility to adjust in July.”

General Dunford insisted that if American forces went down to zero, it would be only a matter of time before the Taliban retook Afghanistan. “The deterioration of the Afghan forces begins to happen fairly quickly in 2015,” he said. “Units would run out of fuel, pay systems would not be completely operable, spare parts would not be available for vehicles and so we’d start to see decreased readiness in the Afghan security forces.”

A senior official from Pakistan, which shares a lengthy border with Afghanistan, warned of "mayhem" if US troops do not remain past 2014, The Christian Science Monitor reports. 

The departure of US forces would likely create “mayhem” in the country, which could ultimately prompt one-third of Afghan security forces to desert their posts in the Army and police, the official said in remarks at the Center for Media and Security in Washington, D.C.

“The zero option means a civil war in Afghanistan,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Regardless of whether the BSA is signed, 2015 is likely to be a difficult year in Afghanistan, the Pakistani official added. 

Afghan security forces still need a great deal of training, as they have yet to become “a mature fighting machine,” the official said.

Without more training in the wake of a US force departure, Afghan troops are likely to desert, the official adds, even as insurgent groups rush in “to fill that vacuum.”

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