The campaign period for parliamentary and provincial council elections in Afghanistan officially ended on September 16, but election workers and non-governmental organization activists will be furiously running around trying to explain election procedures and the workings of representative government to potential voters right up until the moment polls open.
The September 18 elections, marking the completion of the country's almost four-year political transition, will occur against a background of violence a fact reinforced by the September 15 assassination of Abdul Hadi, a parliamentary candidate in southern Helmand province. Hadi, who was gunned down outside his home by suspected Taliban militants, became the seventh parliamentary candidate to be killed. Afghan authorities and international officials, who have been consumed with tackling the logistical details of staging elections in a country lacking an infrastructure, are now bracing for election-day violence. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite the high risk of a Taliban attempt to disrupt the polling, many of Afghanistan's estimated 12 million registered voters are enthusiastic about the opportunity to cast ballots. The yearning for stability is palpable, with many hoping that Afghanistan's new political institutions will somehow be able to break the country's cycle of violence that stretches back to the 1979 Soviet invasion.
The security challenges surrounding the election have forced Afghan officials and international donors to focus mainly on the present. As a result, little thought has been given to the daunting reconstruction tasks that President Hamid Karzai's administration, along with the MPs elected on September 18, will confront in the post-transition period. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Foremost among the myriad problems are the Taliban insurgency, the persistent phenomenon of warlordism and drug cultivation.
There is a danger that public expectations concerning the parliamentary and provincial council elections are running too high, given the lack of resources available. The day after the elections will bring enormous uncertainty about the future of this country.
One thing is certain: Afghanistan's new political system will not be able to succeed without steady and substantial assistance from the international community over the long term. Unfortunately, the West's commitment of resources and military manpower to support Afghanistan, which is still the third poorest country in the world, has been far too little. It seems that Western governments, especially the Bush administration, have lost sight of the fact that Osama bin Laden exploited Afghanistan's poverty and political fragmentation to build up his al Qaeda organization. For two years now, the crisis in Iraq has sapped the international community's strength and will to promote Afghanistan's reconstruction. The damage done by Hurricane Katrina stands to divert additional attention and funds from Afghanistan.
Afghan leaders are worried that, as the political transition concludes, Western donors are looking to get out of Afghanistan. "The international community should not immediately think Afghanistan's work has been done and it's over," Karzai said.
Helping to fan concerns, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, sent signals that he desired to reduce the 20,000-strong US military force in Afghanistan by up to 20 percent in 2006. The American draw-down would supposedly be filled by an increased security commitment by NATO, which leads a separate 11,000-strong peacekeeping force. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Plans call for the American and NATO commands to merge next spring, but major NATO countries, including France and Germany, are resisting the move. At a September 14 news conference following a NATO meeting that discussed the merger issue, Rumsfeld downplayed the brewing controversy, saying it was "much ado about nothing." When pressed on the troop reduction issue, Rumsfeld was evasive: "If and when there is any decision to reduce forces, I will announce it," he said, according to a transcript distributed by the Defense Department.
Security is only one component of Afghanistan's reconstruction calculus. Karzai has failed to foster the spirit of nation-building. After winning presidential elections last October he was supposed to deal toughly with warlords, drug dealers and criminals. Instead, in order to shore up his own political position, he has dragged his feet on moving against them, despite overwhelming evidence that that is what the public wants.
He has appointed known drug dealers and abusers of human rights as governors, and many of his ministers have gained reputations for rampant corruption. In addition, drug cultivation and trafficking threaten to roll back much of the democratization progress made over the last four years. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Not a single warlord or drug dealer has faced a trial or sentencing.
Western donors are funding the creation and training of an Afghan army, police, justice system and bureaucracy. Yet Karzai's immediate team offers little example in the way of sacrifice and service that could inspire these institutions or the nation. The United Nations special envoy to the country, Jean Arnault, recently said that Afghanistan's population is exasperated over the inability of the bureaucracy and the judiciary to function as it should.
Many of those who end up winning seats in parliament are likely to be angry and frustrated. Thus, there is a high probability that the new parliament, rather than being a venue for discussing development goals, will be an overheated venue for anti-Karzai criticism.
Karzai still has the time and public goodwill to rediscover the vision he had for his nation when he assumed the leadership of Afghanistan's interim government. Ultimately only a renewed Western commitment, rather than withdrawal will give the Afghans the confidence to tackle their horrendous list of problems, and encourage them to push ahead with nation-building.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistan-based journalist and author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."