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Afghanistan gears up for historic elections
The Washington Diplomat / October 2004

By Larry Luxner

On Oct. 9 barring another assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai and any other unanticipated violence Afghanistan will hold the first presidential election in its history.

For now, Karzai is the undisputed front-runner. Current polls give him around 78% of the vote, well over the 50% threshold he needs to avoid a runoff election. None of the other 17 candidates, including one woman, even comes close in popularity, though what's important here is that Afghanistan is having an election at all.

"People have a vested interest in this process, to make sure Afghanistan will never again go back to the days of terror and tyranny," said Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad. "People are determined to use their constitutional right to establish a civil society based on the rule of law."

Jawad told the Washington Diplomat that about 10.5 million Afghans are eligible to vote, of which 10.1 million have already registered. Of those, about 41% are female voters not a small accomplishment considering the years of Taliban persecution against Afghan women.

"We are facing some real security challenges, but overall, the terrorists and the Taliban are going after soft targets, so they're not really a serious threat to the electoral process," he said. "They're basically killing roadbuilders, UN workers and Afghan civil servants."

So far this year, said Jawad, more than 2,500 Afghans have been murdered in terrorist attacks, and thousands more have been injured.

On Sept. 16, however, the violence escalated with an attempted assassination of Karzai in a village 30 miles outside of Kabul, the capital. Three men suspected of being Taliban loyalists have been arrested for the attack, in which a rocket was fired at Karzai's helicopter but missed its target. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the explosion and vowed there would be more incidents as election day approaches.

In late July, a British parliamentary committee warned that Afghanistan is likely to collapse unless more troops and resources are sent to calm the country. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee said that warlord violence and the struggle between U.S.-led troops and insurgents continues to be a threat to security in Afghanistan.

"There is a real danger if resources are not provided soon that Afghanistan a fragile state in one of the most sensitive and volatile regions of the world could implode, with terrible consequences," the committee said in its report.

Afghanistan, which is grappling with a growing drug trade and sporadic violence, is a key security concern for the West, two years after a U.S.-led coalition toppled the militant Islamic Taliban regime for harboring al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

There are about 20,000 U.S.-led troops and 6,500 NATO-led peacekeepers in Afghanistan. However, warlords have yet to be disarmed, and a Taliban and al-Qaeda insurgency is persisting in the south and east.

"We're fighting an active war against al-Qaeda," said Jawad. "We're also facing challenges due to warlords and narcotraffickers, who have the shared objective of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a stable country."

Jawad said the election will be carried out by a management body comprised of the UN and the Afghan government. The United States is footing much of the cost of the election, estimated at $140 million.

"This is not a luxury. It's a very good investment in the future of our country," he said.

When Afghans go to the polls Oct. 9, they won't find electronic voting machines. Instead, ballots will be counted the traditional way, and voters' thumbs will be marked with ink that lasts for three days and prevents people from voting twice.

"The possibility of fraud is rather limited," said Jawad. "Rather, our main concern is intimidation by warlords. The process of demobilizing all the private militias has not been completed, and some local strongmen might be able to use their guns or money to influence the vote."

In order to mitigate that danger, said Jawad, the UN, the Afghan government and some U.S.-based non-governmental organizations have implemented an extensive program to educate citizens about the importance of participatory democracy.

Backing up those NGOs are 20,000 Afghan police, as well as 12,000 soldiers and officers belonging to the Afghan National Army. So far, according to the embassy, 13,142 combatants have been disarmed, while 10,561 are going through reintegration programs. UNICEF reports that 2,203 child soldiers aged 14-18 have been demobilized since February 2004.

"The Afghan people strongly support the registration process," he said. "We're also facing challenges due to warlords and narcotraffickers, who have the shared objective of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a stable state."

About 1.3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and another million or so in Iran will be eligible to vote, though the 250,000 or so Afghanis living in the United States won't be able to cast ballots "due to logistical problems and the shortage of funds," says Jawad.

Parliamentary elections for the Wolesi Jirga won't take place until April 2005, mainly because they require much more preparation. "Logistically, the boundaries of provinces and districts have to be readjusted, and we need more time to prepare for political parties," he said.

So far, about 50 parties have been registered, though for the moment, all presidential candidates are running as individuals.

Even though the Afghan Embassy must remain officially neutral regarding the election, there's little question where Jawad's loyalties lie.

"Hamid Karzai is the candidate with the most name recognition throughout Afghanistan. He also has strong support from the international community," he said. "President Karzai is the only candidate campaigning based on a national platform, emphasizing partnership, cooperation and national unity."

Under Afghan law, the winning candidate must receive an absolute majority of the vote, or 50% plus one.

"One reason we have 17 candidates facing President Karzai is that they're hoping to divide the vote so much that Karzai will be forced to have a runoff," said Jawad. "It's almost certain that Karzai will win. The question is whether they'll be a runoff or not. Other candidates have not joined hands. Their strategy is to keep the votes divided."

He added that women are making a "strong comeback," but that potentially divisive social issues like the right to divorce aren't being discussed for fear of triggering a fundamentalist backlash.

"Women are participating in every aspect of political life in the country," he said. "They played a very important role in drafting the new constitution for Afghanistan, which provides that 25% of all seats be allocated for women. But in the meantime, we are fighting a war against al-Qaeda. The terrorists would like to undermine the Islamic credentials of the government. Therefore, women activists are careful not to offend traditional and Islamic values, in order to prevent creating unnecessary enemies for themselves."

Rather, they're focusing on education, which Jawad said is a very real concern especially considering that only 10% of Afghan women know how to read and write (compared to 30% of the general population).

Grant Kippen, Afghanistan country director for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, says it's important to remember that elections are but one part of a much longer-term democratic process.

"The evolution of this country from a conflict-ridden state to a modern developing nation will take time," he said. "The majority of people and institutions participating in the Oct. 9 elections will be doing so for the first time in their lives. We should not lose sight of the fact that this exercise will be an important learning experience for both the democratic organizations and voters, so we need to be patient and supportive."

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