Afghans Face Deadly Threats as Vote Nears

An Afghan man uses a poster of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is also a presidential candidate in the upcoming presidential election during an election campaign in support of Karzai in Bamiyan province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009. Afghans will head to the polls on Aug. 20 to elect a new president for the second time in the country's history. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq)
AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq
The governor had good news for the Afghans who met him here Sunday: Residents in this southern village can finally register to vote in the upcoming election.

The local Taliban's message was less cheery: They were busy firing mortar shells at U.S. Marines trying to secure the district ahead of Thursday's ballots for president and provincial councils.

Afghanistan's intelligence service chief, meanwhile, said authorities were making progress in convincing some Taliban to leave voters alone Thursday, when Afghans will select a president and members of provincial councils.

Militants have promised to disrupt the poll, in which President Hamid Karzai hopes to win another five-year term.

Lee Hamilton, co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, told CBS anchor Harry Smith on "Face the Nation" Sunday that he was concerned about the direction of the embattled nation's leadership.

"I don't know much about the alternatives to Karzai," Hamilton said. "I have been disappointed in Karzai's leadership. But if our goal is to create a legitimate, reasonable, accountable, capable Afghan government, we are going to be there a long, long time, I believe."

Some have warned people to stay away from voting centers, close businesses and not travel on election day.

CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan told Smith Sunday than an atmosphere of fear hangs over the election in the country.

"What people were telling us here is that they were telling the Marines who were out on patrol yesterday, 'We can't go and vote because your finger is stained with indelible ink and if the Taliban see that they say they will chop off our head and kill us,'" Logan said.

Thus, the picture was decidedly mixed for the 150 residents who showed up for a meeting in Khawja Jamal, a village about a mile from Taliban lines in the Now Zad district of southern Helmand province, a longtime Taliban stronghold.

Simply attending the meeting meant risking Taliban retaliation. On Saturday a suicide car bomb killed seven people and wounded 91 outside NATO's military headquarters in Kabul. The Taliban said it was responsible.

"This for Afghans is a demonstration that the Taliban are trying to show they can strike any time they want to, anywhere they want to and they have threatened to disrupt the election at all costs," Logan said.

In leaflets pinned on mosque walls in the key southern province of Kandahar late Saturday, the militants warned they will use "new tactics" as they try to undermine the vote.

"You should not participate in the elections and should not go to the polling centers because officials might be there and there might be attacks against them," said the letter signed by Ghulam Haidar, the Taliban's operational Kandahar commander.

"You should not participate in the elections because you might be the victims of our operations," continued the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.

The Taliban also warned people not to allow the voting to take place on their property or rent their houses to election officials.

Now Zad, in Helmand province, has witnessed intense fighting between insurgents and Marines, who are trying to cut militant supply lines, establish an Afghan government presence and establish enough security for people to vote safely in the Thursday balloting.

Helmand Gov. Gullab Mangal said he was the first Afghan government official to enter the district in three years.

He flew in on a helicopter and was accompanied at the meeting by the top U.S. Marine in Afghanistan, Brig Gen. Lawrence Nicholson. Mangal said a polling center would be established in the village - likely to be the first in the district.

"The registration people are here today, already trying to get the voters' identities" ahead of the election, Mangal told villagers amid tight Afghan and U.S. military security measures as Cobra helicopters circled overhead.

Nicholson, who commands the 2nd Marines Expeditionary Brigade, described the meeting as "helicopter diplomacy:" ferrying in the governor so he could try to win support for operations by NATO and U.S. forces.

Nicholson also hailed the progress made by a joint Marine-Afghan army offensive on Dahaneh, a nearby village that had been occupied by militants who are gradually being forced out.

"It demonstrates for the larger campaign of the coalition forces and the Marines that the enemy is not safe anywhere," Nicholson told The Associated Press.

Still, insurgents managed to fire six mortar shells directly at the Marines' main Forward Operation Base in Now Zad on Sunday, the AP saw. Troops responded with over a dozen mortar shots aimed at the part of the valley under Taliban control.

The head of Afghanistan's intelligence service, Amrullah Saleh, indicated talks were under way with local Taliban leaders to avoid attacking voting centers, but he gave few details.

"When we started this, we found out that there is no cohesion of command" within the Taliban, he said.

The exchange occurred just as Helmand's governor was raising the Afghan national flag on a nearby Marines' outpost where Afghan police are meant to settle.

Gaining the trust of villagers in the opium-producing Helmand province is crucial because these ethnic Pashtun people represent the bulk of Afghans. Helmand is the Taliban's spiritual heartland and most of the insurgents are Pashtun. The ethnic group is considered a critical voting bloc for candidates running for Afghan president.

Separately, a rocket hit a shop in Kandahar city, wounding two children inside, police official Mohammad Jan said. No group immediately claimed responsibility.