Taliban target Afghan election

Statement declares plan to block roads and polling booths

The Taliban have announced through a website that they intend to block roads and polling booths on 20 August to prevent locals from taking part in the "American process" of a closed-ballot presidential election. They have instructed Afghans to avoid attending.

The extremists went on to say in their statement on a website frequently used by the Taliban: "All those Afghans should stand together with the Islamic emirate and should not participate in this American process". They also said that people should be aware that roads will be blocked to civilians and government vehicles alike.

This statement has given weight to predictions that hundreds of polling stations, predominantly in Pashtun-dominated regions, will remain closed on election day. The Pashtuns are the most prominent ethnic group in Afghanistan, with an estimated population of 13 million. They also provide the most support for the Taliban.

A low Pashtun turn-out could have a direct effect on the legitimacy of the elections, with most Afghans voting according to ethnicity, rather than policy. Whilst this will almost certainly hinder incumbent Pashtun president, Hamid Karzai, it will almost certainly prove beneficial for Abdullah Abdullah. The former Foreign Minister is one of the 39 running candidates, and despite also being of Pashtun ethnicity, is greatly popular in Tajik regions. These areas are altogether more peaceful, and therefore a greater turnout is expected.

Karzai is being labelled the favourite, despite many Pashtuns' contempt towards him for his relationship with America. Should he fail to achieve a pure majority of the vote he would be forced to enter a run-off with the second place candidate.

Despite a roadside bomb killing four Afghan security guards in Helman Province on Thursday, it is doubtful as to whether or not the Taliban will be able to stop a whole nation from voting - they had failed to stop the previous election in 2004.

July has seen the highest fatality rate for US and European forces serving in Afghanistan, with the Taliban increasing their usage of roadside bombs both this year and in the run up to the election. 500 extra Italian troops have been sent to Kabul and Herat to increase security prior to the elections, with Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi promising to withdraw all Italian troops after the vote.