SHARAN BASE, Afghanistan, AP – Taliban rebels are emptying Islamic boarding schools of students in a desperate drive to recruit fighters, including teenage boys, before next month”s legislative elections, the U.S. military”s operational commander in Afghanistan told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Tuesday.
But Maj. Gen. Jason Kamiya said that despite the rebel threat and a spike in U.S. casualties in a spate of attacks, the 20,000 American forces in Afghanistan are enough to safeguard the polls, the next key step toward democracy.
He said the increase in American troops being killed — 66 so far in 2005, making it the deadliest year for American forces in the country since they ousted the Taliban from power in late 2001 — was a result of a dramatic jump in the number of U.S. patrols and operations against militants.
"We are out there patrolling more, therefore we are more susceptible to enemy attacks," he said while visiting a U.S. base next to the town of Sharan, in volatile eastern Paktika province. "If we are going to truly disrupt the enemy all the way through the elections and keep him off balance, we are going to have to continue these operations."
A major upsurge in militant assaults in the past six months has left more than 1,100 people dead. The rebels repeatedly have vowed to attack the polls and already have killed three candidates and four election workers, and rocketed election offices.
However, a purported Taliban spokesman said Tuesday the movement”s leaders would not attack polling stations for the Sept. 18 vote.
"Our high authorities have decided not to attack election polling stations because civilians or local people will be there," Mullah Latif Hakimi said in a telephone call from an undisclosed location. "We are against the elections and we are against any government policies, but we don”t want to attack these elections and create problems for innocent people."
He said, though, that the Taliban would continue its attacks on the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan government.
Information from Hakimi in the past has sometimes proven exaggerated or untrue, and his exact tie to the Taliban leadership cannot be verified independently. Attempts to contact Taliban commanders based in southern Afghanistan to confirm Hakimi”s claims were unsuccessful.
Kamiya said that despite the high number of militant attacks recently, the Taliban was desperately recruiting new fighters, many of whom are boys, to replace hundreds of insurgents killed in clashes with coalition and Afghan forces.
"They are reconstituting themselves with the less-experienced and the young," he said. "They have closed madrassas (Islamic boarding schools) where they were training and indoctrinating their reserve, their future fighters."
Kamiya said the new recruits were coming from "sanctuaries inside Afghanistan and outside" — an apparent reference to neighboring Pakistan.
But he did not believe they would pose a serious threat to the polls.
"We have enough forces here to deliver a secure election for the Afghan people," the general said.
The military last month deployed an extra 700 troops to Afghanistan. In addition to U.S. forces, some 3,100 soldiers from 19 other nations also are in the coalition.
A separate NATO-led peacekeeping force also has brought in reinforcements ahead of the polls and now numbers about 10,500.
But Kamiya said the U.S.-trained Afghan army, which now numbers 28,000, and the 55,000-strong national police would be the main security forces guarding polling stations.
"We would be behind them," he said. "Our role is very much a supporting one."
Kamiya said the coalition had received good cooperation recently from Pakistani security forces on their side of the border, preventing militants from sneaking across the mountainous frontier.
Many rebels are believed to be based in tribal areas in Pakistan and come into Afghanistan to launch attacks, before going back across the frontier. A clampdown by Pakistani forces on the border area ahead of Afghan presidential elections last October led to a dramatic decrease in militant activity.