NATO says enough time to reinforce Afghan poll

BRUSSELS  – NATO said Thursday it was pleased an election date had been announced in Afghanistan and said it would give the alliance enough time to deploy sufficient reinforcements to help protect the vote.

Afghanistan said Thursday it would hold presidential polls on August 20, only the second time the troubled nation will hold a democratic vote to choose a head of state.

“We have always said it is important that elections should be held this year and we are pleased that the decision has now been taken,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said.

“The date chosen will give us as NATO sufficient time to properly prepare to support the Afghan government in ensuring enough security for the elections to go forward.”

NATO, which leads a force of some 55,000 troops combating a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, aims to boost troops numbers to help Afghan forces protect the election from militant attack.

Ensuring Afghanistan holds a successful election is a key test for NATO in what is its largest out of theater operation.

However, its efforts to attract more forces to help ensure security for the vote got off to a slow start this month with only Finland and Germany offering more troops — and then only a few hundred for the relatively safe north of the country.

U.S. President Barack Obama is considering almost doubling the U.S. force in Afghanistan from 36,000 to more than 60,000 to secure the polls.

However, European states have appeared reluctant to boost significantly the total of 27,000 troops they have with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, and some like Germany do not allow their soldiers a direct combat role.

Appathurai said the primary roles in election security would be for the Afghan police and army, with NATO providing emergency and logistical support. “The idea is not to have ISAF forces around polling stations,” he said.

He said more discussions on boosting troop numbers were likely next week, but declined to provide a target figure for reinforcements.

President Hamid Karzai has led Afghanistan since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban after the September 11 attacks in 2001, but he has fallen out of favor with his Western backers due to his failure to rein in corruption and govern effectively outside Kabul.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer took a swipe at Karzai’s administration this month, saying weak leadership was more to blame for Afghanistan’s sluggish progress than the Taliban insurgency.

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