Taliban fights the forgotten war as Afghanistan goes to the polls

But the road from Kabul to Kandahar tells a different story. Last year the rebuilt road was hailed as a triumph of the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Today, it's so dangerous that few want to drive down it. They say you can see the Taliban in broad daylight on the southern stretches, riding past on motorbikes. One Afghan said he stopped for fuel, and was told the Taliban had just been through the petrol station with a car full of rockets.

When last year's presidential elections passed without any major attacks, the Taliban were written off as has-beens. But this year the Taliban are back with a vengeance. More than 1,200 people have died in insurgent violence already, making 2005 by far the bloodiest year since the overthrow of the Taliban government.

"Why should they stick to a Western timetable? Why hit the elections when they can hit any time they want?" says Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

American soldiers have been quoted as saying they thought Afghanistan would be an easy ride after Iraq, only to find the Taliban fighting even harder than the Iraqi insurgents. The Taliban shot down an American helicopter on June with 16 US soldiers on board. Two weeks ago, a British security guard was forced out of his car at gunpoint by the Taliban, taken into the nearby mountains and shot dead. An election candidate was dragged from his home in Helmand and killed by suspected Taliban yesterday - the sixth candidate to be assassinated.

Local officials, police chiefs loyal to the Kabul government and even Muslim clerics have been abducted and killed in the major cities of the south and east. The Taliban have their own checkpoints on the roads, especially after nightfall. In remote areas, government forces are only in control of the towns.

It is into all this that British troops will have to wade under plans to lead the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) into the south. The US wants Isaf to move into the troubled south and east so it can start scaling back its forces. The official line from the Americans and their allies is that the higher death toll this year is a result of a more concentrated effort to root out the Taliban by their forces. But independent observers say this does not hold up to scrutiny.

"What happened is that during the winter, someone sat down with the books and learnt how to fight a guerrilla war," says a security source. The Taliban's strategy and tactics have been transformed this year. Instead of trying to take on US and Afghan forces head-on, they have adopted classic guerrilla hit-and-run tactics, targeting anyone they consider a collaborator and using sophisticated car bombs and other explosive devices to kill indiscriminately - a tactic that has brought chaos to Iraq.

The Afghan insurgency is on nothing like the same scale as that in Iraq - and it is unlikely to reach it. It is confined to the Pashtun-dominated south and east that are the Taliban's heartlands, and has been unable to have any serious impact on Kabul. But observers say there is little hope for a stable Afghanistan so long as half the country is crippled by the insurgency.

It is against this backdrop of rising violence that the elections are being held. Afghans' enthusiasm for democracy remains undiminished. But the candidates include many former warlords and commanders, including Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Younis Qanooni, accused by human rights groups of crimes against humanity during the civil war.

The elections themselves may also cause violence, because of what is called here the "assassination clause". In regulations that President Hamid Karzai himself spelt out on television, if any election winner is physically unable to take his seat in parliament, it goes to the runner-up. In a country as steeped in violence as Afghanistan, that is an invitation to the losers to assassinate the winners, and take their seats.

In Kabul they are predicting that the time between 22 October, when the final results are declared, and 2 November, when parliament is supposed to meet, could be bloody.

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