Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 November 2004
Issue No. 717
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The easy part is over

With the Afghan elections viewed as a success President Karzai now begins a significantly more difficult task, writes Peter Willems

When Hamid Karzai gave his acceptance speech as Afghanistan's first elected president earlier this month, he emphasised that the election marks a turning point in the war-ravaged country, still riddled with armed militias and a growing drug industry.

"They voted for a government based on laws and institutions, and that is what we are going to provide," said Karzai at the Presidential Palace in Kabul. "There will not be any militia forces in Afghanistan. There will definitely, definitely not be any drug thing in Afghanistan. We're going to be dedicated, strong in working against that."

Karzai, the expected winner from 16 candidates, won 55 per cent of the votes, 39 per cent ahead of his primary rival Yunus Qanooni, former minister of education. Election officials said that approximately eight million out of the 10.5 million electorate voted.

But Karzai's job to stabilise Afghanistan and push forward the reconstruction of a country that was at war for a quarter of a century will be far from easy.

A significant challenge will be reducing the power of Afghan warlords. Before the election, Karzai took bold steps in sidelining two warlords considered threats to the government: Ismail Khan was removed as the governor of the northwest province of Herat and General Mohammed Fahim was dropped as Karzai's vice presidential running mate. However, the fragile environment will likely see Karzai unable to ignore all the warlords when choosing cabinet ministers.

"On the one hand, [Karzai] won with a large margin over his nearest challenger. But I think the really significant thing about this election is how much it reveals about the divisions that remain in the country, particularly ethnically and regionally," said Vikram Parekh, a researcher for the International Crisis Group based in Kabul. "And although Karzai did well in urban areas of the north and west, on the balance it looks like, in rural areas, the bulk of the people voted for individuals whom he would like to exclude from his next cabinet. Consequently, I think he is going to have a harder time [leaving those people out of his cabinet]. Most of the people who might have worn the tag of 'warlord' before will now be able to say, legitimately: 'We represent our people.'"

Karzai also has the task of disarming the militias. The Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme, which is run by the Afghanistan government and the United Nations, has not been very successful. Only 21,000 weapons have been collected from 60,000 militiamen -- far short of the 40,000 pre-election goal.

In October, a new strategy was implemented to help the DDR programme pick up pace. It now includes financial support and training for militiamen if they decide to hand over their weapons.

"The commanders and senior officials will be given a monthly salary for the next two years, while their soldiers will be offered vocational training to help them become integrated into Afghan society," said Lutfullah Mashal, special assistant to the minister of interior. "This should make a big difference."

However, the Afghanistan government will have one drawback. The newly formed Afghan National Army currently has 17,000 soldiers, and is not expected to become 70,000 strong before 2007. US troops, numbering 18,000, are preoccupied with the Taliban in the south while 9,000 NATO-led peace-keeping forces mostly operate in the capital.

"If militias resist or start an uprising, the Afghanistan government will not have enough military strength to stop them, especially if more than one uprising happens in different areas at the same time," said an Afghan analyst.

While a successful democratic election is celebrated, Afghanistan's insecurity is highlighted by the kidnapping of three foreign election workers by the Army of Muslims, a Taliban splinter group. They demand the withdrawal of British and US troops from Afghanistan and the release of Muslims detained at Guantanamo Bay. There is a growing fear that Iraqi style kidnappings and beheadings are moving into Afghanistan.

Another challenge will be to reduce opium production. "Maybe once upon a time the greatest threat was from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but the problems caused by drug trafficking are now on the rise," said former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani who supported Karzai during the election. "It is a very big problem."

Since the Taliban regime was toppled, the Afghan drug industry has grown and now supplies the world with 75 per cent of its opium. Last year, it pulled in around $2.8 billion, accounting for over half of Afghanistan's GDP. The US State Department predicts that poppy cultivation will jump 40 per cent this year.

While Mashal stated that "our eradication task force is ready, and the goal is to eradicate 90 per cent of poppies in the next 12 months," the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has warned that destroying the drug business will be far from easy. The sale of opium has provided a massive income for the Taliban, its affiliates and the warlords. Furthermore, law enforcement has not been fully established in most rural areas and a judicial system has yet to be developed. Farmers, who have received little help in changing crops, have threatened to plant poppies again this year in order to survive financially.

While the Afghan people were promised a brighter future in a post-Taliban era, the country remains in tatters. Along with agriculture, little progress has been made in the country's infrastructure and healthcare. The majority of Afghans live in poverty with around half living on less than a dollar a day.

"Instead of the stability promised three years ago, Afghanistan continues to stumble along, barely one level above that of a failed state," stated former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recently.

For Karzai to make progress in rebuilding the country, he will have to receive more help from abroad. At the Berlin donor conference this year, countries offered less than half of the $27.6 billion Karzai requested for reconstruction and, with US funds being directed to Iraq, some Afghans doubt they will receive the support required.

Although Karzai faces numerous obstacles ahead, there have been some positive signs. Braced for attacks by the Taliban who had vowed to derail the electoral process, violence was kept to a minimum and the presidential election was seen as a surprising success. Afghanistan and US officials claim that there is now a division within the Taliban after its failure to hamper the election. The Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is said to be at odds with some of his high-ranking fighters.

In his election, Karzai received overwhelming support from his own ethnic group, the Pashtoun, which constitutes the majority of the population in the south. In the last year, fighting between US soldiers and Taliban followers, who are led mostly by Pashtoun leaders, has left over 1,000 dead. Analysts believe that with Karzai at the helm, sympathy for the Taliban from Pashtouns will diminish.

"Karzai will be able to stabilise the Pashtoun areas," said Tahir Lodin, a translator of Pashtoun origin living in Kabul. "We are confident that he is the best person who can stabilise the country, especially in the Pashtoun south."

Still, it is clear that Karzai will face many challenges down the road.

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