Smooth Afghan election raises questions about Taliban's strength

Smooth Afghan election raises questions about Taliban's strength

KABUL - A bigger-than-expected turnout in Afghanistan's presidential election and the Taliban's failure to significantly disrupt the vote has raised questions about the capacity of the insurgents to tip the country back into chaos as foreign troops head home.

The Taliban claimed that they staged more than 1,000 attacks and killed dozens during Saturday's election, which they have branded a US-backed deception of the Afghan people, though security officials said it was a gross exaggeration.

There were dozens of minor roadside bombs, and attacks on polling stations, police and voters during the day.

But the overall level of violence was much lower than the Taliban had threatened to unleash on the country.

And, despite the dangers they faced at polling stations, nearly 60 percent of the 12 million people eligible to vote turned out, a measure of the determination for a say in their country's first-ever democratic transfer of power, as President Hamid Karzai prepares to stand down after 12 years in power.

"This is how people vote to say death to the Taliban," said one Afghan on Twitter, posting a photograph that showed his friends holding up one finger - stained with ink to show they had voted - in a gesture of defiance.

There was a palpable sense in Kabul, the capital, on Sunday that perhaps greater stability is within reach after 13 years of strife since the ouster of the Taliban's hardline Islamist regime in late 2001.

The insurgency has claimed the lives of at least 16,000 Afghans civilians and thousands more security forces.

"It was my dream come true," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of Afghanistan's parliament.

"That was a fantastic slap on the face of the enemy of Afghanistan, a big punch in the face of those who believe Afghanistan is not ready for democracy."

Too soon to write off the Taliban

It may be too early, however, to conclude from the Taliban's failure to trip up the election that it is now on a backfoot.

More than 350,000 security forces were deployed for the vote, and rings of checkpoints and roadblocks around the capital, Kabul, may well have thwarted Taliban plans to hit voters and polling stations.

It is possible that the Taliban deliberately lay low to give the impression of improving security in order to hasten the exit of US troops and gain more ground later. After all, they managed to launch a wave of spectacular attacks in the run-up to the vote.

Indeed, they remain a formidable force: estimates of the number of Taliban fighters, who are mostly based in lawless southern and eastern areas of the country, range up to 30,000.

Borhan Osman of the independent Afghan Analysts Network argues that for now the insurgency does not appear to be winning, though the Taliban might argue it has already exhausted the United States' will to fight.

In a report published late last month Osman wrote that support for the Taliban was fading in regions where they had previously counted on help from villagers, and they appeared to lack the strength to besiege major towns or engage in frontal battles.

"So far, they have rather focused efforts on hit-and-run attacks, among other asymmetric tactics, which can bleed the enemy but usually not enough to knock it down," Osman said.

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