U.S. forces pre­pare for Afghan runoff vote

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY SARA A. CARTER

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan | U.S.-led forces are in­ten­si­fy­ing op­er­a­tions against the Tal­iban in south­ern Afghanistan to counter an an­tic­i­pated in­crease in at­tacks be­fore a pres­i­den­tial runoff elec­tion next month.

At Kandahar air­field, U.S. and Bri­tish pi­lots on Oct. 21 mon­i­tored live stream­ing video from an un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle fly­ing in a clear morn­ing sky over south­ern Afghanistan, where im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice (IED) at­tacks have be­come in­creas­ingly deadly and fre­quent.

“This is a new counter-IED op­er­a­tion against a very brazen Tal­iban in­sur­gency,” said Air Force Lt. Col. James Mor­gan Curry, com­man­der of the 62nd Ex­pe­di­tionary Re­con­nais­sance Squadron, whose main task is to launch the drones and re­cover them af­ter mis­sions.

“We’re about to have a runoff elec­tion and we are go­ing to be pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion to the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity,” he said. “We are at max­i­mum ca­pac­ity right now, but we’re go­ing to go above and be­yond to en­sure we’re do­ing all we can to pro­tect the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion as well as our units.”

Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai, un­der in­tense U.S. pres­sure on Oct. 20 agreed to a runoff af­ter a U.N.-backed panel threw out more than a third of his votes from the Aug. 20 elec­tion, push­ing him be­low the 50 per­cent re­quired for a first-round victory. On Oct. 21, for­mer for­eign min­is­ter and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah said he was ready for a runoff to “let the Afghan peo­ple de­cide” who should be pres­i­dent.

Afghan au­thor­i­ties plan to close thou­sands of polling sta­tions and hire new poll work­ers to dis­cour­age fraud, U.N. of­fi­cials said Oct. 21. Aleem Sid­dique, a spokesman for the U.N. mis­sion in Afghanistan, said 200 of 380 district elec­tion chiefs from the gov­ern­ment-ap­pointed In­de­pen­dent Elec­tion Com­mis­sion were be­ing re­placed.

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials are con­cerned about pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity for vot­ers, par­tic­u­larly in the south­ern and east­ern re­gions of the coun­try.

A sec­ond op­tion would be for the two main candidates to form a coali­tion gov­ern­ment, but Mr. Karzai ap­peared to dis­miss that on Oct. 20. A “coali­tion has no le­git­i­macy and is not pos­si­ble,” he said.

“This is go­ing to be a try­ing time for every­one,” said a U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial in­volved in pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity for the Nov. 7 vote. The of­fi­cial spoke on the con­di­tion that he not be named be­cause of the sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan. “We could be looking at very danger­ous and dif­fi­cult times ahead. It’s some­thing every­one is con­cerned about and there are no real defin- itive se­cu­rity prepa­ra­tions to en­sure that every­one is go­ing to be safe.”

Col. Curry said that drones are gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion on known ex­trem­ists in Kandahar to pre­vent at­tacks dur­ing the vot­ing. The un­manned craft can also home in and kill with Hell­fire guided mis­siles.

U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said the drones are mon­i­tor­ing ar­eas that have ex­pe­ri­enced nu­mer­ous IED at­tacks. A classified map, marked with black, yel­low and red dots, shows more than 50 places in south­ern Kandahar where the Tal­iban has al­ready tar­geted coali­tion forces.

Col. Curry said the in­for­ma­tion gath­ered by the drones is shared with the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity to de­velop a more com­pre­hen­sive anal­y­sis of Tal­iban op­er­a­tions.

Un­til this year, U.S. and Bri­tish pi­lots “fly­ing” the drones were ac­tu­ally thou­sands of miles away in highly guarded fa­cil­i­ties in the United States such as Creech Air Force Base in Ne­vada. Now, pi­lots are steer­ing Preda­tors and the MQ-9 Un­manned Aerial Sys­tem, also known as the Reaper, from Afghanistan.

“We’re tak­ing ad­van­tage of all of our as­sets,” Col. Curry said.

A U.S. de­fense of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was dis­cussing sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence, said IEDs in the Kandahar re­gion Kandahar base, to find ar­eas where in­sur­gents have planted bombs un­der­ground.

“We have the un­blink­ing eye in the sky,” he said. “We are watch­ing 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

On Oct. 21, two Bri­tish Royal Air Force pi­lots sat in the quiet room watch­ing a live video feed from a Reaper. The drone, which was more than eight miles above the sur­face of the earth, homed in on four Afghans about four miles

“This is go­ing to be a try­ing time for every­one,” said a U.S. mil­i­tary of­fi­cial in­volved in pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity for the Nov. 7 vote. The of­fi­cial spoke on the con­di­tion that he not be named be­cause of the sen­si­tive po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan. “We could be looking at very danger­ous and dif­fi­cult times ahead. It’s some­thing every­one is con­cerned about and there are no real de­fin­i­tive se­cu­rity prepa­ra­tions to en­sure that every­one is go­ing to be safe.”

“have be­come ex­tremely so­phis­ti­cated and deadly.” He added that there was ev­i­dence that the Afghans plant­ing the de­vices had train­ing and other as­sis­tance from mem­bers of Iran’s Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard, who have been linked to sim­i­lar sup­port for Iraqi in­sur­gents.

Iran has de­nied sup­ply­ing sup­port for the Tal­iban.

Col. Curry said radar tech­nol­ogy al­lows the pi­lots, who op­er­ate out of classified lo­ca­tions on the from the base on a ru­ral road. One man was smok­ing a cig­a­rette, which cre­ated a heat sig­na­ture that made his hand look like a glow­ing ball of fire. A child could be seen run­ning around the group con­gre­gated by the road.

“This is how clear it looks from here,” said the Bri­tish pi­lot, who did not give his name be­cause of his se­cu­rity po­si­tion.

“We see ev­ery­thing,” Col. Curry added.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

U.S. forces re­turn fire on mil­i­tants in Afghanistan’s rest­less east, where Tal­iban leaders are threat­en­ing to dis­rupt a Nov. 7 runoff elec­tion be­tween Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai and chal­lenger Ab­dul­lah Ab­dul­lah.

MARY F. CALVERT/THE WASH­ING­TON TIMES

Al­lied forces are re­ly­ing on drones like the MQ-9 Reaper to pro­vide in­tel­li­gence on Tal­iban move­ments in the days be­fore Afghanistan’s pres­i­den­tial runoff elec­tion.

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