US offensive reflects uneasy run-up to Afghan vote (Afghanistan)
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan - A month before polls in Afghanistan, campaigning has been scarce in the southern Helmand river valley where US Marines are fighting insurgents for control of the key region.
Landmines have closed main roads while frightened villagers have abandoned their homes despite a major US military offensive designed to ensure safe conditions for presidential and provincial council elections on August 20.
The vote comes after the hardline Taliban movement -- driven from power by the US-led invasion eight years ago -- has re-emerged since as a potent insurgency force that increasingly threatens security.
Multi-national efforts to foster stability have struggled to make progress, with the top US military commander Admiral Michael Mullen admitting last week that security had deteriorated progressively over the last three years.
In southern Helmand province, where most of the opium that funds the insurgency is grown, villagers told AFP that they broadly supported the foreign troops' attempts to defeat the Taliban.
"The Taliban just walk into our homes and demand food and money," said one village elder speaking through an interpreter employed by the US military.
"They close schools and we can't disobey them as they will torture and kill us. We support what the US troops are doing but they point their guns at our children, who cannot go outside to play."
The man said he wanted to vote in the elections but that registration cards had not arrived at his mud-walled village in the Garmsir district of Helmand.
He spoke during a week in which a Marines' unit was hit by a series of deadly IED (improvised explosive devices) planted on the dirt road immediately outside the village.
"They are not local people," he said of those behind the bombings, without giving further details.
All residents living close to where the US Marines stopped for the night fled their houses, fearful that the troops' presence would attract violence -- rather than provide security.
The battle for control of Helmand is in contrast to the widespread optimism about Afghanistan's future in the years after the fall of the Taliban.
In 2005 George W. Bush, the then US president, described democracy in Afghanistan as "flourishing" and expressed hope that it and Iraq would show the way ahead for what he called the "greater Middle East" -- including Iran.
Barack Obama, his successor, has carved out a more specific US mission in Afghanistan that focuses on bringing stability to prevent the country from becoming a haven for terror groups such as Al-Qaeda that threaten the West.
When the latest US operation against the Taliban swung into action in Helmand on July 2, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson said it would "set conditions for the elections in the river valley."
"The aim is to improve things to a level where (voter) registration can take place," he told AFP, though he warned that gaining people's trust and finally transferring security responsibilities to Afghan forces would take time.
Western troops are expected to keep a low profile on polling day itself, leaving visible security in the hands of the Afghan police and army personnel who are being trained up to take over in the long term.
The 4,000 Marines air-lifted into Taliban-held areas of south Helmand have met only sporadic resistance and have often received a positive response from local leaders who wish to see the extremists driven out, the military says.
However the difficulties faced by the NATO-led coalition were emphasised by the experiences of the US Marine convoy with which AFP travelled in the province last week.
Its attempt to clear a 30-kilometre (19-mile) route of IEDs ended in failure with the convoy returning to base after seven days of repeatedly being hit by IED blasts, including one which killed two Marines.
The Taliban threatened to target elections in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2005, though violence was relatively limited during the polls.
They have so far avoided making direct threats against next month's elections.
Hamid Karzai, the current Afghan president, is seen as the favourite to win having secured strong political alliances despite complaints about the slow pace of development and allegations of corruption within his administration.
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