WASHINGTON: Suicide bombings that killed two peacekeepers from Britain and Canada in 48 hours have abruptly reminded Washington and its Nato allies they face major challenges in ensuring sufficient security in Afghanistan to hold credible elections scheduled for June.

Already, some officials are suggesting the vote might have to be rescheduled as a result of both delays in the registration process and the security situation, particularly in the south, southeast and eastern parts of the country, where the Taliban, which was ousted by US-led forces in late 2001, is resurgent.

But the administration of US President George W. Bush, which is far more pre-occupied with Iraq and the increasingly dicey transition there that is also due to take place in June, is still hoping the Afghanistan elections can be held as scheduled.

Reports this week that the Pentagon is preparing a major "spring offensive" against the Taliban and members of the Al Qaeda terrorist group, both in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan, suggest Washington has opted for a pro-active strategy aimed precisely at minimising the ability of those groups to disrupt the elections.

The latest attacks in the capital Kabul took place just after President Hamid Karzai's signing last weekend of Afghanistan's new constitution, which was ratified by a loya jirga, or assembly of notables, on January 4, after 22 days of often rancorous debate.

Depicted by Washington as a milestone in stabilising the country and guaranteeing basic rights to all Afghans, including women and minorities, the constitution must still be implemented in practice, particularly over vast parts of the country outside the capital still ruled by warlords and clan chiefs.

"Ratification of the constitution is only half the challenge", Lakhdar Brahimi, who just ended a two-year assignment as the United Nations' top envoy to Kabul, told a Washington audience on Tuesday.

He stressed that ensuring security, particularly in advance of the elections, was "really the key issue" for the central government and international peacekeepers.

The United States currently has about 11,000 troops in Afghanistan. Most of them are there to track down and engage Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, although a growing number of soldiers are also working in provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) - groups of between 50 and 100 troops plus civilian and political advisers - that have deployed to several key towns and cities to provide security and carry out some reconstructionactivities.

A second force of about 5,500 troops currently under Nato command, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), is restricted to Kabul, although it recently pledged to create several of its own PRTs to deploy outside the capital. The two soldiers killed this week were both attached to ISAF.

US Gen James Jones, the military head of Nato, complained in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, however, that ISAF still lacks the needed equipment, such as helicopters, to begin such deployments.

He said Nato's ability to provide those items will be a "defining moment for the alliance" and its ability to improve the security situation in Afghanistan. Jones also hinted that additional US or Nato troops could be helpful, either for combat operations or to create more PRTs.

A third force that is supposed to enhance security is the Afghan Army itself. But desertions have sharply set back progress in building and training a force that currently numbers less than 6,000 soldiers.

The high rate of desertions has been blamed until recently on the dominance in the officer corps of ethnic minorities, particularly Tajiks from the Panshir Valley - whose Northern Alliance was Washington's main partner in ousting the Taliban.

Low pay has also been singled out, particularly compared to the money available in the thriving drug trade, which has emerged as another major obstacle to Afghanistan's stabilization and reconstruction.

Not only has drug money become a steady source of income for the Taliban and assorted warlords who still challenge the central government's authority, but it is having a growing impact on the country's economy as a whole.

The United Nations currently estimates that Afghanistan's annual opium production now accounts for 75 per cent of the world's total output and nearly one-half of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

"Some in the government say Afghanistan risks becoming a narco-state (and) ... really needs to be tackled more vigorously", Brahimi said on Tuesday. In addition to undermining the central government, "it is already distorting the delivery of aid", he added, noting that farmers earn as much as 12 dollars a day to cultivate opium, while the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is only offering between three and six dollars a day to its Afghan employees.

"Along with growing insecurity, the drug trade is the single biggest obstacle to a stable Afghanistan", according to Dennis Kux and Harpinder Athwal, two members of a Council on Foreign Relations-Asia Society task force that travelled to Afghanistan last month.

But a major crackdown against the drug trade, particularly in Pashtun areas where the Taliban thrives, could backfire by spreading discontent, according to some US analysts - an assessment that helps explain the current "hands-off policy" observed by US forces.

Washington's most important goal for now is to ensure elections can be carried off, if not by the scheduled June date then by only a few weeks later, say US officials.

The administration of President George W. Bush is particularly worried that failure to hold elections in Afghanistan before US presidential elections in November will be trumpeted by Democrats as evidence that Bush's "war on terrorism" is going poorly.

Out of a total potential voting population of more than 10 million, only about 600,000 voters have been registered to date, although Brahimi said UN officials are "reasonably hopeful" that nearly all potential voters can be registered by June.

But up-to-date voting rolls are only one prerequisite for credible elections, he stressed, noting that several others must still be met, including disarmament, the creation of credible national political parties and freedom of expression - all dependent on real security.-Dawn/The InterPress News Service.

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