BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Afghan security forces have identified key areas of the country that must be secure for elections later this year and have planned a series of military operations to free them from Taliban control, the top U.S. military officer said Wednesday.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said holding secure and successful elections for parliament this year and the president next year will be key factors in determining the success of the new U.S. war strategy approved by President Donald Trump last August.
Dunford is in Afghanistan this week meeting with senior Afghan leaders and traveling to see coalition military commanders around the country, including in Mazar-e Sharif in the north and at Tactical Base Gamberi in the east.
He and other U.S. military officials sounded less concerned about the exact timing of the parliamentary election, which was initially scheduled for July but could slip until the fall.
Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani has put a peace offer on the table, and analysts say the ball is now in the Taliban’s court. But so far the militants are showing no sign of being interested.
U.S. Brig. Gen. Michael Fenzel, the coalition’s director of strategic plans, told reporters traveling with Dunford that the timing of the polling this year is less important that having a successful, secure, credible election.
He said that delaying the election may give officials a greater chance to beef up security and ensure that election observers are all in place. There is still a lot of organizing yet to be done, he said.
After meetings Wednesday with commanders at Gamberi, Dunford said the Afghan forces in that region have identified the heavily populated areas that are of “most consequence to the elections and to security and so we should see over time those populated areas be secure.”
Asked about the election timing, Dunford said the commitment is to have voting for the parliament this year and the president next year. He said the particular month for the vote didn’t come up in his conversations Tuesday with Afghan leaders, which included a meeting with President Ashraf Ghani.
“The exact month would be based on the preparedness of the independent election commission,” Dunford said, adding that “securing the areas so people can vote is the most important thing.” The coalition has said the military will be ready to ensure the security of the election whenever it takes place.
One serious concern is the recent spate of high-profile, mass casualty attacks in Kabul. On Wednesday, authorities said a suicide bombing on the road to a Shiite shrine in Kabul killed at least 33 people as Afghans celebrated the Persian new year.
Wahid Majrooh, spokesman for The Public Health Ministry, said 65 others were wounded in the attack. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility.
Another ISIS suicide bomber killed nine people and wounded 18 others earlier this month, and in January a Taliban attacker drove an ambulance filled with explosives into the city, killing 103 people and wounding as many as 235.
The violence prompted the U.S. to declare that Kabul is now the main focus of the anti-Taliban fight and the U.S.-led coalition sent additional American military advisers into the city to work with the local police. U.S. special forces have also been conducting raids in the city.