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AFGHANISTAN

Afghan election fraught with political risk for U.S.

Experts say a victory by President Hamid Karzai or his main rival in Afghanistan could boost militant groups -- and a delayed outcome could cause a power vacuum.

McClatchy News Service

Afghanistan's presidential poll, set for Thursday amid violence, voter intimidation and expectations of fraud, holds considerable risks for the Obama administration's drive to gain the upper hand in the war against the Taliban, some Western and Afghan officials and experts warn.

``There are about a zillion different scenarios here about how the election could turn out badly,'' said one senior U.S. official who requested anonymity to speak freely. ``The election . . . is not going to change anything on the ground in much of Afghanistan.''

President Hamid Karzai's reelection, powered by despised warlords linked to war crimes and drugs, could drive more Afghans to join the Taliban or other militant groups and stoke ethnic tensions, Western and Afghan experts say. A victory by his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, could bring a similar result, they say.

CHANCE FOR VIOLENCE

Widespread cries of foul or a delayed outcome could create a dangerous power vacuum and lead to political violence.

``The election result will not have the legitimacy that it needs. That will add to the ranks of the Taliban and the disaffected and disenfranchised people. It will be a moral victory for the Taliban whichever way you cut it,'' said Daoud Sultanzoi, a leading parliamentarian from Ghazni Province.

Meanwhile, residents in the war-wracked south reported stepped-up Taliban intimidation to thwart voting.

``Only 10 to 20 percent of the people will be able to vote,'' Abdul Wahid Achakzai, the chief lower court judge of Uruzgan Province, said of his province in a telephone interview. ``When 80 percent of the people can't vote, how can this be a transparent election?''

The south is the homeland of the country's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. An extremely low turnout there could deny the election legitimacy.

There are also widespread expectations of vote-rigging, especially on behalf of Karzai, a Pashtun who controls the central and provincial bureaucracies and whose reelection depends on Pashtun support. With 37 presidential candidates, Karzai needs to win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

There are millions of duplicate and fake voter registration cards, no list of registered voters to compare them against, a shortage of poll monitors and other serious problems that could allow fraud.

The United States and its allies have abandoned any pretense that the election -- which will also choose 34 provincial councils -- will be ``free and fair.'' Instead, they are hoping a high enough turnout, coupled with a low level of violence and limited fraud, will produce a winner acceptable to the losers and most Afghans.

``We want to see credible, secure and inclusive elections that all will judge legitimate,'' Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

It's unclear whether Thursday will be free of violence. Some Western and Afghan experts and officials are worried that whatever happens, the election will end up hurting President Barack Obama's new strategy for defeating the Taliban and preventing al Qaeda from re-establishing a base in Afghanistan.

``There are no great scenarios for a long time to come. All of the scenarios right now are very bad,'' said an American expert who asked not to be further identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Opinion polls favor Karzai, although it is not clear he can avoid a runoff. He has assembled an alliance of ethnic anti-Taliban warlords to whom many analysts say he has over-promised posts in a new government in return for the support of the voting blocs they control.

REVILED GROUP

Many Afghans hate these men, angered that they grabbed power and land using private militias funded by millions of dollars they were paid by the CIA to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda in 2001. These men also have evaded any accountability for the tens of thousands killed in the devastating civil war that gave rise to the Taliban after the 1979-89 Soviet occupation.

The United States, which many Afghans believe controls their government, would be associated with such an administration, deepening anti-American sentiment over the U.S. failure to end the war and mounting civilians casualties.

The risks aren't any less for the United States if Abdullah wins.

Abdullah is widely considered a minority Tajik, even though his father was a Pashtun, and many Pashtuns are frustrated at what they view as Tajik domination of senior posts in the army, police and bureaucracy. ``If Abdullah wins, that means the frustration among the Pashtuns will be even stronger,'' said the prominent Afghan political analyst. ``The only real opposition that the Pashtuns will find will be the Taliban, and that means strengthening the Taliban.''

``The group around Doctor Abdullah is responsible . . . for the the corruption in the country,'' declared Khalid Mohammad Hussani, a Pashtun parliamentarian from Ghazni Province who backs Karzai. ``When these minorities grab something, they throw themselves over it and keep it for themselves.''

McClatchy Special Correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.

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