First job for Afghan MPs: Find office

With barest essentials, new ministers face major logistical challenges in efforts at nation building.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They begin with start-up kits to nation building: The United Nations is giving each of Afghanistan's 30 new government ministers a desk and a chair, some paper clips and other office supplies, and a car to use on official business.

But even the minister for reconstruction - ostensibly one of the new government's most important jobs - doesn't yet have an office in which to set up shop. Amin Farhouny spent the day Monday driving around town to survey what has survived of Kabul's government buildings, browsing for office space in a city that, after more than two decades of war, looks something like a bleak wasteland painted by Salvador Dali.

In Afghanistan, even the most raw materials of governance are far from given. The night before the inauguration of Hamid Karzai, who was sworn in over the weekend as the head of this tattered nation's six-month interim government, the young adviser

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charged with translating his speech to English had to be let in by flashlight to the one office in the entire government that was known to have a working printer.

"There is an incredible lack of resources," says Daoub Yaqub, a lawyer and the executive director of the Washington-based Afghanistan-American Foundation. Mr. Yaqub, an eloquent, 30-something Afghan-American who fled this country's war at the age of 11, was just named a spokesman for Karzai.

"This is a totally disrupted society," he says, stirring sugar into his green tea with the end of a fork, while new ministers twice his age came to congratulate him. "We should be very realistic about the expectations we have of this administration."

Karzai - a Pashtun tribal leader with a pro-Western tilt and fluid English - is taking hold of his country's fractured reins this week in an attempt to bring stability and authority to a nation whose name has become synonymous with war and extremism.

But the challenge of keeping this nation's diverse tribal and ethnic groups on board the peace train looks as formidable as the hunt for Osama bin Laden. And faced with the daunting tasks of nation-building that will range from disarming tenacious militia groups to appeasing the country's various tribal factions to getting basic services to some of the most deprived people on earth, some here ask whether the enormity of the job fits the length of time and resources he has to do it. The Bonn Agreement gives him six months to start repairing Afghanistan and convene a 700-member loya jirga, or consultative council, which should lead to national elections in two years.

Karzai's inaugural promises sound good to Western-oriented ears. He says he will give out jobs based on merit and give women the rights they deserve. But implementing such sweeping changes and holding together a land of people who don't see themselves as Afghans so much as Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and a hodgepodge of other tribal, ethnic, and ideological identities could prove as tough as finding a place to print out the boss's speech.

"How will he meet the expectations he created in the minds of the people?" asks Hashmatullah Moslih, a political analyst who served as an adviser to outgoing President Burhanuddin, who resisted the Bonn Agreement.

Karzai will find himself torn between keeping all groups involved in the decisionmaking process and doling out jobs based on patronage and ethnic identity, a recipe for incompetence and corruption that stymies progress throughout the developing world. In a sign that he is going to create an inclusive government, though, Karzai late Monday appointed Rashid Dostum - an outspoken critic of the new government - as deputy defense minister.

Though few expect miracles in six months, there are immediate challenges facing Karzai that cannot be postponed. Observers say he must swiftly consolidate the country's various armed forces. Even getting Afghans to recognize one police force as representative of the nation will be a hurdle. That task will be aided by the presence of to-be-deployed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), spearheaded by the arrival this weekend of 60 British Royal Marine Commandos.

Equally important, Karzai will have to make finding and confiscating old weapons caches a priority. And, he will need to build confidence with various groups that feel shortchanged by the interim deal, such as those who remain loyal to Mr. Rabbani.

Though most here say they are keen to see foreign peacekeepers, it is hard to judge how long their welcome mat might last. Skeptics are concerned that they will open the door for heavy-handed foreign intervention. Mr. Moslih says he worries that where the world once paid too little attention to Afghanistan's problems, now it may try to micromanage them.

"Afghanistan in the past was a victim of the deliberate politics of indifference," Moslih says. "Afghanistan in the future will be a victim of the politics of interference."

But Yaqub argues that the world in general, and the US in particular, must not abandon Afghanistan for a second time, as it did after the Soviet Union withdrew its defeated troops in the late 1980s.

"The US needs to be involved beyond the Taliban," he says, and Afghanistan will desperately need the help of the international community, offering what he says is a conservative restoration bill. Estimate: between $10-$15 billion over the next few years.

Managing how those funds will come in may be Karzai's greatest challenge of all. About $600,000 of aid has arrived so far in what the UN special envoy to Afghanistan estimates will be an aid package in the "several billion dollar range."

On the one hand, Afghanistan has virtually no infrastructure to process and oversee large quantities of money, and its people lack expertise in how to distribute it responsibly. Letting foreign aid agencies do all the work, however, will be like giving out food instead of teaching people to fish.

One solution will be an independent board of experts - in part made up of successful members of the Afghan diaspora - who can focus on accountability rather than tribal loyalties.

"The worst thing that can happen is that a huge influx of money is coming in, and there's no infrastructure to manage it," says Yaqub.

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