Fifteen suicide bombers have infiltrated Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, according to U.S. military officials, threatening to disrupt Afghanistan's election Thursday and create widespread fear that could limit turnout.
That fear spiked at daybreak this morning, when a gun battle broke out between police and militants who had stormed a bank. One of the bank robbers blew himself up, and the other two were shot dead, according to Afghan defense officials.
Also on the eve of the election, at least six Afghans and three U.S. soldiers have been killed in militant attacks, officials said today.
Two troops were killed by gunfire in the south Wednesday, the U.S. military said, while a third was killed in an unspecified hostile attack.
The deaths bring the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan this month to 32, a pace that will likely break last month's record of 44 soldiers killed.
Fears of attacks in Kabul have driven people inside. In usually bustling markets, only a handful of people walked past shuttered shops today. Many Afghans who did go out say their family members urged them not to.
If fear depresses turnout significantly, the election's legitimacy could be questioned. Some Afghans interviewed in the last couple of days in and around Kabul say they will vote no matter the risks; others say traveling to a polling station is simply not worth it.
"The people should participate in the election," says 38-year-old Zabiullah, who, like many Afghans, only goes by one name. He was one of the few shoppers at a bakery in downtown Kabul. "People need to be brave."
But a group of Kabul residents interviewed a few feet from a suicide attack on British troops yesterday all said they would not vote.
"My father is injured in the hospital and my younger brother is missing -- what should I do? Look for him, or vote?" one asked. He declined to give his name.
A handful of Taliban attacks occurred across the country today, trying to disrupt tomorrow's election, officials said. A roadside bomb and a separate ambush killed three Afghan policemen, and a roadside bomb killed the provincial sub-governor, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
The information came from a private briefing given by the Afghan defense ministry to the head of all foreign troops in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to which ABC News was invited.
In the briefing, Afghan and U.S. intelligence officials identified the most likely targets, all high-profile buildings in Kabul, based on communication intercepts. A U.S. official said he believed five of the suicide bombers who had infiltrated Kabul had already been killed.
Anecdotally, fear is running higher than ever. Even some car dealership owners in Kabul decided to move some of their most valuable merchandise to secret locations, fearful of violence during and after the elections.
Will Taliban Threats Stop Turnout?
The Taliban have threatened anyone who votes -- sometimes with death, sometimes warning anyone with an ink-stained finger that their hands will be cut off for exhibiting proof that they voted. The threats are particularly high in eastern and southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest. In some areas they control 90 percent of the countryside.
In order to try and limit the effect of violence and threats on turnout, Afghanistan's foreign ministry has asked reporters not to report on any violence while the polls are open.
"In view of the need to ensure the wide participation of the Afghan people in upcoming presidential and provincial elections, all domestic and international media agencies are requested to refrain from broadcasting any incidence of violence," the foreign ministry statement reads.
Subsequent statements provided to news organizations went a step further, threatening to expel journalists who defy the ban.
"If anybody broadcasts or gives news about any movements or activities of terrorists, domestic media offices will be closed and foreigners will be kicked out of the country," reads a foreign ministry statement. "This is an order to the benefit of national interest and national security."
But both local and foreign journalists expressed no intent to heed the warning.
Because of security concerns and the isolation of many villages, as many as 20 percent of ballots had not been delivered by early this morning, the Independent Electoral Commission told The Associated Press. But by the end of the day, the IEC said 98 percent of ballots had been delivered.
But not without attacks on the people delivering them.
Attacks Increase in Election Buildup
On Tuesday, six election workers were killed in two separate incidents. In the normally calm northern province of Badakhshan, four IEC members were killed by a roadside bomb while they delivered ballots outside the provincial capital, according to local police.
Separately in the volatile southern district of Kandahar, a roadside bomb killed two election workers, according to the head of the IEC in southern Afghanistan.
Troops helping provide security for elections have also come under fire. One Marine unit in eastern Afghanistan was attacked when it was picking up ballots for delivery.
"We got in a nice little enemy engagement, which resulted in one of our trucks getting a tire shot out, two antennas blasted off and a round of indeterminate caliber (we're still debating what size it had to have been) cracking up our windshield," a Marine wrote on his blog, "Embedded in Afghanistan." He does not identify himself by name.
"We should have good security for most of the ballots and polling sites, but a few of those ballots are going to be headed a little further up the road into country we don't venture, and are not going to venture for this election," the Marine continued.
In many parts of the east and south, U.S. troops do not engage insurgents who control huge swaths of land. "The Afghan National Police refuses to escort the ballots around here without our help, and in this case, we're not helping."
A Third of Country at High Risk
The IEC says it will open 6,600 polling stations tomorrow, representing about 95 percent of the original stations planned. No polling stations will open in eight Afghan districts, according to the AP.
Afghanistan's interior ministry has admitted about a third of the country is at high risk. In those areas especially, attacks have spiked in the last few days.
On average there have been 32 attacks across the country, Brig. Gen. Eric Tremblay, a spokesman for NATO soldiers, said yesterday. But that average has jumped to 48 in the last five days.
Some 300,000 security forces will provide direct and indirect security on election day, Tremblay said. Just under half will be Afghan police and Afghan soldiers.
But in Afghanistan, even hundreds of thousands of forces are not enough to have access to many remote polling centers. In southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have issued their strongest threats, officials privately acknowledge that will likely fail to match the 2004 turnout of 70 percent.
"I live far away from the bazaar and will not vote because of fear of attack and also because the ink will stay for days on my finger and that will perhaps make me a target for Taliban," Janan Agha, a day laborer from the outskirts of Kandahar, told Reuters.
President Hamid Karzai derives his largest voting bloc from southern Afghanistan, dominated by ethnic Pashtuns, of which Karzai is one. He is expected to win the vote, but his campaign worries that poor security will prevent as many as 40 percent of ethnic Pashtuns from voting.
If Karzai does not reach 50 percent, he will have to face the runner-up in a second round of voting, tentatively scheduled for late September or early October.
"I hope that tomorrow our countrymen, millions of them, will come out to vote for the country's stability, for the country's peace, for the country's progress," Karzai told a ceremony marking the anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from the United Kingdom.
"And they should come out and vote in great confidence and great hope for a better tomorrow. I'm requesting everybody to come out and vote, it's good for all of us."