Tue, Aug 11, 2009 - Page 5 News List

US, Afghans seek to protect voters from Taliban


US soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade patrol the outskirts of Spin Boldak, near the border with Pakistan, about 100km southeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Sunday.


The notes appear at night, border police say, dropped off around town, always with the same ominous message: Don’t vote or we’ll slit your throat.

Even if the Taliban don’t make good on those threats, such warnings alone could be enough to keep many Afghans at home on the Aug. 20 election. US troops moving into remote areas are hoping to bolster public confidence that it will be safe to vote.

In the dust-blown town of Loy Karez in Kandahar Province, there’s reason to be scared. Bands of Taliban fighters can be seen in the area every week. They’ve raided the town at night, usually attacking the main market, and have planted bombs in the hills to protect their hideouts, police say.

Last week, US soldiers of Bear Troop, Fifth Stryker Brigade rolled into Loy Karez, 30km from the Pakistani border, to check out the town’s two planned polling stations and make sure police had a plan to protect voters.

It was the soldiers’ first patrol in Afghanistan — their first up-close-and-personal encounter with local Afghan authorities since arriving in the country last month as part of US President Barack Obama’s troop surge.

The Americans’ role requires them to be part diplomat, part warrior.

Troop commander Captain Dennis Lorte of Raymond, Oregon, sipped five cups of tea with the local border police commander, who uses the single name Lala, while trying to keep his dusty boots from soiling his host’s carpets. Outside, Lorte’s soldiers took up defensive positions, down on one knee, weapons ready.

“Man, they don’t live so good here,” said Staff Sergeant Ryan Slyter of Westminster, Colorado, as he stared about the ramshackle town from his post as the vehicle’s gunner. Slyter, an Iraq veteran, noted the town was full of children — which he took as a good sign that the locals were not preparing an attack.

“But they’re looking at us funny,” Slyter said.

He wondered what the Afghan kids would think of the Strykers — the menacing, massive armored vehicles that give the brigade its name.

To get the Americans familiar with the town, police led the 10-Stryker convoy across the countryside, zigzagging in huge clouds of dust across open fields to avoid roads that the Afghans said were laced with bombs. The soldiers waved at farmers as they passed, commenting on how many waved back, trying to get a sense of whether the Americans were welcome.

After about an hour of driving, the soldiers realized why they had yet to stop at a polling center. Their interpreter had translated “polling center” as “swimming pool,” so the Afghans were taking them to the wrong place.

Once that mistake was corrected, the soldiers discovered that the polling stations they expected to find at Loy Karez weren’t there.

Lala, the police commander, said he can’t protect two locations. Instead, he wanted to set up just one polling station inside the border police station. He said it was the only way he can assure the safety of townspeople who want to vote.

“We will hold them back from this area for the voting,” Lala said, referring to the Taliban.

Lorte took notes, but didn’t promise anything. He didn’t know if Lala had cleared his plan to consolidate the voting stations with his own superiors.

After a day in town, the Americans left. The Taliban were still in the hills, the roadside bombs were still hidden in the ground.

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