Fears of renewed violence in run-up to Afghan elections

Tensions escalate as anti-American protests spread unrest after a period of relative calm
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The Independent Online

Violence is expected to flare up in Afghanistan in the run-up to forthcoming elections, experts have cautioned. The warning came as the Ministry of Defence announced it would today name the latest British soldier to die in Afghanistan.

The MoD said the member of the 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, died in Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham, from injuries received when he was hit by small-arms fire in Nahr-e Saraj on 23 August. The death takes to 335 the number of British military losses since the war began in 2001, 295 of these resulting from combat injury.

His death was the first in a week, during what has been a relatively calm period after a spate of British casualties earlier this year.

The Taliban leader Mullah Omar issued a rallying cry last week in which he claimed: "The victory of our Islamic nation over the invading infidels is now imminent and the driving force behind this is the belief in the help of Allah and unity among us."

Fraud and vote-rigging are expected to contaminate the elections scheduled for Saturday, according to new research released yesterday by the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN). Its report details the chaos that resulted from millions of excess voter cards during the 2009 provincial council elections, loss of control over where ballot boxes went and near secrecy over how many polling stations had opened. These, it says, provided huge opportunities for ballot-stuffing, tally fraud and manipulation of the results.

The report says a large number of polling centres were added to the final count without further review, amounting to tens of thousands of extra votes. In the three most problematic provinces, Kandahar, Ghazni and Paktika, after a massive invalidation of polling stations the number of votes went up rather than down. Martine van Bijlert, a co-director of the AAN and one of the authors of the report, said: "It is strange that you can remove and add tens of thousands of votes and still arrive at largely the same results. It seems that the extra votes were mainly added to ensure that certain candidates kept their seats. It basically consolidated the outcome, by neutralising the invalidations."

Candidates will revert to the same tactics they used in last year's election. Ms Van Bijlert said: "There is no reason to believe there will be less fraud. Many candidates have concluded that you don't really stand a chance if you don't manipulate the process. And their backers know how to do it."

She outlined her concerns as tensions escalated in Afghanistan, with widespread unrest as thousands of Afghans took part in protests. Tyres were set ablaze in the streets as crowds chanted "Death to America" even after the decision by an American pastor to call off plans to burn copies of the Koran to mark the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Police fired warning shots to prevent protesters from storming the governor's residence in Puli Alam in Logar province, officials said.

Despite the unrest and growing concern about the toll of maintaining a British military presence in Afghanistan, the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, warned yesterday that military failure could result in another 9/11-style terrorist atrocity.

Speaking at a conference in Geneva, he said the Taliban needed to know that "we remember the lessons of 9/11". He cautioned against "unrealistic expectations" and rejected any suggestion of withdrawal of British forces sooner than 2015, adding: "Our forces may have to be there in a mentoring and a training role for some considerable time."

A concert is planned today to raise money for the Help the Heroes charity. Around 60,000 people are expected to attend. But yesterday one of the performers struck a controversial note, criticising the Ministry of Defence. The singer and former soldier James Blunt said: "We're sending guys and girls to do specific jobs but not giving them the tools to do them properly."