Aug. 16 (Bloomberg) — Three rockets exploded in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, as supporters of President Hamid Karzai gathered for a final rally before the nation’s presidential election on Aug. 20.
Taliban guerrillas in Kandahar Province renewed their threats to attack people who take part in the election, residents said. Leaflets signed by the Taliban have been posted on the walls of mosques in recent days, warning residents not to campaign or vote, said Ghousuddin Firoten, director of the Kandahar-based Hindara Media and Cultural Foundation.
“People are feeling intimidated and the threats definitely will make it more difficult for many people to vote,” he said in a telephone interview. About 10 percent of the country’s polling stations may be unable to open because of Taliban opposition, according to election officials.
The rocket attack in Kandahar killed a woman in her home and injured people in a shop at the city’s main bazaar, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok news agency reported. Supporters of Karzai, who is a native of the Kandahar region, gathered at the city’s main sports stadium for a rally led by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother.
A suicide car bombing yesterday near the U.S. Embassy and the main North Atlantic Treaty Organization base in Kabul killed seven people and injured 91 others, reinforcing concerns that the Taliban may stage attacks on election day. Insurgents didn’t carry out such strikes during Afghanistan’s first two national elections in 2004 and 2005.
“We are using new tactics targeting election centers,” Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi said in a telephone interview, according to Agence France-Presse. “We will accelerate our activities on election day and the day before,” he said.
While U.S. Marines and British troops launched an offensive last month to expand government control in the neighboring province of Helmand, most of rural southern Afghanistan remains under Taliban control or influence.
There are 63,000 U.S. troops and 40,500 non-U.S. NATO forces in Afghanistan, the highest number since the Taliban regime was ousted by U.S.-led forces following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The Islamist movement had sheltered the al-Qaeda terrorist group responsible for the attacks.
Karzai faces a growing election challenge from his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. He was favored by 44 percent of voters, compared with 26 percent for Abdullah, in a poll released Aug. 14 by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, which is monitoring the election.
Karzai held a 24-point lead over Abdullah in a survey by the institute in May. He needs more than 50 percent of votes to avoid a runoff against his closest rival.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last week the U.S. combat operations have made it possible for millions more Afghans to vote. President Barack Obama has boosted troop levels in Afghanistan since taking office in January in an effort to subdue the Taliban.
General Stanley McChrystal, the new American commander in Afghanistan, is due by early September to provide an assessment of U.S. security strategy.
Former Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and former Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program that the U.S. needs to have a clear goal in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is fiendishly complex,” Hamilton, a Democrat who was co-chairman of the Commission, said. “We are going to have to decide how hard, how big to go in, or to come back a little bit.”
“I fear that we could find ourselves bogged down, drifting dangerously deeper and deeper into a situation where it becomes very difficult to get out,” said Hagel, a Republican and member of the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon. He is also head of the Atlantic Council of the United States, an international relations group.