JEFFREY BROWN: An American service member was killed in a bomb blast in Eastern Afghanistan today, making August the deadliest month for U.S. military forces in the eight-year war. The death brought the monthly toll to 45, exceeding last month’s previous record.
In all, the Associated Press reports, 732 American service members have died since 2001. And, even as the violence continued, ballots were still being counted from last week’s presidential vote.
Margaret Warner continues our lead story report. She spoke earlier today to Washington Post correspondent Pam Constable in Kabul.
MARGARET WARNER: Pam Constable, welcome.
There was this deadly milestone today, U.S. military fatalities hitting an all-time monthly high. What do U.S. commanders attribute this increase to?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, I think it’s clear that the Taliban is proving to be a far more resilient and aggressive and sophisticated enemy than almost anyone had predicted several years ago and even — maybe even several months ago.
They are — are ruthless. They are intent on — on undermining the foreign presence and the government of this country. And they are a very wily guerrilla opponent that is not going to give up easily.
MARGARET WARNER: Is the U.S. troop buildup also contributing to the higher rate of fatalities?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: In a way, yes. It’s ironic.
You know, the more international forces and the more international weaponry comes here, the more they stir up the hornet’s nest of the Taliban and provoke a retaliation, which, in a sense, they want.
The problem is that — that this causes a surge in violence and a surge in — in conflict, temporarily. One hopes that that will not last a very long time. But it’s almost inevitable that, as the — as the international troop presence increases, so will the level of violence.
MARGARET WARNER: And with those bloody bombings in Kandahar and elsewhere this week, the Taliban seems to be also killing and terrorizing the Afghan population.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Absolutely. They kill teachers. They kill mayors. They kill anyone who works with the government. They have killed and maimed people who dared exercise their right to vote.
Taliban voter intimidation
MARGARET WARNER: So, is it clear now that the Taliban successfully intimidated people into not voting in last week's election, at least in some areas?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Absolutely.
This happened throughout the country, but it happened principally in the south and southeast, where the Taliban is strongest, in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Ghazni, Paktika, even as far north as Wardak and Logar.
You had many districts where people, no one voted at all, or perhaps 1 point to 2 percent of the voters turned out, even though there was quite good Afghan security presence at many of the polls. There were a number of polls that were not able to open at all because of insecurity, and, I would say, although we don't have a final count yet, you know, dozens and possibly even hundreds of polling places throughout the south where almost no one was able to vote.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, there's also been wide spread allegations of vote-rigging.
You and a colleague went out to investigate those yourselves. What did you find?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Well, we found a number of similar reports throughout the country, accusations made on all sides, although principally made against partisans or officials from the government candidates and from his major opponent, Dr. Abdullah, accusations of ballot-box stuffing.
For example, in polling stations where there may have been, say, 20 or 30 votes, people said that, somehow, the ballots ended up being sent to Kabul with hundreds of votes in them, hundreds of paper ballots in them.
We heard allegations of officials at polling places, police, army members, local, important, influential people pressuring voters to vote one way or another. And, remember, a lot of voters here cannot read and write and are easily intimidated by authority figures.
There were a number of different kinds of allegations. And the -- the really sort of poisonous combination was that of insurgent intimidation, which kept people away from the polls, and thus made it much easier to do mischief with the ballots themselves.
MARGARET WARNER: Are U.S. officials concerned that all this could undermine the credibility of whatever result is ultimately announced?
Undermining Karzai's credibility
PAMELA CONSTABLE: It's a little bit too -- too soon to tell.
I have talked to a number of officials at the International Election Complaints Commission, which is doing its best to sift through what I believe is almost -- they have gotten at far as 1,800 official complaints of fraud now.
And that's a lot of work they still have ahead of them. And I think there's a lot of concern, not only that the allegations of fraud will be something that can undermine the credibility, but the fact that it's taking a long time to investigate.
The final results are supposed to be announced by the first week in September. And it's highly doubtful that any kind of meaningful investigation of fraud can be completed by that date. And, therefore, you're going to have a situation of great tension and uncertainty that will prevail for quite some time over the actual results.
MARGARET WARNER: Are U.S. officials also concerned that it's undermining the credibility of the Karzai government?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: Yes, that's very clear.
American officials are very worried that, if it is -- if it's true that there has been widespread vote-rigging on behalf of the Karzai administration, it's very worrisome to them, especially if it turns out that he has won reelection and will be in office with his team for another five years.
There apparently was a meeting between President Karzai and special envoy Mr. Holbrooke in the past day or so, which we're told was a very tense and terse meeting, in which Mr. Holbrooke expressed, I think, extreme concern and displeasure with some of the allegations of fraud.
So, we don't yet know if they're true. But the number of allegations seems to be quite high and quite worrisome to American officials here.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, what's the timeline for resolving all this, for the final vote tally, and, if needed, a runoff?
PAMELA CONSTABLE: The vote count is supposed to be complete by September 3. We do not know if that date will hold.
If there is a runoff election, it would take place at the very, very beginning of October which is a very long period of time to have sort of uncertainty and limbo. And there's a lot of concern that there might be violence -- violent retaliation by various groups during that time.
So, it's a -- it's a -- it's a time of great uncertainty and tension here for the entire populace. And, as you mentioned, there's a great deal at stake here for Washington's forward-looking strategy in Afghanistan as well.
MARGARET WARNER: Pamela Constable of The Washington Post in Kabul, thank you.
PAMELA CONSTABLE: You're very welcome.