KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — The killing in Afghanistan spirals onward, undermining U.S. claims of success in pacifying the country with less than a week to go before a historic experiment with democracy — direct presidential elections.
The deaths of three Afghan soldiers and two militants over the weekend — barely noted in news reports — brought to at least 957 the number of people reported killed in political violence this year, according to an Associated Press review. The toll includes about 30 American soldiers.
With Afghanistan three years removed from the brutality of Taliban rule, President Bush has acclaimed the Oct. 9 presidential vote a beacon of hope for the Islamic world, and a prelude to even more tricky balloting slated for January in violence-plagued Iraq.
But the tally of dead in Afghanistan — a haven of tranquility compared with Iraq — is an indicator of the task facing both the U.S. military and whomever becomes Afghanistan’s first directly elected president — most likely the American-backed incumbent, Hamid Karzai — to consolidate a shaky peace.
The number of dead was drawn from a review of hundreds of daily stories by the Associated Press since January 1. The actual toll is believed to be significantly higher, since many killings in remote areas are not reported.
“Nobody relishes figures like that,” said Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the No. 2 American commander in Afghanistan. “I think we’ve only just begun in terms of a permanent and lasting secure environment in Afghanistan.”
Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban vote will draw the world’s attention to Kabul, the battle-weary capital being transformed by a building boom as many Afghans bet on peace after more than two decades of horrific war.
The focus of the continuing insurgency lies in the south and east of the country, where regrouped Taliban rebels and other anti-government groups are expected to mount coordinated attacks before or on election day.
Western intelligence reports seen by AP warn of militants slipping over the border from Pakistan to attack the United Nations and polling stations in and around towns like Kandahar, the former Taliban capital.