The April vote to decide President Hamid Karzai's successor could mark Afghanistan's first ever peaceful transfer of power. The Post's Ernesto Londoño explains what's at stake for the U.S. (Kate M. Tobey and Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

With critical Afghan elections just weeks away, U.S. and Afghan soldiers are focused on a daunting new mission: persuading residents of remote, insurgency-plagued areas to vote.

The presidential election could be a turning point for this fragile, war-torn nation, producing the first peaceful transition of power in its history. But if the Taliban keeps Afghans from casting ballots on April 5, the legitimacy of the vote could be questioned — potentially throwing the country into turmoil.

“This is our last high-risk mission,” Lt. Col. Eric Lopez told his battalion of U.S. soldiers one evening before helicopters picked them up for the trip to Nabahar, a frigid desert region 200 miles south of Kabul, in Zabul Province.

For Lopez and his men, who were nearing the end of a nine-month deployment, helping Afghan forces secure the elections was at the heart of their advisory role. They cite a phrase that’s become a guiding principle for their battalion:

“If it has to do with the elections, don’t let the Afghans fail.”

But as they would discover trekking across a constellation of Taliban-controlled villages over several days, many rural residents are deeply afraid of voting. The Taliban has joined the battle over the elections; while its fighters normally retire to Pakistan to rest during the snowy winter, this year some lower-level insurgents have continued to attack, aiming to deter potential voters. Late last month, the Taliban killed 21 Afghan soldiers at a remote base in eastern Kunar province, in a clear demonstration to the public that they are not ceding ground.

And, while the Afghan military has become increasingly competent, there is still little sign of police forces, public schools or other government services in the Taliban-dominated areas.

“There is no government presence here, so these people have to shake the hand of the Taliban,” said Gen. Mohammad Akram, the leader of the Afghan army’s Zabul-based brigade, who led the Afghan unit in the recent mission with the Americans.

Still, he was hopeful.

“If we can bring security, maybe some of them will vote.”

‘The Taliban will return’

Over the three-day mission, the Afghan military showed off their new technical skills. The soldiers conducted a mission using their own helicopters, a capability that surprised — and thrilled — even some Afghan soldiers. They searched squat, mud-brick homes in the village of Karemkhil and rounded up suspects more effectively than in previous months. They asked almost nothing of their American partners.

The military forces intended to show citizens their superiority over the insurgency, and the helicopters were no doubt useful props. But many locals dismissed the soldiers as no more than a temporary presence, a reaction that frustrated some commanders.

“The Taliban will return in the spring, and they will beat us if we vote,” said Abdul Rauf, a farmer in one village.

“You can’t bring security here,” said Atiqullah, another villager, who like many Afghans goes by only one name.

The Afghan soldiers knew that some of the villagers probably have placed roadside bombs or tacitly aided Taliban operations — either because of pressure from the insurgents or because they were paid.

The troops corralled weather-beaten villagers into open areas between mud-brick homes and rattled off the reasons for voting. They listed the names of presidential candidates, many of them veteran Afghan politicians: Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani, Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, Zalmai Rassoul, among others. The residents could vote for whomever they wanted, the soldiers said.

But the names inspired little enthusiasm — or even recognition.

“These people don’t know what elections are or what the president is,” Afghan army Capt. Hussain Jan said after speaking to one group of men.

Like a number of other remote districts in Afghanistan’s south and east, Nabahar has few signs of government presence. Even the district governor, the one man assigned by Kabul to work there, is too afraid to live in Nabahar. He’s visited only a handful of times in the last year, arriving by American helicopter.

There are no schools here and no cellphone towers. There is a building intended to serve as a clinic, but no doctors or medicine.

There is an Afghan base — inherited from U.S. Special Forces — but the troops there don’t often leave their quarters, fearing ambushes and roadside bombs. Nearly all the progress visible in Afghanistan’s major cities is absent.

Lopez’s battalion ran headlong into a tension that pervades much of Afghanistan: Public officials say there isn’t enough security for the government to establish itself, and members of the Afghan military say the government isn’t strong enough to capi­tal­ize on security gains.

The U.S. and Afghan soldiers are hoping the dozens of pre-election missions that they have been conducting around the country will help break that vicious circle. In one village they visited during the recent mission, the Afghan troops sought to demonstrate their strength: They burned five motorcycles that they suspected of belonging to the Taliban. They defused three improvised bombs. They apprehended one suspect and took him temporarily into custody.

“We know that security enables government influence,” said Lopez, 40, from New Haven, Conn. “And with the elections, there’s an energy behind that.”

But on the second day of the operation, the soldiers got a fresh reminder of the odds facing them. Zabul’s provincial governor, Ashraf Nasiri, flew in by helicopter and gave a speech to residents, urging them to take part in the election to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai.

“Why should you be scared to vote?” he asked the crowd. “If you don’t like Karzai, you can finish him with your vote.”

The retorts were quick and sharp.

“If we go with you, the Taliban says we are sons of the government,” said a villager named Mohammad Akbar. “If we don’t go with you, you call us your enemy.”

Over the next four weeks, the 10 candidates for president will intensify their campaigns, crisscrossing the country, although likely staying out of sparsely populated, dangerous districts such as Nabahar. If it’s free of fraud, the election will be won or lost in major cities, where the bulk of voters live.

But the success of the election in remote areas such as Nabahar could be critical. If losing candidates or tribal leaders are able to argue that Taliban interference has rendered the election’s outcome illegitimate, that could produce tribal or ethnic fractures that would undermine the political transition.

The government appears eager to prove that it can recruit and secure voters from even Afghanistan’s darkest corners, despite the acknowledged hurdles.

“It is important to hold the polls in Nabahar in order to not deprive the people of exercising their rights,” said Mohammad Hashim, the director of the government’s Independent Election Commission in Zabul.

But Hashim echoed a common government complaint: “Right now, we do not have sufficient forces . . . for securing the province.”