JIM LEHRER: U.S. Marines and Taliban militants engaged in fierce fighting today in southern Afghanistan. The battle over a key town continued as the country’s presidential campaign entered its final week.
Jeffrey Brown has our lead story report.
JEFFREY BROWN: The focus of the fight for a second day was a major Taliban stronghold in Helmand province. The offensive began Wednesday at dawn after 400 U.S. Marines and a hundred Afghan troops stormed the town of Dahaneh in the face of heavy resistance.
Today, the coalition force resumed its bid to drive out insurgents who’ve kept the area in their grip.
ABDUL RAZAK, Afghan villager (through translator): There is no peace and security in this country, and we are concerned. Now, hopefully, security and prosperity will come to this village. We all look forward to that.
JEFFREY BROWN: The coalition force also operated under new restrictions on air strikes to avoid civilian casualties. This was the latest in a series of recent operations since U.S. forces began a major buildup in Afghanistan. Casualties have also been rising, with another American and three British soldiers killed today.
As more U.S. troops pour in, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that their top commander, Army General Stanley McChrystal, was warning that the Taliban have gained the upper hand. The general’s aides disputed that account, and today in Washington Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it’s a mixed picture.
ROBERT GATES, secretary of defense: In some parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban have clearly established a presence. The operations underway now and those being considered for the coming months are designed to roll back the Taliban and establish a lasting security and government presence, a presence that can give the Afghan people confidence that they will be protected from intimidation and retribution.
JEFFREY BROWN: Gates said an upcoming assessment from McChrystal will not contain specific recommendations for additional troops. For now, U.S. operations are aimed at securing as much of Afghanistan as possible ahead of the presidential vote a week from today.
At today’s Pentagon briefing, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General James Cartwright, said there’s been some success.
Elections As a Sign of Progress
GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT, vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: I think the commanders believe that they are making progress. What's the end state? If the election is the timeline that we're looking at, the metric is, are more people able to come out and avail themselves of a democratic process of voting? Yes, that looks like it's going to be the case, all the indications are. Are we stable there? Have we obtained all of the objectives we intend to obtain in Helmand? Not yet. We've got a lot of work to do there.
JEFFREY BROWN: And in Kabul today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared a cease-fire for Election Day.
Karzai was first elected in 2004, and he's the leading candidate in a field of three dozen contenders. At a rally today, he predicted victory, and he promised to reach out to his top two challengers, including former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
HAMID KARZAI, president, Afghanistan: If I win the election -- which, with God's help, I will -- I will invite all the candidates, I will invite Dr. Abdullah, I will invite Ashraf Ghani, give them food and tea and give them jobs, as I did the last time.
JEFFREY BROWN: As Karzai addressed supporters in Kabul, his rival, Abdullah drew tens of thousands in the northern city of Mazari Sharif. If no single candidate wins an outright majority next week, the top two vote-getters will go into a runoff.
Earlier today, I talked about the security situation and the upcoming election with Renee Montagne, the host of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." She's been in Afghanistan reporting for the past three weeks.
Renee, thanks for joining us. I know you've talked to General McChrystal and other officials there this week. What's their sense about their ability to provide security for the election?
RENEE MONTAGNE, National Public Radio: Well, General Stan McChrystal is pretty optimistic about what they're able to do. And obviously, in most of the country, there are troops and there isn't much of an insurgency.
Down in Helmand, they feel pretty good about being able to get at least around the main voting, main polling centers to manage to protect people who come to vote.
There's quite a bit less presence in Kandahar. And there are threats from Taliban in Kandahar, as well as Helmand, saying that, while people can vote in the city centers -- that would be the towns and the city centers -- in rural areas, the Taliban have threatened to patrol the streets and punish people with purple markings on their fingers. And so those are not areas, at least in Kandahar, where you have a lot of troops, NATO troops.
In Helmand, there's a good chance that enough polling stations will open to make it, as Richard Holbrooke, special ambassador to this region, has said, you know, acceptable enough to most of the people. But there's talk of as much as 25 percent of the polling centers ultimately not being available to the people. So a lot of people probably in those areas won't be able to vote.
