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The Taliban vowed massive attacks on election day. Here’s how Afghanistan avoided them.

An Afghan National Army soldier mans a checkpoint in Kabul, a day before last month’s presidential elections. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
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KABUL — The Afghan army commander scrolled through months of intercepted Taliban communications on his phone: references to large-scale attacks, plans to launch waves of suicide bombs, and repeated calls to disrupt Afghanistan’s election “by any means.”

Afghanistan had been braced for the worst on Sept. 28.

“Everyone was worried,” said Brig. Gen. Abdul Moqim Abdulrahimzai, the director general of operations and plans for the Interior Ministry and one of the officials who oversaw election security plans nationwide.

But when the polls closed, ­Afghan officials and civilians breathed a sigh of relief. The Taliban launched more than 200 attacks that day, but they were small and scattered. The Defense Ministry said indirect fire and small explosives killed five civilians and wounded 76 nationwide.

The relative calm on election day is a rare success for the country’s military and police forces, which have struggled in combat with the Taliban. Afghan and American officials attribute the low toll to aggressive planning and coordination, after months of intense military pressure on Taliban strongholds.

But some Afghan security officials caution that the successes of election day may not be easily repeated: The number of forces needed to secure the country and the tempo of operations is unsustainable in the daily battle against insurgent groups. Others say that while large attacks were thwarted, daily life in the country was forced to a halt.

The presidential election came amid a spike in violence across the country that followed the collapse of peace talks between the United States and the Taliban in early September. Security concerns and fears of fraud appear to have resulted in the country’s lowest voter turnout since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 — less than a third of registered voters turned up at the polls, according to official tallies.

Both President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking reelection, and his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, have said they expect to win, but results are not expected until mid-October.

Gen. Scott Miller, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said election security “was very well-done considering the threats.”

“What was perhaps most ­impressive was seeing the different security pillars and civil ­authorities become well-integrated so people who chose to vote were able to get to the polls,” he said in a statement to The ­Washington Post.

The plan to secure the capital had been in the works for months. Police forces in Kabul worked closely with the National Directorate of Security, the country’s main intelligence agency, to collect and share intelligence on possible Taliban targets.

“It was like a chain,” said Lt. Gen. Sayed Rashandil, Kabul’s chief of police. As his forces began conducting more raids, they gathered more information on potential targets, allowing the operations to expand.

“We went on the offensive before [the Taliban] had a chance, and we took the fight to them,” he said.

In the days leading up to the election, movement in and out of the Afghan capital was restricted, large trucks were banned and cars were subject to additional searches. By the morning of Sept. 28, traffic had slowed to a trickle and Kabul’s streets were almost entirely deserted.

But in the days that have followed the vote, Rashandil said, additional barriers have been taken down, reinforcements have returned to their usual posts and intelligence-sharing has dropped off.

“There is no way that we could keep up all those checkpoints every day,” said Maj. Ahmad Zamary Toofan, a police commander in Kabul.

Outside Kabul, operations had been going on for months. In the country’s north and west, Afghan army special operations forces largely led attacks on Taliban strongholds. Police and National Directorate of Security special forces conducted dozens of raids in the Afghan capital and in pockets of Taliban influence farther afield.

Most of the offensives were initially launched as both sides maneuvered to pressure the other to the table for a peace deal. When talks were scuttled, Taliban attacks increased and Afghan military pressure was ratcheted up further. More than 200 civilians were killed and 500 injured in conflict-related violence in September, according to an Afghan security official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the civilian toll.

According to a U.S. government report released earlier this year, the Taliban controls more territory and is launching more attacks than at any other time since 2001. Much of that expanded control is in Afghanistan’s less populated rural districts. Government forces have responded by concentrating on securing cities and towns, but that has left remote urban areas exposed.

“Compared to past elections, the Taliban are much closer now,” Fatima Aziz, a member of parliament from Kunduz, said as her province began preparations for the vote. Security forces surrounded the provincial capital with checkpoints and barriers “like a belt.” 

Kunduz was a focus of Taliban attacks after the launch of the spring fighting season and throughout months of peace talks. In August, Taliban fighters attempted to overrun the provincial capital but were pushed back.

“We took preparations, but the Taliban also took preparations,” Aziz said in the days leading up to the election. “They deployed more fighters to the districts they control, and our forces even saw increased Taliban movement in districts where we normally do not see them.” On election day, the Taliban hit Kunduz city with rocket fire and a suicide bomb. After the vote, Aziz said the only reason civilians were not killed in the attacks was that so few people came out to vote.

The Taliban cheered the low voter turnout. In an official statement, the group said the turnout amounted to “the absolute rejection and boycott by the nation” and reflected the “shrewdness” of the Afghan people.

Brig. Gen. Zabihullah Moh­mand, who leads Afghan army forces in Helmand province, said he was saddened so many people stayed away from the polls because of Taliban threats. But regardless, he said, the election boosted the morale of his troops and dealt a blow to the Taliban.

“They are just telling their fighters to place [roadside bombs], to carry out operations that are easy for them,” Mohmand said of intercepted Taliban communications he has seen in recent days. He said that as long as the Afghan army continues to receive U.S. air support and targeting assistance, he does not expect operations to slow.

Sayed Salahuddin and Sharif Hassan contributed to this report.

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