The Taliban says it didn’t care about the election until the Marines decided to safeguard it.
Taliban subcommander Mullah Saleh Khan—who, in the insurgent hierarchy, is the equivalent of a U.S. Army lieutenant leading a unit of 40 to 50 fighters—used to be nonchalant about Thursday’s presidential election.
His cohorts in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, where the Taliban’s nearly eight-year-old insurgency is perhaps the strongest, felt so empowered until this summer that they hardly noticed an election was coming.
Then the Marines arrived in July, beginning an intense campaign of heliborne operations to disrupt the insurgents.
That’s when the Taliban put two and two together.
“We didn’t take the election seriously until the Americans started arriving in larger numbers with more and better equipment than ever before,” says Khan.
“Once we realized how important it was for the Americans to secure the election for their puppet Karzai and his corrupt government, it became equally important for us to try and stop it.” Since then, they have done their best to undermine the election’s legitimacy by keeping voter turnout to a bare minimum.
The Taliban high command warned people to stay away from the polls and, according to Khan, villagers are so “angry, fearful, and sad” by the surge of 4,000 Marines in Helmand that they will stay home on Thursday.
“Everywhere there is the smell of blood,” he confidently tells a NEWSWEEK reporter in a meeting on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, “so who will dare to go vote?”
Electoral mechanics may seem like a wonky concern for an insurgent, but turnout is really the whole game.
If Pashtuns, the country’s largest and most influential ethnic group, find it impossible to vote—and therefore feel politically disenfranchised—then that will only feed their already deep-seated sense of alienation from Kabul and from the rest of the country.
That would mean a big boost for the insurgency, a Pashtun movement, and a chance for it to label President Hamid Karzai (who himself is a Pashtun) a servant of foreigners and minority groups.
Sabotaging the election will not be easy, but the Taliban are making a serious effort to cause as much trouble as possible.
They are warning would-be voters—in night meetings with villagers, sermons in mosques, and official Taliban anti-election edicts posted on mud-brick village walls—to stay away from the polls or risk retribution.
According to the Taliban, any voter on the road to the polls or inside a voting booth could meet his end in a homemade bomb.
And it may not be enough to merely not vote: the Taliban are in the process, they say, of burying extra land mines and homemade IEDs along pathways and dirt roads.
The targets are U.S. vehicles and foot patrols, but civilians traveling the same routes are much likelier to set off those deadly devices than the military for which they are aimed.
“We will be planting even more flowers and watermelons”—Taliban-speak for IEDs—”on roads. We have warned people not to move around on Election Day,” adds Abdul Ahmed Akhond, a Taliban liaison officer in Helmand in charge of finances and lethal supplies (fertilizer, diesel fuel, and detonators to fashion roadside bombs).
“I don’t think many people will risk their lives just to cast a vote in a fraudulent American-run election.” He predicts that 80 percent of Helmand’s voters will stay home.
The Karzai government wants people to believe it is safe to vote, and Kabul’s intelligence chief has been telling reporters that the government, with the help of tribal leaders, arranged some ceasefires with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan.
But the Taliban scoff at such reports. Akramuddin, an insurgent in Helmand’s Nadali district (who, like many Afghans, goes by just one name), told NEWSWEEK by phone that there’s no such deal and that all Taliban forces in Helmand and neighboring provinces are “120 percent” committed to disrupting the vote.
“There is no room for negotiations, no room for any secret deals,” adds subcommander Khan. (Making his point today, a suicide bomber in neighboring Uruzgan province killed four Afghan National Army soldiers outside a polling station.)
Khan was eager to point out how the U.S. juggernaut in Helmand has disrupted the lives of villagers, making them less likely to support the government or participate in the election.
He was in a celebratory mood when he was interviewed by a NEWSWEEK reporter. Dressed in an embroidered and freshly pressed shalwar kameez (a decorative cloth slung across his shoulder), a large black turban wound around his head, and traditional kohl eyeliner decorating his dark eyes, he was celebrating his younger brother’s graduation from a radical madrassa.
“Traditionally this is the season for weddings,” he said, pointing out that the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins at the end of the week. “Now people are too afraid to go to weddings or even funerals.”
As a result, Khan says his men have cultivated scores of informants among civilians. When Marines captured Nawa, a tiny district town, in early July, Khan says his fighters knew they were coming and withdrew a safe distance to nearby villages and farmers’ fields. From there they watch.
“When the Americans are patrolling, we are on our motorbikes looking for ambush opportunities,” he said. “When they are on the roads, we are planting IEDs along the roads.”
He adds that U.S. maneuvers to avoid roadside bombs, such as driving their heavy armored vehicles off vulnerable dirt roads and through the peasants’ corn and melon fields, have further infuriated villagers.
He even claims that the Taliban are trying to hook the U.S. troops on drugs. Besides opium, one of the Helmand Valley’s most lucrative cash crops is hashish, which locals call chars.
Khan says the Taliban have instructed village children to throw small amounts of hashish at the patrolling troops in the hope the soldiers will pick up the bait and use it. Khan calls it the Taliban’s chars war.
Still, Khan admits to plenty of respect and a healthy fear of U.S. military prowess and firepower.
He says the 4,000 new Marines—part of the 21,000 additional troops coming to Afghanistan by year’s end under President Barack Obama’s new Afghan strategy, bringing the total troop presence to 68,000—are braver, better trained, and better equipped than previous Coalition forces he and his men have faced.
“They get out of their vehicles and patrol on foot,” Khan says. “In the past, most foreign forces simply raced along in Humvees, making a lot of dust.”
That’s why, since the Helmand offensive kicked off in early July, more than 118 Coalition soldiers have died, mainly American and British—making the past few weeks the alliance’s costliest.
To be sure, coalition commanders are optimistic that increased troop numbers will allow them to hold areas the Taliban are forced to vacate.
“In the past we haven’t had the resources to stay in and hold places we’ve captured,” says a NATO officer to who declines to be quoted by name.
After they pulled out, “the insurgents came back. It’s a bit like smacking a wasp but not quite killing it, so it comes back at you even angrier.”
But Western troops will have to leave someday, and it’s hardly clear Afghans can build on their successes. “Even with the best will in the world, the Afghans don’t have the manpower; the clean administrators; competent policemen; the legal, medical, and technical staff to build on what we have won,” says another NATO officer.
But even if they did, there will be a president, chosen in just two days, who may not have his country’s support.
“There will not be a credible election,” vows Khan, the Taliban commander.
By turning out in spades to fight them, coalition forces showed the Taliban exactly what they thought was most important—a functional political process—and gave the Taliban its newest target.