AC: "The Taliban is using the power of perception to intimidate voters."
August 18, 2009
A look at the violence in Afghanistan as the Taliban tries to scare people out of voting this week. Anderson Cooper talks to Michael (in New York) and Peter Bergen (probably in DC).
ANDERSON COOPER: We are fast approaching perhaps the most dangerous moment in Afghanistan since American forces first went in, more than 60,000 American forces in harm's way two days from a presidential election, with the Taliban going all-out to try to make it a bloodbath. They hit a Western convoy on the main road out of the capital, Kabul, killing at least eight, wounding more than 50; among the dead, one soldier, two Afghans working for the U.N.
Also today, a rocket attack on Kabul's presidential palace -- no injuries reported in that. But two American troops were killed in eastern Afghanistan, three Afghans blown up a checkpoint.
And remember those purple fingers that Iraqi voters got? Well, in Afghanistan, they are planning to do the same. And the Taliban, they're now threatening to chop those fingers off.
High stakes all around.
Joining us, national security analyst Peter Bergen, who spent a lot of time in the region, and Michael Ware as well, two veterans of the conflict.
Peter, these latest attacks -- Taliban has already made it clear they are going to interview with the election. Have effective have they been, do you think can they be?
PETER BERGEN, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, unfortunately they are somewhat effective. I mean, up to around 10 percent of the polling places probably aren't going to open because of Taliban intimidation.
And I think these kinds of attacks -- I was just in Afghanistan talking to folks there, and a lot of people advising their families, particularly if they live outside Kabul, not to vote, because they are concerned that, either on the way to the polling station or coming out of there, that they will be subject to attacks by the Taliban.
COOPER: Michael, the fact they did a rocket attack on the presidential palace, what does that say?
MICHAEL WARE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it is symbolic, more than anything. It wasn't effective. We have seen attacks in the capital, Kabul, before.
In fact, on that same Jalalabad road, I have witnessed a suicide attack on an ISAF convoy. So, to some degree, it is not new. But it is timely. It's a reminder. The Taliban is using the power of perception to intimidate voters.
I don't believe their power to effectively stop the elections exists. But can they disrupt? Can they spoil in certain areas? Can they cast a pall over it? That is possible.
COOPER: How does the -- Peter, how does the battle where Marines are now fighting, how is that going?
BERGEN: Well, I think, you know, according to spokesmen for the Marines in the south, the battle is -- you know, they haven't necessarily encountered large numbers of the Taliban. I mean, the Taliban had plenty of notice to leave. There have been spots where there has been pretty intense fighting.
But we have seen the Taliban mounting attacks in the north. So, clearly, the Taliban have a strategy. If they know that there's going to be large attacks by U.S. forces in the south, they are going to try to mount other attacks, both in the north and now, as we have seen, in the capital.
COOPER: From your perspective, Michael, how do you see the battle?
WARE: Well, I think the battle has only just begun.
If you look the map of where the Marines and the Brits are targeting, that is Helmand Province. That is part of the heartland, but only part of the heartland.
COOPER: So, basically, the Taliban has faded away in a lot of those areas, right?
WARE: As they did against the Russians, as any guerrilla force does. It is classic insurgent tactics. If you face overwhelming forces, you pull back to fight to wait for another day.
COOPER: And the fact the border in Pakistan is so porous makes that all the easier?
I mean, their lines of communication, their supply lines in and out of Pakistan remain intact. And just in that one province alone, Helmand, 4,000 Marines have gone in, but they are not even halfway through the province yet, certainly in terms of the Taliban concentration.
There is a long way to go, if anyone thinks that we can take Helmand Province.
COOPER: Peter, do we know -- I mean, is Karzai expected to win this election?
BERGEN: Well, yes, because he may lose the first round. He has to get 50 percent, in which case it goes to the runoff. And he will almost certainly win the second round.
But he could even win the first round, Anderson. I would predict that that is quite possible. In the most recent poll, he was getting 44 percent. He needs 50 percent. He has allowed the return of a warlord by the name of Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who controls about 10 percent of the vote. And he's cast in his lot with Karzai. And that might well put him over the 50 percent mark, in which case, you know, it is only one round.
COOPER: And -- and, Michael, what does a Karzai victory mean for America?
WARE: Well, for America, this is a very complicated election. Obviously, Karzai has been an ally of America. He's relied on America. But he has failed to deliver for America. I mean, his government, by definition of any Afghan government, is a hodgepodge of warlords, with an administration riddled with corruption.
The fact that he needs Dostum to push him over the line, Dostum is currently being investigated by the Obama administration for potential crimes against humanity.
COOPER: Right. There's allegations that they took part in mass executions of Taliban prisoners.
WARE: Of the Taliban during the U.S. invasion.
But that is the nature of Afghan politics. But I would say that this is an election where U.S. strategic interests have very little to gain, but are risking a lot or could have a lot to lose.
COOPER: Peter, how -- I mean, can one put a timetable on this war in Afghanistan?
BERGEN: Well, Anderson, I think there's a political timetable in the United States and other NATO countries, which is probably about a year, which is, if there isn't sort of progress been made -- already, 54 percent of Americans think the war was a mistake, according to a recent poll with -- by CNN. That number went up from 42 percent a few months ago, and was only 9 percent in 2002.
So, you know, American -- the American public is getting increasingly skeptical. Fifty-one House Democrats voted against funding for the war back in May. You know, the Republicans are certainly going to make an issue of this if progress isn't happening in the -- as the midterm elections in 2010 gear up.
So, I think the political timeline is about a year. You know, to get Afghanistan on the track to stability and relative prosperity, that is going to take longer than a year.
COOPER: Well, long, indeed.
Peter Bergen, appreciate it.
Michael Ware, thanks very much, as always.