As campaigning ended yesterday for elections that could determine both the future of Afghanistan and the role of British troops there, the outcome threatened to hang on the impact of renewed Taliban intimidation and the return to the fray of a former warlord, notorious for savage acts of brutality and violence.
The Taliban warned that anyone whose fingers were stained with indelible ink, the tell-tale sign of having voted, risked having their digits chopped off. Hundreds of letters have also been sent out in the old Taliban capital Kandahar, warning people to stay away from the polling stations or face a wave of suicide attacks and "new" unspecified tactics.
But on the side of President Hamid Karzai, the pro-Western incumbent, there are equally worrying signs. The return of General Rashid Dostum, a politically treacherous ex-warlord, has heightened fears of yet another vicious cycle of bloodshed and lawlessness. Forced to flee Afghanistan last year after claims that he brutalised a political rival, General Dostum is – to the horror of Western diplomats – now emerging as a key player who could be instrumental in delivering an election victory for the President.
Best known for allegedly overseeing a massacre of 2,000 Taliban prisoners following the US-led invasion in 2001, General Dostum controlled large swaths of northern Afghanistan for years. He remains the de facto leader of the country's ethnic Uzbeks and his return is likely to consolidate their vote behind Mr Karzai. But the warlord's triumphant return from Turkey on Sunday has exposed Mr Karzai to renewed accusations that even if he wins the election he will remain in hock to thugs and human rights abusers.
At least 204 British troops have died trying to defend Afghanistan's government from the threat of the Taliban, but Western diplomats fear the patchwork of alleged war criminals in a future administration will make it nigh on impossible for Nato troops to garner support for the Kabul government.
President Karzai, who has made a series of backroom deals with unsavoury mujahedin leaders to secure the votes they control, gave General Dostum carte blanche to return last week, in exchange for his support. General Dostum is said to have once strapped a soldier accused of theft to the tracks of a tank and driven him around until the man's body was reduced to shreds.
The US embassy issued a statement expressing "serious concerns" about General Dostum's role in today's Afghanistan. President Barack Obama last month warned that the US may investigate the massacre of the Taliban prisoners, locked in sea containers and baked in the desert, in the wake of the US-led invasion in 2001 which is blamed on the warlord.
Opinion polls are still putting President Karzai in front with around 45 per cent of the vote, but unless he wins 51 per cent in the first round, there will be a run-off with his closest challenger, likely to be his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Mr Karzai's chief critic over human rights abuses is the third-placed candidate, Ramazan Bashar Dost. The French-educated philosopher said: "It is time for the international community to see that it is not acceptable that war criminals stay in power."
Voter turnout in the Pashtun south and east of the country will be critical in deciding the outcome of Thursday's poll. In 2004, President Karzai swept to power with 80 per cent of the Pashtun vote. In places like Helmand and Kandahar, he claimed up to 90 per cent. But it is here, where the Taliban now hold sway, that the new threats of intimidation might be most effective.
And even among those who do turn out to vote, Mr Karzai is unlikely to enjoy such strong support now. "In the rural areas people won't be able to vote at all," said Naqib, a 26-year-old working for a Western company in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. "In Lashkar Gah it's safer. Most people will vote for Karzai."
Even Kabul is not immune from Taliban violence. On Saturday a suicide bomber killed seven people and injured more than 90, outside Nato's headquarters in the city.
The question of how long British troops will have to remain in Afghanistan remains contentious meanwhile, after the next head of the Army, General Sir David Richards denied yesterday that there was a split with Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth. General Richards stressed that when he had stated that the UK may be involved in Afghanistan for up to 40 years he was talking about the time international help was needed, and not the duration of British military presence.
But last night the current head of the Army demanded more equipment to tackle the home-made bombs which have proved deadly in Afghanistan. General Sir Richard Dannatt said countering improvised explosive devices was a "major tactical battle that we have got to win" and called for increased levels of surveillance to locate the bombs and the insurgents laying them. He added that any increase in the amount of troops would have to be matched by more kit to ensure they are appropriately equipped.
Ninety-four members of the British forces were wounded in action in Afghanistan last month – just over double the number of casualties in June.
Mr Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, enjoys strong support in the north, where security is better and voter turnout is likely to be much higher. Low turnout in the south could help him to victory, or force Mr Karzai into a second-round run-off, if he fails to get the crucial 51 per cent.
The President's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, announced last week that he had brokered a series of local ceasefires across the south to let people vote.