Karzai, a man with no party

The winning Afghan leader is under pressure to form one.

With an almost assured victory as Afghanistan's first elected president to be announced shortly, Hamid Karzai is set to become a virtual George Washington - minus the wooden teeth.

His actions, beginning with his cabinet picks, could channel the future course of democracy in Afghanistan. If Karzai attracts competent, like-minded ministers, post-Karzai Afghanistan could be a stable multiparty system that allows the country's many ethnic, tribal, and religious factions to settle their differences peacefully.

But for that to happen, many feel that Karzai must do something he has long avoided: Set up a political party. Like America's founding father, Karzai hates parties. Both men believed that people should simply work together in the national interest to create a new nation. But observers, and some of Karzai's own advisers, say a two-party system would best move Afghan disputes beyond personal identity to ideas.

"I assure you that he is under pressure to form a party, and eventually he will decide to do it," says Zia Mojededi, a close Karzai adviser and member of the Afghan National Security Council. Already, Karzai has surrounded himself with like-minded secular technocrats, Mr. Mojededi says, adding, "Birds of a feather fly together."

"Once we have a political party, we will put a lot of energy into attracting young educated Afghans and important, liberal tribal elders and businessmen who will slowly, slowly push for modern secular ideas that can be adopted in our traditional culture," says Mojededi.

Karzai's antipathy for political parties is understandable, given the turmoil they have caused over the past 30 years. The late 1970s were a time of political ferment, with extreme leftist college students pushing for a communist totalitarian state on one hand and extreme right-wing Islamist students pushing for a return to 7th century Islamic values practiced during the time of the prophet Muhammad.

Some of these parties still exist - such as Jamaat-i Islami, Hizb-i Islami, and Hizb-i Wahadat - and form the cluster of support around violent warlords.

"Today, we have nothing resembling viable political parties," says David Garner, a political scientist and former USAID development officer with 30 years experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "You have night letters that threaten people. You have regional ethnic interests. You don't have clearly identified ideologies."

Yet the new political system - a strong presidency to implement policy and a powerful parliament to pass laws - may limit the party splintering and ideological extremes of the past. In particular, the need to garner 51 percent of the votes to win the top office provides a compelling reason to consolidate around two parties, says Mr. Garner.

He and other observers predict that many current politicians will naturally gravitate toward two moderate political parties. One would be a secular pro- business party, led by Karzai and his cadre. The other would be a moderate Islamist party, led in all likelihood by Yunus Qanooni, who came in a distant second in this month's historic vote.

Such an Islamist party, in order to reach a majority of Afghan voters, would have to be more moderate than the Taliban while still promising to act within the guidelines of sharia, or Islamic law.

"If you have a moderate Islamist party and a moderate secular party, then you have a situation where if the pendulum swings, it won't knock the clock off the wall," says Garner.

There are substantial obstacles to a mature two-party system, at least in the short term.

Afghanistan's foreign neighbors, such as Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have long attempted to influence Afghan policy by stirring up separatist movements among Afghanistan's Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik, and Uzbek ethnic groups. These interest groups remain armed and still command followings.

It may also prove difficult for Afghan leaders to bury the hatchet.

"For the foreseeable future, [politics] will be marred by personal antipathy," says Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer based in Pakistan and author of the book, "Understanding Terror Networks." "I simply can't imagine [former President Burhanuddin] Rabbani and [Islamist leader Abdurrab Rasool] Sayyaf ever trusting each other, except for external consumption. These guys have been at it for 25 years and are still going strong."

In the meantime, all talk of democracy and nation-building is an academic exercise, Mr. Sageman says, until Afghanistan's warlords are disarmed.

"I just don't see Afghans giving up their weapons," Sageman says. "It's ingrained in their concept of manhood. What I see is that these weapons might become obsolete with time, and the central government forces will get better, more modern weapons, allowing them to impose their will on the warlords. But this is far in the future."

But other longtime observers already see a shift away from the violent days of extremist, or personality-based parties.

"Personality didn't get Karzai elected," says Owen Kirby, Afghan country director for the International Republican Institute, a group closely tied with but separate from America's GOP. Karzai's appeal was based on the fact that he would continue the Bonn Process, Mr. Kirby says, referring to the UN-mandated effort started in December 2001 to create a democratic post- Taliban government.

"Karzai was part of a package and he ran on the package's platform, one recognized by everyone in the country; the Bonn Process," says Kirby.

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