Afghanistan's parliamentary elections today (September 18) is an event
akin to a political riot, with almost 6,000 candidates scrumming for 249
seats in the new national legislature, as well as for an 430 positions
on the country's 34 provincial councils.
Some candidates feature strong anti-democratic credentials, including
warlords, former communists and even four top leaders of the former
radical Islamic Taliban regime. Meanwhile, roughly 10 percent of the
candidates are women, who had virtually no civil rights during the
Taliban era. Those seeking office tend to have little understanding of
how representative government is supposed to function, and the elections
themselves hold a great potential for chaos because of the fear of
terrorist attacks, and lingering confusion over election legislation. In
addition, many of the 12 million Afghans expected to vote are
The flaws in the electoral process may be glaring, but for Afghanistan,
a country riven by more than 25 years of civil strife, the parliamentary
vote offers perhaps the best chance of forging a national consensus that
is 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 legislators
elected today, must find a way to break a cycle of violence that started
with the 1979 Soviet invasion. The cycle is now driven by pernicious
trends: an Islamic radical insurgency in eastern and southern provinces;
deeply rooted inter-ethnic animosity that has left the country
fragmented; and a burgeoning drug trade. Ancillary problems - including
pervasive official corruption, along with lawlessness promoted by
warlord bands that rule rural areas - deepen the government's
challenges. It is worth noting that Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda
organization exploited Afghanistan's tumultuous conditions in the late
1990s to establish terrorist bases in the country.
Afghanistan's political transition began in late 2001. In response to
the September 11 tragedy, a US-led offensive drove the Taliban from
power in Kabul and uprooted the al Qaeda terrorist camps. An
international conference, held in December 2001 in the German city of
Bonn, drew up a transition blueprint that envisioned presidential and
legislative elections in the spring of 2004. Continuing violence,
however, forced repeated postponements. The presidential election, won
easily by Karzai, eventually occurred last October. Officials held off
on the parliamentary and provincial council elections until now to give
extra time for stabilization measures, including efforts to disarm
warlord militias, to take hold in outlying regions.
Despite the problems and delays, many Afghanistan experts view the
transition period as a qualified success, deeming the interim
government's mere ability to survive as a significant accomplishment.
"The Bonn process has probably been more successful than most dared to
hope," said Marina Ottaway, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
With the transition period coming to a close, though, concern is
mounting that Afghanistan's new political institutions lack the heft to
stand and tackle economic and social challenges. "One must remember that
it [the transition] has all been done artificially - engineered from
abroad," Ottaway cautioned, pointing out that international aid and a
foreign 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. In
some respects, conditions may be worse now than when Karzai assumed the
transitional presidency in 2002. Although the US military asserts the
radical Islamic insurgency is losing steam, at least 1,200
insurgency-related deaths have occurred so far in 2005, the highest
total for any year since the launch of US-led anti-terrorism campaign.
Radical Islamic guerrillas, drawn largely from Taliban ranks, have taken
advantage of the mountainous terrain along the Afghan-Pakistani border
to stage raids and ambushes. Attacks have intensified during the run-up
to the parliamentary elections. On September 13, for example, a roadside
bomb wounded two US soldiers. A 20,000-strong US military force is
engaged in counter-insurgency operations in southern and eastern
Karzai's administration has also faltered in promoting inter-ethnic
reconciliation. Afghanistan is a patchwork of nationalities, with ethnic
Uzbeks and Tajiks the predominant ethnic groups in the North, and
Pashtuns prevalent in the South. After the departure of Soviet
occupation forces in 1989, various ethnically based militias engaged in
a prolonged battle for political supremacy, reducing Kabul to rubble.
The sudden rise of the Taliban, espousing a rigid interpretation of
Islam, may well have been a reaction incessant inter-ethnic warfare
during the early and mid 1990s. Another by-product of the chaotic 1990s
was warlordism, in which militia groups operated in rural areas beyond
the reach of any outside authority.
Political representatives of the various nationalities still tend to be
more loyal to their particular ethnic group or home region than to the
central government. And for much of its tenure, the Karzai
administration's reach has not extended far beyond Kabul, which has been
under 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 cultivation
and trafficking is once again a major problem, with Afghanistan now
responsible for generating an estimated 87 percent of the world's heroin
supply. Warlords are heavily involved in trafficking, using the profits
to finance their private armies.
Billions of dollars in international aid delivered since 2001 have not
generated the hoped-for returns in terms of political stability. But
there have been some encouraging developments. In late 2004, for
example, Karzai ousted several prominent warlords, including Ismail
Khan, who controlled the western city of Herat. More recently, the land
under drug cultivation declined 21 percent in 2005 over 2004 levels,
according to a report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and
Crime (UNODC). Despite the big drop in drug cultivation, the total
output of opium declined only marginally. Though upbeat about the
findings, the UNODC warns that progress could be fleeting.
For Afghanistan's new political order to flourish, Karzai and the
legislature will have to establish financial independence at some point.
None of the recent small successes in rolling back warlords and drug
cultivation could have happened without massive foreign assistance. A
donor conference in 2004 pledged $8.3 billion in development assistance
over a two-to-three year period. The international community will
doubtless remain committed to promoting Afghanistan's democratization
over the medium term. The question is whether the Afghan government will
ever be able to collect enough revenue domestically to meet all of the
country's continuing needs. Ottaway, the Carnegie Endowment expert,
noted that the parliamentary election is costing $150 million, paid for
by international donors, while the Afghan government's annual budget is
approximately $600 million.
"Afghanistan can currently be considered a ward of the international
community and the international community won't pay for it forever,"
The Afghan government's ability to tap into new revenue streams appears
limited. One potential new income source is the so-called Trans-Afghan
Pipeline (TAP) project, which could transport gas from Iran and
Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India. However, the project faces numerous
logistical and political hurdles, including US reluctance to allow
It might be best for all concerned to view international assistance to
Afghanistan as premium payments on a global liability insurance policy.
After all, even a heavily subsidized, half-baked democracy is more
palatable than a failed state in which terrorism can thrive.