Polling goes off peacefully

U.S. general reports no major attacks

October 10, 2004|By David Zucchino | David Zucchino,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan - Early yesterday, after U.S. military officers had settled behind their laptops in the cavernous American operations center here, the computer maps and charts on the walls told a generally hopeful story for Afghanistan's first presidential election.

The maps showed scattered rocket and grenade explosions across the country, and a smattering of attacks on election sites. But what they did not show was what Maj. Gen. Eric Olson feared most - a spectacular attack that would undermine an election critical not only to Afghanistan but to the United States.

Olson, the operations commander for U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, sat at the center of the auditorium, studying the wall maps.

He was convinced that a huge security operation launched by Afghan police and the U.S.-trained Afghan army, backed by American and NATO troops, was pre-empting any devastating attack by Taliban or al-Qaida.

Olson nodded as an officer reported, "No apparent coordinated efforts to disrupt the election." He seemed relieved as the officer added, "It was pretty much futile for them last night."

A lot was riding yesterday on the shoulders of Olson, 54, a tall, rangy commander from Amityville, N.Y., with a ruddy face and close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair.

The Bush administration has trumpeted a successful Afghan election as proof of progress in its global war against terrorism.

It was Olson's job to carry out a sophisticated, nationwide security strategy that called for Afghan forces to take up positions at polling centers, with U.S. and NATO troops backing them up. American aircraft and ground forces were poised and on call to respond if the Afghans needed help.

Although the American military remains by far the strongest guarantor of security in Afghanistan, it is U.S. policy to turn more security duties over to the newly created Afghan police and army. The election has been a major test of that strategy. Throughout the day yesterday, Olson monitored the security station, still braced for possible attacks on polling centers, voters or election workers.

He was rankled by the rain and swirling dust that had canceled a planned helicopter trip to visit voting centers in the restive Pakistan border area, where the Taliban and al-Qaida are active. By yesterday afternoon, Olson was declaring the election a success, despite the bad weather, a dispute over the ink used to mark the thumbs of those who had voted, and sporadic attacks on voting stations.

"They've missed their opportunity to stop the election," he said of the Taliban and al-Qaida. But he quickly added: "They have not missed their opportunity to grab the headlines."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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