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Afghanistan Faces Next Test on Path to Democracy

15 September 2005

Sunday's legislative elections in Afghanistan are a follow-on to last year's presidential vote that installed Hamid Karzai as president.  Governance in Afghanistan will get a lot more complex.

Since late 2001, when he was first chosen as Afghanistan's interim leader, Hamid Karzai has had the freedom to rule without interference from any parliament or legislature.  But all that is about to change.

If all goes according to plan Sunday, Mr. Karzai will have to justify decisions and actions to a 249-member lower house of parliament.  The new Afghan parliament can be expected to carp and criticize the chief executive, as legislatures around the world generally do.

Mr. Karzai was once routinely labeled the Mayor of Kabul, because of the limited power of his government.  Local warlords, many with their own armed militias, ruled in the countryside. But now, analysts say, Mr. Karzai has managed to persuade many of the proud regional leaders to enter the political process.

Larry Goodson, professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College, says some of those now running for parliament still have their private armies, and are involved in the drugs or arms trade.

"You really have a lot of these guys who have not been disarmed, fully demobilized, fully taken out of their control of illicit economies, who are able to use all that to bring pressure to bear on the electoral process," said Mr. Goodson.

Elizabeth Jones, former assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, says getting a handle on the drug trafficking problem is, in the eyes of the international community, a key test for Afghanistan.

"There is a very strong sense that the government under President Karzai must get control of the drug trade, in order to assure that he is in charge of the government, and that there are good programs for job creation and prosperity that are possible, that do not make Afghanistan dependent on a drug culture," said Ms. Jones.

Kenneth Katzman, senior analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, notes that remnants of the Taleban are still around as well, and have made their presence felt in the lead-up to the elections. 

"After the election, the presidential election, they were reeling. They couldn't mount much. They had lost momentum.  But then, once the spring came and the snows melted, we have seen an upsurge.  And they are being taken more seriously.  So, in essence, they have proved that they are still a factor," he explained.

Security remains a paramount concern for the Afghan government.  Nearly 20,000 U.S. troops are hunting Taleban and al-Qaida fighters, while some 11,000 NATO troops are engaged in peacekeeping duties. 

Mr. Katzman says the new parliament will want some say in issues like long-term U.S. basing in Afghanistan.

"There are going to be more constraints on what he [Karzai] is able to do, in terms of U.S. relations, say, on the long-term basing issue that Karzai has pushed this year.  I think some in the parliament are going to push him to constrain where the U.S. can operate, to have more say over prisoners in Afghanistan, and U.S. operations and patrols, et cetera," added Mr. Katzman.

There have been published reports that the United States would like to pull out some of its troops, and turn some of the counter-insurgency duties over to NATO, but that the NATO countries are reluctant to take on that role.

Mr. Goodson says, any talk of troop pullouts makes the Afghan government nervous.

"The Karzai government has a lot at stake, is very fearful of this disengagement, and in no way, shape or form really sees NATO as a sort of adequate replacement for the OEF [Operation Enduring Freedom] coalition," noted Mr. Goodson.

Afghans are fearful of a return to the early 1990s, when world attention and resources turned elsewhere, as Afghanistan slid into chaos and civil war, followed by the draconian rule of the Taleban.  But analysts say, in the era after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, which prompted the U.S.-led invasion to rout the Taleban for harboring terrorists, the international community is not likely to take its eyes off Afghanistan again.

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