Afghan election planners get late start

As Karzai begins to disarm militias, voters must be registered and a constitution ratified - all by next June.

Moves are afoot, albeit behind schedule, to ready Afghanistan for something it hasn't witnessed since the 1960s - a modern, democratic election.

Census teams are fanning out across forbidding terrain to count civilians, and the Afghan government has set up headquarters in Kabul for the "New Beginnings Program" to coordinate the disarmament of an estimated 100,000 fighters.

But both steps got off to a late start, adding to concerns within the international community that law and order - as well as logistical - challenges will jeopardize the elections scheduled for June of next year.

"We are faced with increasing security problems, [and] the government lacks funds and resources for holding elections," says a senior government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It is better to delay it for a few months, rather than holding elections which may result into further disintegration of the law and order situation."

Afghan government sources say that Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah earlier this month impressed upon his visiting British counterpart, Jack Straw, the obstacles to holding elections on the current schedule. Speaking on CNN's Late Edition Sunday, Mr. Abdullah said the government is committed to holding elections on time. "If we are a month or so behind the schedule, that should be dealt with at that time," he said.

President Hamid Karzai's government, installed after the US-led forces ousted the Islamist Taliban regime, was granted international legitimacy by the 2001 Bonn Agreement. Under this accord, Afghanistan must adopt a constitution and establish a democratically elected government by June, 2004 with the assistance of United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

But that time frame now looks optimistic. The draft constitution has not been made public for discussion; its dissemination and adoption by a loya jirga, or grand council, must be done by October 2003, a prerequisite for holding elections.

Even if this deadline were met, that would leave only eight months to establish polling stations, mobilize thousands of election workers and observers, and arrange security. More difficult still will be the registering of a potential ten million voters, including refugees living in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. And the long winter in the north will only stymie efforts.

The UNAMA says it has prepared "plans" for the registration of voters. The Karzai government has yet to set up an election commission and to nominate its members. Sources say President Karzai wants to see Afghans rather than foreigners play the leading roles on the commission.

"It is a very tight calendar for holding elections," admits Manoel de Almeida e Silva, spokesman of UNAMA in Kabul. Just registering voters, he says, will require the use of helicopters, mules, and donkeys to reach less accessible areas.

The UNAMA does not have deep pockets, and the registration of the voters alone would cost $85 million. The UN budget for elections - drawn from voluntary donations by member states - is less than $200 million. But many observers believe that the real cost will be closer to $700 million - a staggering sum for cash-strapped Kabul - and this excludes security-related expenses.

Karzai's government is still struggling to establish its rule beyond Kabul.

Many warlords support the central government but do not comply with the disarmament campaign.

Even within the government, the effort is meeting with resistance, say observers. The country's own defense minister, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, is reputed to have a personal force of 7,000 soldiers in Kabul, with another 8,000 in the Panjshir Valley under his direct pay.

"Traditionally these warlords dictated the terms to the Kabul government, and if they are not disarmed, then they will dictate it during elections as well," says Jean-Jacques Blais, a Canadian national who heads the Mission Elections and Registration Project Afghanistan. "Otherwise elections will be under duress. You cannot have free and fair elections unless warlords are disarmed."

Traditional divisions in Afghan society are also hampering elections progress.

Pashtuns already accuse non-Pashtuns, such as Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, of creating districts in Northern Alliance-controlled areas to bolster their future electoral strength.

Meanwhile, these minorities blame Pashtuns for deliberately continuing to disrupt law and order in the south to "sabotage" elections.

Resistance to integrating women into the process is another sticking point.

For registration of the voters, around 3,000 to 4,000 Afghan men and women need to be trained. The difficult task is to convince the tribal chiefs to let the women be registered as voters, something considered to be "immoral and unethical" in Afghanistan's conservative tribal and male-dominated culture.

Afghanistan has been ruled by guns during 23 years of conflict and power struggle between warlords. There are no laws for political parties, as the country was governed by a monarchy under the preceding decades of peace. Not surprisingly then, consensus remains elusive on fundamental structural questions such as whether the country needs to have a parliamentary or presidential system of governance.

For Ayyaz Khan, a student of politics at Kabul University, Afghanistan needs to cover a long distance before having a democratic system in the country.

"Our journey has just started," says Mr. Khan, "The road to democracy, like other roads in Afghanistan, is filled with landmines."

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