The legitimacy of Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections is severely threatened by insurgent attacks on candidates and the lack of security provided by the government, an international rights group said on Thursday.

Human Rights Watch said in a report that the candidates running in the September 18 vote face assassinations, kidnappings and intimidation by insurgents and rivals. Female candidates are especially at risk, it said.

The government and its Western allies hope the elections for the lower house of parliament will help consolidate the country’s shaky democracy and political stability, eventually allowing for the withdrawal of the roughly 140,000 NATO—led foreign troops in the country.

But many Afghans and international observers fear the vote could turn bloody after the Taliban vowed to attack polling places and warned Afghans not to participate in what they called a sham vote.

“Taliban attacks and the broad lack of confidence in the Afghan government to conduct a secure election threatens its validity,” Rachel Reid, a Human Right Watch researcher in Afghanistan, said in the report. “Insurgent violence, particularly against women candidates, was inevitable, but the government’s weak response was not.”

The Taliban have already claimed responsibility for the killing of three parliamentary candidates during the campaign period, the rights group said. The insurgents have also killed and threatened campaign supporters and voters, it added.

On July 14 in eastern Logar province, two Taliban insurgents on a motorbike shot dead a shopkeeper who had displayed a poster for a parliamentary candidate in his business, the report said. On July 16, the Taliban killed two brothers who supported a local candidate in the province.

Afghan election monitors reported that in eastern Nangarhar province, Taliban have made house visits warning that they will cut off the fingers of people found with voter registration cards, the rights group said.

“Attacks on candidates and voters are war crimes,” Ms. Reid said in the report. “It is sadly telling that the Taliban are willing to kill those who engage in this simple act of personal freedom.”

The insurgents seek to topple the pro—Western government in Kabul and drive foreign troops from the country, and have boycotted or sought to sabotage all aspects of the political process, including elections.

The rights group report said female candidates are especially at risk. In one northern province, letters have been distributed accusing a woman running for a parliamentary seat of being un—Islamic, it said.

“In this tense political environment, these elections could have wide—reaching ramifications for Afghanistan’s future stability,” Ms. Reid said in the report. “The government will have to do far more to persuade the Afghan people that it can, and will, guarantee the security and independence of these elections.”

On Wednesday, Afghan election officials said scores of additional polling stations will be closed during the vote because of the deteriorating security situation in the country. During last year’s fraud—marred presidential election, 6,167 voting centres nominally operated, compared to some 5,800 which are planned to be opened during the upcoming vote.

Also on Thursday, NATO officials dismissed Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s assessment of the war, posted on jihadist websites. In a Ramadan message, the cleric told his followers that they were “winning the war,” and that American troops would soon leave.

“He’s hiding outside the country and is in no position to give an authoritative assessment of what’s happening,” said NATO spokesman Brigadier General Chris Whitecross. “He likely does know that 235 of his subordinate commanders and more than 2,500 rank—and—file fighters have been captured or killed in the last 90 days.”

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