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As Afghan Election Nears, a Race to Protect Voters

August 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Mass rallies were held across Afghanistan today on the final day of campaigning ahead of Thursday’s presidential election.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News begins our lead story coverage from Kabul.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Higher and higher, all for a glimpse of their candidate, the man they hope will unseat the Afghan president and win Thursday’s elections. Roars of enthusiasm from the crowd gathered at Kabul’s main stadium, greeted Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who seems likely to get enough votes to force a second-round run-off with President Karzai.

Leaflets were dropped from helicopters. The pilots were later arrested for violating Kabul’s air space.

But you’re always on the edge of chaos here. The stage, where cameramen were standing, collapsed under the weight, and the crowd poured over the fence into the enclosure near the candidate.

Pistol and walkie-talkie, men in plainclothes are armed. Suicide bombers may strike at any time. The Taliban have threatened to disrupt the vote.

This has all the appearance of a real election, with rallies like this, campaigns, multiple candidates, and a lot of excitement, as you can hear.

But in many places, what’s really important is not who wins and who loses, but whether people feel safe enough to vote and whether they have enough faith in the system to dare to come out on polling day.

Dr. Abdullah’s supporters, mostly ethnic Tajiks, say it’s worth it.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH SUPPORTER: People of Afghanistan, they are getting tired of corruption and control of mafia. So they want change. The people of Afghanistan want change.

LINDSEY HILSUM: President Karzai’s supporters on the streets of Kabul, he retains the loyalty of many fellow Pashtuns, but others complain that his officials are corrupt, security is getting worse, and he’s done deals with warlords and drug dealers to stay in power.

Abdul Salam, known as Rocketi, has seen it all, first as a Mujahideen commander fighting the Russians, then as a member of the Taliban, but now as a presidential hopeful.

ABDUL SALAM ROCKETI, presidential candidate (through translator): When this government first came to power and international troops arrived, the people were very optimistic. The biggest hope was that the new government and the foreigners would bring peace, development and security.

People were expecting a good education and much more freedom. But security turned to insecurity, building became destruction, and education ended up as ignorance.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In a televised debate last night, President Karzai brushed off the criticism, saying he’s the only one who can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and deals with warlords are in the interest of national unity.

We found supporters of the president outside the luxurious home of the country’s most infamous warlord, General Dostum, who returned from exile in Turkey last night. In 2001, Dostum allegedly allowed 2,000 prisoners to suffocate to death in shipping containers.

But no matter: The president needs the votes of the Uzbek community, which he heads.

SUPPORTER OF GEN. DOSTUM (through translator): Today our commanding General Abdul Rashid Dostum, will come. And by his order, we will campaign for Hamid Karzai. In all honesty, we’ll give our votes to Mr. Karzai because we’ve been ordered by General Dostum to do so.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Kabul remains poor, shanties sprawling, roads unpaved, despite billions in international aid.

The battle against insurgents

JIM LEHRER: Insurgents have vowed to disrupt the election and shut down security operations in the days leading up to the vote. Today, a roadside bombing in the south killed an American soldier. And in the east, the U.S. Army is facing a protracted battle against the Taliban.

Nick Paton Walsh of Independent Television News reports from Forward Operating Base Keating, a tiny combat post at the bottom of a steep ravine.

NICK PATON WALSH: Two a.m., en route to one of America's most besieged outposts. The pilots won't land in this valley except on the darkest of nights, when they're escorted by gun ships.

The Taliban often lie in wait in the darkness of this remote valley. The gun ships fire a missile into the hillside, a warning shot.

Outpost Keating is the furthest reach of American power, surrounded by mountains near the Pakistani border. A landing so difficult, the pilots worry their rotor blades could clip the hillside.

This is the only way in or out. The hills all around offer beauty, but also constant deadly attacks.

SOLDIER: We're surrounded. We're sitting in a bowl, so we're constantly under observation.

NICK PATON WALSH: Captain Porter leads a few dozen men pinned down among the sandbags. They don't have much contact with the locals, apart from when they shoot at their base.

SOLDIER: We probably had over 35 contacts with the enemy since we've been here just under three months. So they're keeping us on our toes.

NICK PATON WALSH: Why are you here?

SOLDIER: My boss told me to come here.

NICK PATON WALSH: An Afghan army patrol returns to base from the hills. They're accompanied by Latvian soldiers who are training them as part of NATO. Life here is a waiting game. And then, the very worst happens. One moment, it's an idyllic morning. The next, an ambush.

The Latvian fell onto our cameraman with bullets so close fragments hit his leg. There's a rush for cover. We don't know where to run or which hill these shots are coming from. The Afghan soldiers returned fire blindly at the hills, but the American gun is inside the base await, looking for the insurgents. Soon, they see it, the muzzle flash.

This is how the war goes here: a few potshots from the Taliban met with overwhelming American firepower.

Well, this is what that long, agonizing wait was about. The base is now under persistent heavy attack, and it appears now to have been going for about 30 minutes or so. No idea when it's going to stop.

We get back into the base, but another attack soon follows. But the Latvians, who suffered no serious injuries in the attack, are angry. They saw three men climbing in the hills earlier but couldn't do anything. The men had no weapons but could have hidden them in the rocks.

SOLDIER: The rules of engagement and our hands are a little tied. You can't just shoot at anybody or somebody because you're suspicious.

NICK PATON WALSH: The Afghans also broke a key rule: returning from the morning's patrol on the same road they went out on, making it easy for the militants to ambush them.

America's exit strategy involves doubling the size of this Army in just a year, but will it be a match for experienced insurgents?

SOLDIER: They want to build the quantity rapidly, and I understand why. There's a lot of area to cover, you know. But if you go very fast in quantity, that's just logical, you can't achieve any quality.

NICK PATON WALSH: Captain Porter debriefs the Afghans, the local police complaining they don't have any bullets.

AFGHAN SOLDIER: Defensing own self, it's down to half ammunition. With empty hands, it's impossible. I'm impotent now. I don't have ammunition.

NICK PATON WALSH: They also discussed Thursday's presidential elections. The voting booths will be right next to where the ambush was. They know what sort of day it could be.

SOLDIER: During voting day, we need to put in three different positions of the ration point.

SOLDIER: We need to look at how many sandbags we're going to need and how much wire we're going to need. But we know today it's just a sample of what we'll continue to see through elections. And I know my friends need bullets. I know my friends need bullets. We'll get you some. We're trying to work that.

NICK PATON WALSH: So much of their tortuous wait is inside stone bunkers, watching here the Vietnam film "Hamburger Hill," and nothing but time to kill.

That night, they're woken by an explosion, then gunfire. Sleeplessness, dark, they have to stay alert. But when a similar attack hit the canteen, a chef and worker were flung across the room and badly hurt.

The base was built by a reconstruction team years ago, hoping to rebuild in the area, but now it's so hostile they're not getting near the people at all or winning any hearts and minds, and want to use their men in another, safer area, where they could interact with locals, a change of strategy being discussed across NATO here.

For now, though, at Keating, the surreal standoff continues. If they leave, they give the Taliban a small victory. If they stay, they get hit. And until someone makes that choice for them, all these men can do is wait.

JIM LEHRER: Today in Phoenix, Arizona, President Obama warned the fight against the Taliban won't be quick or easy. At a gathering of Veterans of Foreign Wars, he insisted, "This is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity."