Afghanistan's parliamentary elections today (September 18) is an eventakin to a political riot, with almost 6,000 candidates scrumming for 249seats in the new national legislature, as well as for an 430 positionson the country's 34 provincial councils.
Some candidates feature strong anti-democratic credentials, includingwarlords, former communists and even four top leaders of the formerradical Islamic Taliban regime. Meanwhile, roughly 10 percent of thecandidates are women, who had virtually no civil rights during theTaliban era. Those seeking office tend to have little understanding ofhow representative government is supposed to function, and the electionsthemselves hold a great potential for chaos because of the fear ofterrorist attacks, and lingering confusion over election legislation. Inaddition, many of the 12 million Afghans expected to vote areilliterate.
The flaws in the electoral process may be glaring, but for Afghanistan,a country riven by more than 25 years of civil strife, the parliamentaryvote offers perhaps the best chance of forging a national consensus thatis needed to overcome the country's myriad problems.
To succeed in putting Afghanistan on a stable development path,President Hamid Karzai's administration, along with the legislatorselected today, must find a way to break a cycle of violence that startedwith the 1979 Soviet invasion. The cycle is now driven by pernicioustrends: an Islamic radical insurgency in eastern and southern provinces;deeply rooted inter-ethnic animosity that has left the countryfragmented; and a burgeoning drug trade. Ancillary problems - includingpervasive official corruption, along with lawlessness promoted bywarlord bands that rule rural areas - deepen the government'schallenges. It is worth noting that Osama bin Laden's al Qaedaorganization exploited Afghanistan's tumultuous conditions in the late1990s to establish terrorist bases in the country.
Afghanistan's political transition began in late 2001. In response tothe September 11 tragedy, a US-led offensive drove the Taliban frompower in Kabul and uprooted the al Qaeda terrorist camps. Aninternational conference, held in December 2001 in the German city ofBonn, drew up a transition blueprint that envisioned presidential andlegislative elections in the spring of 2004. Continuing violence,however, forced repeated postponements. The presidential election, woneasily by Karzai, eventually occurred last October. Officials held offon the parliamentary and provincial council elections until now to giveextra time for stabilization measures, including efforts to disarmwarlord militias, to take hold in outlying regions.
Despite the problems and delays, many Afghanistan experts view thetransition period as a qualified success, deeming the interimgovernment's mere ability to survive as a significant accomplishment."The Bonn process has probably been more successful than most dared tohope," said Marina Ottaway, an Afghanistan expert at the CarnegieEndowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
With the transition period coming to a close, though, concern ismounting that Afghanistan's new political institutions lack the heft tostand and tackle economic and social challenges. "One must remember thatit [the transition] has all been done artificially - engineered fromabroad," Ottaway cautioned, pointing out that international aid and aforeign military presence are what keeps Karzai's administration afloat."What we may be building is a house of cards."
Ottaway's doubts are rooted in Afghanistan's persistent instability. Insome respects, conditions may be worse now than when Karzai assumed thetransitional presidency in 2002. Although the US military asserts theradical Islamic insurgency is losing steam, at least 1,200insurgency-related deaths have occurred so far in 2005, the highesttotal for any year since the launch of US-led anti-terrorism campaign.
Radical Islamic guerrillas, drawn largely from Taliban ranks, have takenadvantage of the mountainous terrain along the Afghan-Pakistani borderto stage raids and ambushes. Attacks have intensified during the run-upto the parliamentary elections. On September 13, for example, a roadsidebomb wounded two US soldiers. A 20,000-strong US military force isengaged in counter-insurgency operations in southern and easternAfghanistan.
Karzai's administration has also faltered in promoting inter-ethnicreconciliation. Afghanistan is a patchwork of nationalities, with ethnicUzbeks and Tajiks the predominant ethnic groups in the North, andPashtuns prevalent in the South. After the departure of Sovietoccupation forces in 1989, various ethnically based militias engaged ina prolonged battle for political supremacy, reducing Kabul to rubble.The sudden rise of the Taliban, espousing a rigid interpretation ofIslam, may well have been a reaction incessant inter-ethnic warfareduring the early and mid 1990s. Another by-product of the chaotic 1990swas warlordism, in which militia groups operated in rural areas beyondthe reach of any outside authority.
Political representatives of the various nationalities still tend to bemore loyal to their particular ethnic group or home region than to thecentral government. And for much of its tenure, the Karzaiadministration's reach has not extended far beyond Kabul, which has beenunder the protection of a United Nations-mandated peacekeeping force,known as ISAF (International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan).
Partly because of the central government's weakness, drug cultivationand trafficking is once again a major problem, with Afghanistan nowresponsible for generating an estimated 87 percent of the world's heroinsupply. Warlords are heavily involved in trafficking, using the profitsto finance their private armies.
Billions of dollars in international aid delivered since 2001 have notgenerated the hoped-for returns in terms of political stability. Butthere have been some encouraging developments. In late 2004, forexample, Karzai ousted several prominent warlords, including IsmailKhan, who controlled the western city of Herat. More recently, the landunder drug cultivation declined 21 percent in 2005 over 2004 levels,according to a report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs andCrime (UNODC). Despite the big drop in drug cultivation, the totaloutput of opium declined only marginally. Though upbeat about thefindings, the UNODC warns that progress could be fleeting.
For Afghanistan's new political order to flourish, Karzai and thelegislature will have to establish financial independence at some point.None of the recent small successes in rolling back warlords and drugcultivation could have happened without massive foreign assistance. Adonor conference in 2004 pledged $8.3 billion in development assistanceover a two-to-three year period. The international community willdoubtless remain committed to promoting Afghanistan's democratizationover the medium term. The question is whether the Afghan government willever be able to collect enough revenue domestically to meet all of thecountry's continuing needs. Ottaway, the Carnegie Endowment expert,noted that the parliamentary election is costing $150 million, paid forby international donors, while the Afghan government's annual budget isapproximately $600 million.
"Afghanistan can currently be considered a ward of the internationalcommunity and the international community won't pay for it forever,"Ottaway said.
The Afghan government's ability to tap into new revenue streams appearslimited. One potential new income source is the so-called Trans-AfghanPipeline (TAP) project, which could transport gas from Iran andTurkmenistan to Pakistan and India. However, the project faces numerouslogistical and political hurdles, including US reluctance to allowIranian participation.
It might be best for all concerned to view international assistance toAfghanistan as premium payments on a global liability insurance policy.After all, even a heavily subsidized, half-baked democracy is morepalatable than a failed state in which terrorism can thrive.
Justin Burke is Eurasianet’s publisher.