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Foreign observers face hurdles in Afghanistan

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An Afghan special forces soldier, left, is kissed by an Afghan man after the commandos took over control of an election office after the Taliban launched an assault with a suicide bomber detonating his vehicle outside an election office on the edge of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Gunmen stormed into the building, trapping dozens of employees inside and killing four people. A candidate for a seat on a provincial council was among those killed, along with an election worker, a civilian and a policeman. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

An Afghan special forces soldier, left, is kissed by an Afghan man after the commandos took over control of an election office after the Taliban launched an assault with a suicide bomber detonating his vehicle outside an election office on the edge of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Gunmen stormed into the building, trapping dozens of employees inside and killing four people. A candidate for a seat on a provincial council was among those killed, along with an election worker, a civilian and a policeman. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

In this picture taken Wednesday, March 12, 2014, an Afghan man walks passed an election graffiti poster urging people to go to the polls in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Less than two weeks before Afghans go to the polls to select their next president, it will largely be up to tens of thousands of domestic observers to catch signs of ballot box stuffing and other vote-rigging that tarnished Hamid Karzai’s re-election in 2009. The international mission is far smaller than in the country’s last national election, and relentless violence already has driven away many foreigners who signed up. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

An Afghan special forces soldier takes up position next to an election campaign poster of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center on the poster, after the Taliban launched an assault with a suicide bomber detonating his vehicle outside an election office on the edge of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Gunmen stormed into the building, trapping dozens of employees inside and killing many people. A candidate for a seat on a provincial council was among those killed, along with an election worker, a civilian and a policeman. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

A torn election poster hangs next to barbed wire outside a polling station after Taliban launched an assault with a suicide bomber detonating his vehicle outside an election office in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, March 25, 2014. Less than two weeks before Afghans go to the polls to select their next president, it will largely be up to tens of thousands of domestic observers to catch signs of ballot box stuffing and other vote-rigging that tarnished Hamid Karzai’s re-election in 2009. The international mission is far smaller than in the country’s last national election, and relentless violence already has driven away many foreigners who signed up. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — When Afghans select their new president next month, it will largely be up to tens of thousands of Afghan poll watchers to catch signs of ballot box stuffing and other vote-rigging that tarnished Hamid Karzai’s re-election five years ago. The international observer mission is far smaller this time, and relentless violence has driven away many foreigners who signed up.

It’s an example of how Afghan civilian institutions and the military are adjusting to a shrinking international footprint. U.S. and allied combat troops are preparing to withdraw by the end of this year despite a resilient Taliban insurgency, and Syria and other conflicts are increasingly competing with Afghanistan for aid money and attention.

Afghans will be choosing a successor to Karzai in the April 5 election, since he is constitutionally barred from a third term. With three strong contenders out of nine candidates overall, nobody is expected to get the majority needed to avoid a runoff. If one candidate does win in the first round, others are more likely to cry foul.

Authorities are under tremendous pressure to prevent a repeat of the rampant fraud that discredited the last national elections in 2009, tarnishing Karzai’s second term as president and undermining public confidence in his government. Allegations of large-scale ballot stuffing, phantom polling stations and turnouts in some areas above 100 percent prompted U.N. auditors to throw out nearly a third of Karzai’s votes, pushing him below the 50 percent mark needed to avoid a second round.

All that happened with more than 1,200 international and 10,000 Afghan observers fanned out across the nation. This year, the number of foreigners signed up as observers for the presidential and provincial council elections has dropped sharply to about 200. The number of Afghans, on the other hand, has soared to more than 100,000.

“One of the impacts of tougher security is that it increases the price of doing business,” said Nicholas Haysom, the deputy U.N. chief in Afghanistan. “One of the real opportunities Afghanistan has to project a positive image of itself is credible elections.”

The bloodshed already has prompted two major international organizations to pull out their teams. The U.S.-based National Democratic Institute and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe evacuated their observers after last week’s attack on the Serena hotel in Kabul that killed a Paraguayan observer and eight other people, including two children.

“The 15 members of the election support team we sent to Kabul were all in the Serena the night of the attack. No one from our team was harmed but, as I’m sure you can understand, this was a very traumatic experience,” said Thomas Rymer, a spokesman for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. “We are also assessing the condition of the team members, and will couple this with the security assessment in making a decision on whether the team will return for the 5 April elections. The option to return is still under consideration.”

Thijs Berman, the head of the European Union’s election assessment

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