Intimidation from the Taliban
JEFFREY BROWN: And can you tell how much those Taliban threats against people, how much fear that's stirring among potential voters?
RENEE MONTAGNE: I think people, as I talk to people and talk to elders who have come in to Kandahar, people are scared. It's a little hard to tell, though, because, you know, it depends. In different communities, the elders are urging people to vote. I know in the eastern part of the country, which is also beset by Taliban, though a lot of elders are telling people to vote, asking their people to come out, and people will go along with that, if they feel even a sense of security by their own people.
But I think people in Kandahar, I think if you were in Pontwe, which is about 20 miles outside of Kandahar, and it's very much controlled by Taliban, I think people will have second thoughts.
This election is not as exciting as the first election back in 2004 when people voted overwhelmingly, even in spite of a certain fear of the Taliban. This time, you know, it's the second election, and the Taliban have gone really all out in these -- even just this last week or so to make it clear that they plan to fight this, this vote, and, you know, make this election not work out, at least where they are.
JEFFREY BROWN: I know you were there five years ago, Renee, for that first election. What's striking you this time? What does the campaign even look and feel like?
RENEE MONTAGNE: Well, what's really striking is that it's a real election. I mean, there's lots of worries because there's an insurgency, there's worries about -- a lot of talk about stuffing ballot boxes, fraud, a lot of concern about that.
But, in fact, in 2004, the election was really about exercising, going through the motions, in a sense. People were learning how to vote. Billboards were -- there are still some of them here now -- but most of the billboards were pictures of people putting their ballots in the box, and it was a training session, if you will.
This time, it's a real election in most parts of the country. You have candidates like Abdullah Abdullah and also Ashraf Ghani, the two main challengers to Hamid Karzai, you've got them out giving rallies, especially Abdullah Abdullah. He seems to have a rally every day and sometimes two. He's got a color scheme. It's robin's egg blue. In fact, he was in the north of the country. It's his territory, a city -- Mazari Sharif -- a very large city. And by some counts, 20,000 people came out to greet him all along the road as he came in.
Ashraf Ghani is a candidate we'd all recognize. He has a Web site, a very -- pretty sophisticated Web site. He has advisers. He has American advisers. Actually, James Carville is one of his advisers. President Karzai is acting more like an incumbent. He's not giving -- you can count on one hand the number of rallies he's given, but, you know, he's carrying himself like a president.
And then there's posters everywhere. And there are about 36 candidates all together, minor candidates, many of them quite interesting, and people quite sincere about running, at least, you know, certainly the top three candidates.
Possibility of a Runoff
JEFFREY BROWN: As we reported, President Karzai said today he was feeling confident about victory, and he was prepared to offer government jobs to the two main opponents you just mentioned. What's the sense on the ground there, though, about whether he's right to be so confident? Is there some possibility of a runoff?
RENEE MONTAGNE: There's definitely a possibility of a runoff. There's a lot of people who think -- and a lot of very smart people -- who think he will win outright. Many people are talking about, if he does, in fact, win outright, that there will be people charging fraud.
There is, though, a good chance of a runoff, because Ashraf Ghani has got a smaller percentage of the vote, but he would pull some votes away from Hamid Karzai. He'll pull some of the Pashtun vote away from Hamid Karzai, because he is Pashtun. And Abdullah Abdullah is, as I said, campaigning very, very hard.
It's hard to trust the polls here. And at the moment, if the latest poll, for what it's worth, had President Karzai up at 45 percent, which was well ahead of Abdullah Abdullah, who's coming in second. But Hamid Karzai has to win 51 percent of the vote in order for there not to be a runoff. And there's no poll that's ever showed him that popular in this country at this point in time. He's actually quite unpopular.
His greatest strength is that he's known. He's the president; he's there; he's pulling the levers of power; he's been on TV a lot; he's been on public -- sorry, not public television, state television, quite a different entity.
And complaints there that he's gotten the big -- it's been measured. He's gotten something like 70 percent of the coverage in this election season. So, you know, there's a good chance he will win outright, but there's also quite a good chance that there will be a runoff.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Renee Montagne of NPR in Kabul, thanks so much for talking to us.
RENEE MONTAGNE: Thank you for having me.