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Taliban threats turn out to be only that

By Associated Press
Published October 11, 2004

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The Taliban vowed to turn the Afghan election into a day of bloodshed, but the rebels mounted only a smattering of small-scale attacks on police and civilians and a larger clash that left many of their own dead.

After months of what proved to be empty threats, military commanders and ordinary Afghans said Sunday the vote was a serious setback for the holdouts of the hard-line Islamic regime that was driven from power by U.S. bombs almost three years ago for harboring Osama bin Laden.

"Yesterday was a big defeat for the Taliban and a huge defeat for al-Qaida," Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top American commander in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press. "It shows that the political process is overwhelming any influence they may have."

Voters also said the Taliban had been exposed as weak.

Bismillah Jan, a driver for an aid group in this southern city, where the Taliban began, said his fear of attacks on Saturday quickly disappeared when he saw the heavy security on the way to the polling station where the atmosphere "was like a festival."

"This government has the support of the world and the help of God," said the 20-year-old, who recently returned home after a spell as a refugee in Pakistan. "The Taliban are weak and they are fading day by day."

At least a dozen election workers and dozens of Afghan security officers were killed in the runup to the election.

The violence curtailed voter registration in the south and east of the country, a conservative land where the Taliban continues to derive support. But officials said voting had to be abandoned in only one southern district because of violence: the notorious Daychopan area of Zabul province where militants clashed with Afghan troops.

Afghan officials said 100,000 police and troops - including about 27,000 foreign soldiers, most of them Americans - were involved in the operation to secure the election. Some fought with militants in Uruzgan province, prompting U.S. airstrikes that Gov. Jan Mohammed Khan said killed 25 militants and one civilian.

Abdul Hakim Latifi, a Taliban spokesman who last week warned that Afghans would be attacked if they voted, claimed Sunday that the rebels held back because "innocent civilians had been forced to go and vote."

"The Taliban will continue their holy war, and their morale is high," Latifi said in a telephone call from an undisclosed location. "Infidels are imposing this government on the Afghan people."

Barno saw it differently. "The Taliban basically didn't show," he said.

He put that down to the biggest military operation here since the Islamist regime was toppled and to Afghans' determination to vote after decades of war and instability.

"I think the election and political process will fracture the Taliban and they will eventually look for ways to reconcile with the government that comes in," Barno said.

World reaction

World leaders greeted the election as a great step for democracy, but some voiced caution.

"The peaceful completion and high voter turnout in the presidential election are grounds for optimism, despite the known problems," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, adding that Afghanistan was only beginning "a surely long path into democracy."

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz of neighboring Pakistan said the elections "augur well" for Afghanistan.

[Last modified October 11, 2004, 04:20:10]

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