President Hamid Karzai’s lead over his main election rival narrowed slightly on Monday as US envoy Richard Holbrooke said Western troops had inflicted “vast damage” on the Taliban.
Holbrooke’s comments struck a rare optimistic note at the same time as the US and NATO commander in Afghanistan submitted a review of the eight-year war, calling for a revised strategy to reverse the “serious” situation.
Afghan officials have announced results from nearly half the polling stations used in the country’s second direct presidential vote, which has been tainted by an escalating Taliban insurgency and abysmal turnout.
Out of 2.87 million valid votes released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which has been criticised for favouring the incumbent, Karzai won 1.3 million and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah 954,256.
The IEC website put Karzai on 45.8 percent so far and Abdullah on 33.2 percent, narrowly lowering Karzai’s previous percentage of 46.2 and boosting Abdullah’s from 31.4.
Karzai needs 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a second round.
The gradual release of results is due to lead to the announcement of preliminary results between September 3 and September 7, and the final tally on September 17.
But complaints of fraud have flooded in daily to Afghanistan’s Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which is scrambling to investigate more than 2,500 allegations surrounding the August 20 elections.
The complaints threaten to compromise the legitimacy of the results and any victory for Karzai, whose seven-year rule has been marred by corruption, rising insecurity and cooling ties with his Western allies.
Early results that point to turnout of 30-35 percent have further raised doubts about the outcome.
In a reminder of chronic security problems that marred the vote, two British soldiers were killed by an explosion while on foot patrol in Helmand, British officials said. That brought to 19 the number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan just in August.
Two US soldiers serving in the NATO International Security Assistance Force were also killed by separate improvised explosive devices in southern Afghanistan, the military said.
The killings came as US General Stanley McChrystal submitted a widely anticipated war review, compiled since he took up command in Afghanistan in mid-June, calling for a revised strategy.
The United States has for months called for new thinking in Afghanistan to counter record numbers of attacks since the 2001 US-led invasion ousted the Taliban regime and the Pentagon dismissed McChrystal’s predecessor last May.
“The situation in Afghanistan is serious but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort,” said McChrystal in a statement.
However, Holbrooke, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told France 24 that US and NATO troops had inflicted “vast damage” on the Taliban, seizing strongholds and making a dent in the militia’s drug trade.
Holbrooke, who traveled twice to the southern Helmand province in recent weeks, said a major US offensive launched last month was showing results.
“The coalition forces including the British and Americans have done vast damage to the Taliban, disrupted them, captured major caches of opium, heroin and drug paraphernalia,” he said.
“They have really rocked the drug culture down there, have retaken many areas that were hardcore Taliban and the people have welcomed them with great enthusiasm.”
McChrystal has not called for more troops in this review but is ultimately expected to recommend increased troop numbers despite the extra 21,000 American troops ordered to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama.
The White House expects any Pentagon request for more troops to fight in Afghanistan “in the coming weeks,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
As vote counting continues, Abdullah, who has accused his opponent of rigging the vote, has said he would not accept a compromised outcome and would examine all legal avenues to counter what he called “state-engineered fraud”.