KABUL - The Taliban urged Afghans on Thursday to stay away from the Aug. 20 elections, threatening to block the roads to polling stations and dismissing the balloting as an "American process."
Also Thursday, a U.S. service member was fatally injured in a rocket or mortar attack in southern Afghanistan, the U.S. command said. The death brought to 41 the number of U.S. service members to die in the Afghan war in July, the bloodiest month for U.S. forces in the eight-year war.
In a statement posted on a Web site used frequently by the militants, the extremist Islamic movement mocked the upcoming presidential and provincial polls as part of an American "failed strategy" in the country - paid for and secured by foreigners.
The statement highlights the pressure likely to face voters who choose to cast ballots in areas of the country where the insurgents are strongest.
"All those Afghans should stand together with the Islamic emirate and should not participate in this American process," the Taliban said in a statement. The Islamic emirate is the name used by Taliban groups loyal to Mullah Omar.
The statement urged Taliban fighters to prevent people from voting.
It said that a day before the elections, roads would be blocked to government vehicles and civilian traffic "and the people should be aware of that."
Hundreds of polling stations are likely to remain shut on the election date, almost all in areas dominated by Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group and the backbone of the Taliban. A low Pashtun turnout could call the legitimacy of the election results into question.
A low turnout in Pashtun areas could also cost President Hamid Karzai support among his fellow Pashtuns, who tend to vote by ethnicity even though many of them are disenchanted with him because of his ties to the Americans. Karzai's chief rival in the 39-candidate field, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, is popular in northern Tajik areas, which are more peaceful and more likely to have a strong turnout.
Karzai is widely assumed to be the front-runner but if he fails to win more than half the votes in the crowded field, he would face a runoff with the second-place finisher in October. Karzai could be vulnerable if his opponents rally around an alternative candidate in the runoff.
It was unclear whether the Taliban would be capable of intimidating large numbers of people from voting.
Ronald Neumann, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said the Taliban had tried to stop the 2004 presidential election but had failed.
"There will obviously be some danger if the Taliban really try to stop the voting but in my experience if people really want to vote they will do so," Neumann said.
Also Thursday, a roadside blast killed four Afghan guards in the south of the country, the Interior Ministry said. It said the blast occurred in Helmand province and the victims worked for a private security company.
Thousands of U.S. Marines and British soldiers are conducting anti-Taliban offensives in Helmand province, one of the centres of the Taliban insurgency.
Insurgents have ramped up attacks markedly since the last presidential election, and have dramatically increased their use of roadside bombs this year.
July has been the deadliest month of the war for both U.S. and international forces. Britain's Defence Ministry said 57 British soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan in the first two weeks of July - compared with 46 in the whole of June and 24 in May. A total of 22 British soldiers have been killed here this month.
Rising casualties have shaken public support for the war in Europe even as the U.S. ramps up its participation in the conflict.
On Wednesday, Premier Silvio Berlusconi said Italy will be looking for an exit strategy from Afghanistan after the August election.
Berlusconi's comment followed calls from within his own government to bring back Italy's 2,800 troops in Afghanistan. Those calls sparked controversy and Berlusconi was quick to assure allies that Italy would stay the course.
"Only after (the election), will it be possible to think about an exit strategy," Berlusconi said during a meeting with senators from his own conservative party. He said any exit strategy "will have to be the subject of careful and agreed-upon analysis with international allies."
Italy's troops are stationed in the western region of Herat and in Kabul. Rome is also sending an additional 500 troops on temporary deployment ahead of the vote.