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.

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David Cameron's speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.