Kabul (AP) - The United Nations began delivering ballots and voting kits across Afghanistan on Thursday, as full-blown preparations for the Nov. 7 runoff in the insurgency-plagued nation's presidential election got underway.
International election monitors called on authorities to avert the widespread fraud that marred the first round of voting in August. Scores of election staff accused of misconduct have been axed and new personnel need to be hired.
President Hamid Karzai will face former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in the run-off. Abdullah announced Wednesday he was ready to take part, one day after Karzai bowed to intense U.S. pressure and acknowledged he fell short of the 50 percent threshold needed for victory in the Aug. 20 election. U.N.-backed auditors threw out nearly a third of Karzai's votes because of fraud.
In Washington, U.S. officials said a power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and Abdullah to avoid a runoff was still possible although it would be up to the Afghans.
Organizing the ballot with little more than two weeks to spare poses a huge challenge and comes in the face of a growing Taliban insurgency and ahead of mountainous Afghanistan's winter snows, which begin in much of the country around the middle of November.
U.N. spokesman Dan McNorton said Thursday that U.N. planes were flying the voting kits to provincial capitals, from where they will be delivered to thousands of polling stations by truck, helicopter and donkey.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission, or IEC, the body that runs the elections, is dominated by Karzai supporters. It is under huge pressure to avoid a repeat of the massive fraud that marred the first voting, which discredited the government and threatened to undermine public support for the war in the United States and European countries that provide most of the 100,000 NATO-led troops serving in Afghanistan.
The Washington, D.C.-based International Republican Institute said that insecurity, ballot-box stuffing and the misuse of state resources for campaigning must be addressed in order for the poll to be credible. The U.S. desperately wants a government that is legitimate in the eyes of Afghans and the international community.
Another major U.S.-based monitor, the National Democratic Institute, said more Afghan police and army troops would be needed this time around. The group said that to eliminate so-called 'ghost' polling stations, no ballots should be sent to polling centers that are not secured by Afghan security forces and adequately staffed by the IEC.
It also said "polling centers that experienced fraud during the Aug. 20 election should receive targeted IEC scrutiny on election day and during the counting process."
In an effort to tamp down cheating, officials will cut about 7,000 of the 24,000 polling stations which they set up for the August ballot. Some of those stations were in areas too dangerous to protect. Others never opened, enabling corrupt officials to stuff the ballot boxes with impunity. About 200 of the 2,950 district election coordinators will be replaced following complaints of misconduct leveled by candidates or observers, the U.N. said.
Finding replacements for coordinators and poll workers implicated in fraud will be difficult, especially in a country where more than 70 percent of the population is illiterate. The government had to scramble this summer to recruit enough election officials and poll workers, especially at voting stations reserved for women.
It's unclear if they would be able to fill open posts with better-qualified people.
Meanwhile, NATO defense ministers were expected in Slovakia on Thursday to discuss the war. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is expected to brief allies in Bratislava about progress in a review of recommendations by American Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who has called for more troops to quell the conflict.
U.S. forces said one of their troops died of wounds sustained in a bomb attack in the south on Wednesday. The death brings the total number of Americans killed in the conflict in October to at least 31.
Organizing the ballot with little more than two weeks to spare poses a huge challenge and comes in the face of a growing Taliban insurgency and ahead of mountainous Afghanistan's winter snows, which begin in much of the country around the middle of Novemb