KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S.-led forces trying to protect landmark Afghan elections face a rising wave of violence from about 2,000 insurgents, including al Qaeda militants slipping in from Pakistan, an American general said Saturday.
Two weeks before the presidential ballot, Lt. Gen. David Barno said violence would “more than likely” increase, and urged NATO forces and the United Nations to steel themselves.
“We must stand firm and not allow a tiny minority of terrorists to negate the hard work, commitment and courage of millions of Afghans” who have registered to vote, said Barno, the top U.S. commander in the country.
Taliban rebels threatening to disrupt the Oct. 9 election appear to have already stepped up their campaign.
Militants killed three American soldiers last week, and U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai escaped a rocket attack on his helicopter earlier this month.
Kabul is on edge after an apparent suicide car-bombing last month killed about 10 people, including three Americans, at the office of the U.S. company helping train new Afghan police.
Almost three years after the fall of the Taliban, the general acknowledged his 18,000-strong force still faced a “significant counterinsurgency.”
He said there were foreign fighters among the rebels operating in southeastern Afghanistan, indicating that al Qaeda had a “shared objective” of attacking the democratic transition.
Barno told a news conference the Pakistani army was reinforcing a section of the border farther to the south to thwart Taliban rebels trying to enter from there.
Asked to quantify the size of the insurgency, Barno said the armed rebels numbered “perhaps a couple of thousand” while insisting they were a waning force.
The U.N.-Afghan election commission says 10.5 million Afghans have registered for the vote, which Karzai is widely expected to win.
American and Afghan officials say that figure is the best evidence of popular support for the still-fragile peace process begun after the Taliban’s ouster in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.