KABUL — The Taliban called Thursday for a boycott of Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, scheduled for Saturday, after conducting a violent campaign that has left three candidates dead.
"We call on our Muslim nation to boycott this process and thus foil all foreign processes and drive away the invaders from your country by sticking to jihad and Islamic resistance," said an emailed statement.
Taliban threats to attack Afghanistan's parliamentary elections have prompted a mass deployment of troops across the war-torn country in a bid to secure Saturday's landmark vote.
War-weary Afghans are to go to the polls to elect 249 members of the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga.
More than 2,500 candidates from the 34 provinces are standing, despite concerns that the Taliban could disrupt the vote.
The insurgents, who have been waging war on the Kabul government for almost nine years, have been blamed for killing three candidates as well as attacking dozens of supporters after warning that everyone involved in the vote was a target.
General Afzal Aman, the Afghan army's operational chief, said his troops, along with tens of thousands of police and US-led NATO forces, are prepared to respond to any threat.
"We've deployed 63,000 troops for election security," he told reporters.
The United States and NATO have 150,000 troops in Afghanistan, fighting to quell the insurgency, which is nearing the end of its ninth year, and has cost the Western alliance billions of dollars and more than 2,000 lives.
US President Barack Obama may have ordered 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, mainly to the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand where the insurgency is concentrated, but the Taliban are widely thought to be enjoying the momentum.
American troops have reinforced regions that were allocated to NATO partners but which are now seen to be slipping out of the coalition's control.
Security in the north has deteriorated markedly in the past year as the Taliban exploit public disgust with government corruption and incompetence.
Taliban justice is seen as more effective than the predatory Afghan police, and the Afghan army generally take a backseat to the foreign forces they are supposed to be partnering.
This has created the perception that -- with the impending drawdown of US troops and President Hamid Karzai's plan for peace talks -- a Taliban power-sharing deal is only a matter of time.
The Taliban grew out of Kandahar, which US and NATO commanders have said is the key region in their quest to end the insurgency.
"We urge people not to participate in the election. Everything and everyone affiliated with the election is our target -- candidates, security forces, campaigners, election workers, voters are all our targets," Taliban spokesmen Zabiullah Mujahid told AFP.
Sporadic violence that accompanied last August's presidential election has bred fears that poor security could have a negative impact on turnout.
"We have to assume that the Taliban is planning to assert itself, and will try to disrupt the vote with violence and intimidation. If we don't have a very violent day, that will be a defeat for the Taliban," said one Western expert.
In contrast, a high level of violence on Saturday could lead Afghans to conclude that "this whole democratic enterprise is just not working".
Rising violence has already raised questions about the US-NATO presence in Afghanistan as Western public support for engagement in the country is rapidly waning in the face of official corruption and spiralling military casualties.
Nevertheless, observers are at pains to point out that a certain level of corruption and intimidation is to be expected in a country where personal relationships are the backbone of society and violence is ever present.
"This country has a background noise of violence, it's a dull roar," said Nick Maroukis, security director of US-based Democracy International, who are deploying hundreds of observers across the country.
"Historically in this country people have defended legitimate power with violence, and people have taken legitimate power with violence. And that will happen again," he said.
Last August's election was ultimately marred by fraud, rather than violence, and the same was likely to happen on Saturday, he said.
Of the 6,835 polling centres nationwide, more than 1,000 will remain closed because officials say security in those areas cannot be guaranteed.
The release of the list of polling stations a month ahead of the vote has been hailed as a major factor in enabling better security preparations and contrasts sharply with last year, when the list was released two days before the vote.
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