White House, lawmakers closely watch Afghan vote

The Obama administration, which has concentrated its foreign policy strategy on the defeat of extremism in Afghanistan, will be watching Thursday's presidential election there closely, as will many lawmakers.

Polls are indicating that President Hamid Karzai is likely to be forced into a runoff with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who used to be foreign minister and now accuses the Karzai government of corruption.

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Violence has intensified ahead of the Thursday vote, with a record pace of 32 American troops killed so far this month. Insurgents have also killed several poll workers, and Taliban commanders in southern Afghanistan have threatened to chop off the ink-stained finger of anyone branded as having cast a vote.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday called the elections "the most important event that will happen in Afghanistan this year" and said that the administration looks forward to observing what happens in the vote.

"We wish the Afghans well in their election tomorrow," Gibbs said. "As I said, I think this is an important event in choosing their own leaders. In terms of the security situation, obviously the president increased our troop commitment to Afghanistan based on a belief that the security situation for these elections was tremendously important. We certainly continue to monitor that."

Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) visited Afghanistan for two days ahead of the election.

On Tuesday, the senators visited American troops in the Helmand province, where McCain used the opportunity to call for an increase in U.S. troop levels, though he declined to specify how many troops he thought were needed.

McCain's comments are reminiscent of a 2006 congressional delegation he led to Iraq, after which he memorably called for more troops at a time when many Americans favored withdrawal from the conflict, including then-Sen. Barack Obama. Even the photos of the two visits look similar: Graham, Collins and Lieberman all accompanied McCain to Iraq in 2006.

Though the U.S. has not backed any particular candidate, the lawmakers stressed the need for greater accountability and rule of law throughout the country.

"One of the reasons the Taliban have re-emerged," Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters Tuesday, "is that the government has failed the Afghan people. I've been coming here for years and almost no one I know of of importance has ever gone to jail."

Despite the congressional recess, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also chimed in Wednesday.

“The Afghan people are demonstrating tremendous courage in defying threats of violence and pursuing democracy in their elections," Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said in a statement. "The fact that dozens of candidates, including two women, are competing for President and thousands of candidates, including about 300 women, are running for provincial council seats is a testament to Afghans’ commitment to having a democracy that works."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton conceded Tuesday that there were problems noted with the upcoming vote, "as there are with any election," and State Department spokesman Ian Kelly was grilled about these concerns at Wednesday's press briefing.

"I think the important thing is that this is the first election in Afghanistan that has been organized by Afghan institutions," Kelly said. "We have, of course, provided a lot of support to develop these indigenous institutions."

The election cycle has seen a new wave of Internet campaigning in a country where technology availability is rising faster than the 28 percent literacy rate.

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But the Afghan government is drawing criticism for issuing guidelines forbidding reporters from covering Taliban violence during the elections. The directives telling journalists to stay away from the scene of any attacks are "in view of the need to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people... and prevent any election-related terroristic violence," according to Kabul's guidelines.

Kelly was asked about the censorship controversy.

"While we recognize the sovereign rights of the Afghan government and note their intention to encourage Afghans to turn out and vote, we believe that the free media reporting is associated with the credibility of the elections themself, and it's important that the media be able to cover the elections," Kelly said.

"And, of course, we have told the Afghan government that they should also support responsible reporting and support the free press."

More than a quarter of a million election observers have fanned out across Afghanistan to monitor for fraud, intimidation and violence in a massive multinational effort.

“Ultimately, the success of the elections will be judged by the Afghan people," Kerry said. "Americans share Afghans’ hopes for a credible, legitimate, and inclusive process where all those that want to vote, including women, have the opportunity to do so safely. The United States does not support any one candidate in tomorrow’s contest; we will continue to work with the elected representatives of the Afghan people to help bring peace and stability to their country.”