Afghanistan's off-again, on-again, partial elections

The Central Asian nation sets Oct. 9 for their first post-Taliban presidential elections. Will the Karzai government be ready?

After months of debate and two postponements, Afghanistan is pushing ahead with just half an election. By setting the date for the presidential elections as Oct. 9 - while postponing the more complex parliamentary elections until next April - the Central Asian nation will embark on its path to democratic rule.

But given the molasses-slow pace of militia disarmament and lack of international funding for the election process and security, some here are wondering, what's the rush?

Although Afghanistan's Joint Electoral Management Board and interim President Hamid Karzai's government deny any political pressure to schedule Afghanistan's elections before the US presidential election in November, many analysts see an imprint of stars and stripes on the decision.

"Given the turmoil in Iraq, there is a strong desire to see the [Afghan] elections this year and [give the Bush administration] one foreign-policy success," says Vikram Parekh, an analyst in Kabul with the International Crisis Group.

The president of the Joint Electoral Management Board, Zakim Shah, says that outside pressures did exist, "but I did not accept any of it, this was a decision of the Board. We wanted to keep the trust of the Afghan people in the election process, we could not postpone the presidential elections until next year," says Mr. Shah.

Despite attacks by Taliban insurgents, voter registration is proceeding well. More than 6.3 million out of an estimated electorate of nearly 10 million have registered to vote so far.

But the delayed decision now leaves little time for other preparations.

Shah says the country's electoral law requires political parties and presidential candidates to register 75 days before election day. Announcing the election on July 9 gave political parties 17 daysto register their candidates by showing that the candidate has 10,000 supporters. Most analysts see Mr. Karzai as the favorite to win. But some say other potential candidates won't have enough time to register.

"Other presidential candidates may cry foul and accuse the Afghan government and Karzai of not holding free and fair elections," says Mr. Parekh.

Analysts also worry about the security of the process, not only from the Taliban but from warlords with local militias at their disposal. The United Nations Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) - program to rid Afghanistan of private and armed militias - is behind schedule.

"From a security viewpoint, the environment is decent for presidential elections ... but more needs to happen in the DDR program," said the United Nations' special representative to Afghanistan, Jean Arnault, at a UN press conference in Kabul.

Of the 100,000 nongovernmental soldiers here, according to estimates by Afghanistan minister of defense, less than 11,000 have been through the DDR program.

Violence, aimed at slowing both the DDR and the voter registration process, is been on the rise in the last couple of weeks. On Sunday, a bomb exploded near where 750 men were parading prior to disarmament in the western province of Herat. Six people were killed and 34 injured in the incident, which is believed to be a reaction to the start of the DDR process in Herat.

Two weeks ago, in the southern city of Jalalabad, two Afghan election workers were killed when a bombed ripped through their bus.

Mullah Dadullah, a Taliban commander responsible for operations in southern Afghanistan, reiterated a warning for Afghans to stay away from polling stations Monday. "The people of Afghanistan should not go close to registration centers, because we have decided to step up attacks on them," he told Reuters by satellite telephone.

Comments like these worry election officials. "We need ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] to expand right now, not a week before the elections," says Shah, noting NATO's recent decision to add 3,500 peacekeeping troops in Afghanistan. Some 6,500 NATO-led peacekeeping troops currently patrol the streets of Kabul.

Another challenge is the collection of funds promised by donor countries for the election process. The United Nations has budgeted $102 million for the elections but only $21 million has been received. Another $40 million in contracts have been signed, Shah says.

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