Afghan campaign trail barely trod by Karzai

From his spacious but sparse home in Kabul, Homayoun Assefy is engineering the unimaginable: an Afghanistan without Hamid Karzai as president.

Mr. Assefy's methods are democratic. Through his new royalist party, the National Unity Movement of Afghanistan, Assefy is gathering multiethnic support to restore some constitutional role for the monarchy of King Zahir Shah, who was deposed more than 30 years ago. Assefy is himself a first cousin of the king.

Assefy says he worries that Karzai's credibility - and by extension, America's - is slipping because of the slow rate of reconstruction. Without change, he argues, Afghanistan could revert to chaos and war.

"This is a risky policy to put all the eggs in one basket. Mr. Karzai - he has lost his popularity, his credibility, his legitimacy," says the businessman and former fighter against the Soviets. "But even knowing this, the Americans are saying Karzai must be the next president. If this government fails, we could replace it. But if the Americans fail and leave Afghanistan, then it would be the end of all hope."

With most of the old powerbrokers preparing for next year's planned elections, it's curious that the only person who seems unprepared is Karzai. While the transitional president spent the past few months traveling the globe seeking aid, communists reformed their party, former anti-Soviet commanders met to create a common platform, and now the royalists have begun to enlist members. Even some of Karzai's supporters warn that time is running out to set up a campaign network.

"There is no question that the US will support Karzai," says Shahmahmood Miakhel, a senior official in the Interior Ministry and a friend of Karzai's. "But without a platform, without a network of supporters, without a political party, it is hard to reach the hearts and minds of people and very difficult to implement your programs."

Another friend of Karzai's is more abrupt. "Either he hasn't thought about the election or he hasn't told people about it," says the high-level official. "Neither possibility is good."

While US officials say the White House supports the transitional government, rather than specifically its president, foreign diplomats here say that American policy depends heavily on the continued rule of the US-leaning Karzai. The incoming US ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has projected Karzai as the only man to bring continuity and stability in the face of Taliban and Al Qaeda attacks. But inside the 1,500-year-old walled city of Kabul, where whispered intrigues and secret plots are as common as loaves of flat Afghan bread, Afghan politicians themselves seem determined to talk about alternatives.

Rumors of coup d'état

The most serious threat to Karzai's hold on power came last month with a series of meetings between top mujahideen, the Islamic resisters of Soviet rule. In the meetings held in the homes of commander Abdul Rasool Sayaaf, Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim, and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the commanders shared their concerns over the growing American influence over the Karzai government, and the coming policy of disarmament that would disband the several hundred thousand militia soldiers under their private control.

At the final meeting, Marshal Fahim and his Northern Alliance commanders nominated Mr. Rabbani to be the mujahideen's presidential candidate, but other commanders reportedly withheld support.

The fact that the meeting took place during Karzai's September trip to the United Nations General Assembly meeting, gave rise to rumors of a possible coup d'état. While Fahim later denied any plans for a coup, peacekeepers of the International Security and Assistance Force rolled out in tanks to protect the presidential palace, nonetheless.

On his return, Karzai passed a new law that banned any acting military commander from participating in the coming elections.

"The commanders want to ensure that the next government of Afghanistan should be based on Islam," one participating commander told the Monitor privately. "They don't want this country to be turned into a colony of the US."

As yet, there is no announced date for the coming national elections, where the UN hopes to register some 10.5 million voters, most of them casting votes for the first time ever. US and UN officials insist that elections will be held next year, as required by the 2001 Bonn conference. But some political observers speculate that the country may end up holding only presidential elections next year, postponing the selection of parliament to 2005.

Winning hearts and minds

In the meantime, other observers say Karzai desperately needs to turn to the business of setting up a party and spelling out his plans for the country.

"He needs to come up with a platform and then make the Afghan people feel that this is their platform," says Luis Sobalvarro, area officer for the International Republican Institute, a branch of the US Republican Party that funds democracy projects. "If he doesn't reach out to the Afghans, then somebody else will."

"In some parts of the country, the Taliban are making inroads because they're in regions where there is no governmental presence," says Mr. Sobalvarro. "This lack of a government presence may have to do with security problems, but the Afghan villagers understand it as neglect."

For his part, the royalist politician Assefy says the problem lies in the fact that the Karzai government doesn't have the legitimacy to pull the country back from the brink of ruin. The only man who can do that, Assefy says, is the elderly king.

"In Afghanistan, legitimacy is more important than legality," Assefy says. "If you don't have legitimacy, you won't have the cooperation of the people."

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