Wednesday, August 5, 2009
By Richard Norton-Taylor and Patrick Wintour
As many as two-thirds of those fighting with the Taliban could be persuaded to change sides, Mark Sedwill, Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, said today.
He expressed cautious optimism about the conduct of the presidential elections later this month, saying that about 70% of the eligible population, even in Helmand, the most violent province, "will be able to vote".
However, he said the turnout was likely to be lower than in the last presidential election, in 2004, and British officials conceded that one of the problems was that it was difficult to know the number of potential voters in any given area, let alone the total population of the country.
Sedwill was speaking by video link from Kabul to a Foreign Office press conference at which he was asked about recent comments by the foreign secretary, David Miliband, that reconciliation could involve speaking to the "moderate" Taliban.
The ambassador replied that he preferred to describe them as people "going with the Taliban" rather than "members of the Taliban". He added: "Maybe two-thirds of those fighting with the Taliban are in that category [and] possibly could be brought back into legitimacy."
They could integrate into Afghan society and institutions, he suggested, particularly if they were given jobs packages. All the candidates had stressed the importance of "reconciliation" in their election campaigns, Sedwill added, saying the election represented a milestone in the development of the country.
"We have to recognise that these elections are going to be pretty rough and ready in places. They will not be up to the standards of a western democracy. The test of success is whether they are credible, secure and inclusive enough that they are seen as credible by the people."
Sedwill said the international community was not giving the Afghan government carte blanche to decide if the elections represented a credible expression of Afghan opinion, but said it would be primarily for the Afghan political class to decide if they had been free and fair.
Apart from 450 EU monitors there will be 7,000 independent Afghan monitors. Votes will be counted in the provinces in an attempt to prevent ballot rigging, which he described as being on an industrial scale at the centre. The full result may not be known until September 17, nearly a month after the polling day on August 22.
If no single candidate gains a majority of the vote after the first round, the top two candidates will battle it out in a run-off in early October.
President Hamid Karzai, the favourite to win, won 55% of the vote on a 70% turnout in 2004.
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