Afghanistan to hold first elections

Published October 7, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s first-ever
presidential vote puts this nation of mud-brick houses and tribal
fiefdoms on the edge of an improbable experiment with
democracy.

Osama bin Laden’s training bases have been uprooted, and
Afghanistan is no longer a haven for international terrorists. But
three years to the day since a U.S. bombing campaign toppled the
Taliban regime, Islamic militancy lives on, the drug trade is
booming and warlords hold sway over much of the country.

Hamid Karzai, the nation’s unrelentingly optimistic
interim president, is the overwhelming favorite to win
tomorrow’s vote against a large field of challengers, though
it is not clear yet if he will get the majority necessary to avoid
a runoff.

What awaits after victory is a nation with great promise, but
daunting challenges.

The Taliban pose no real threat of a return to power, at least
as long as Afghanistan’s still undermanned national army is
backed by an 18,000-strong U.S.-led coalition and 9,000 NATO
troops. But its hard-line followers are far from defeated.

Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have kept up a steady drumbeat of
attacks — especially in the south and east of the nation.
Nearly 1,000 people, including 30 American soldiers, have been
killed in political violence so far this year — hardly a
picture of stability.

The U.S. military insists the insurgency is ineffective and
hopes the elections will persuade some of those still fighting to
put down their weapons and seek a reconciliation with the new
government.

Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the No. 2 commander of U.S. forces here,
cautioned that true peace will take many years to accomplish,
perhaps longer than some in the U.S.-led coalition had bargained
for.

“This is a long fight. This is not something that is going
to end after the elections,” he said last week. “I
would venture to say it is not going to end in the next 10 years,
but ultimately it’s a winnable situation.”

Despite the destruction of their terror bases, bin Laden and his
No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, remain fugitives, probably living in the
mountain regions between Afghanistan and Pakistan. U.S. officials
say the men are still believed to be actively plotting attacks.

But the main threats to Afghanistan’s stability probably
lie elsewhere — in the inability of the government to curb
regional warlords, and the ballooning heroin and opium trade.

Karzai has taken steps in recent months to exert more control
— removing strongman Ismail Khan as governor of the western
city of Herat, dumping Tajik faction leader Mohammed Fahim from his
presidential ticket and pushing the pace of a much-delayed program
to disarm militias. The president has said the warlords are his
greatest preoccupation.

The heroin and opium trade — largely kept in check under
the Taliban — grew into a $2.3 billion a year business in
2003, more than half of the nation’s gross domestic
product.

This year’s figures will likely be even higher.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said last month the drug trade
“has the potential to undo all the positive things we have
done so far or are planning to do.”

And the big profits have already begun to bring with them
serious violence.

Yesterday, the government blamed drug smugglers — not
Taliban or al-Qaida fighters — for a bomb attack the day
before on Karzai’s vice presidential running mate, Ahmed Zia
Massood. The politician was not hurt, but one man was killed and
five others wounded.

Still, there is no denying that progress has been made in this
nation of 25 million.

Three million Afghans have returned from exile in Pakistan and
Iran, and millions of women and girls have returned to work and
school — resuming active lives abandoned for five years when
the Taliban ordered them shuttered in their homes.

Signs of reconstruction — much of it financed by the
United States — are everywhere, from the newly paved highways
to the international hotels going up in the capital, Kabul.

The government remains chronically dependent on foreign aid, but
key ministries such as finance and health are also beginning to
find their feet. The ability to deliver services to long-abandoned
provinces will be a crucial test for the new government after the
election.

Some 41 percent of those who have registered to vote are women,
a staggering statistic in a nation where centuries of tradition and
lack of education have conspired to shut most women out of public
life.

Afghanistan’s future has become an issue in another
election — the one taking place Nov. 2 in the United States.
President Bush has stressed what has been achieved: millions
registering to vote, a people embracing democracy.

His challenger, Sen. John Kerry, has focused more on the
shortcomings: a continued insurgency, the unchecked drug trade and
the maddening ability of bin Laden to slip through the largest
dragnet in history.

Khalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. ambassador, has tended to see
the positive, but even he has acknowledged that full recovery is a
distant dream for a nation that has experienced calamity heaped
upon calamity for over 25 years — from the 1979 Soviet
invasion, to a bloody civil war, to Taliban misrule, and a
devastating drought to boot.

“If the journey of building Afghanistan is a 10-mile
journey, we’re at the end of mile three,” Khalilzad
said recently. “So we have some distance to go.”

Ghaffar Khan, a 30-year-old jewelry trader in the southern
Afghan city of Kandahar, spoke for many Afghans who hope the
elections mean that years of fighting are finally behind them.

“For the first time, the simple people can choose their
leader,” he said at a shop where he was chatting with a
friend yesterday. “We still have problems, but we no longer
have fear. We have hope.”