[Mb-civic] A triumph for nation-building, if it succeeds Economist

Michael Butler michael at michaelbutler.com
Wed Sep 8 15:45:18 PDT 2004


A triumph for nation-building, if it succeeds

Sep 8th 2004 
>From The Economist Global Agenda

Campaigning has begun in the first direct election for president in
Afghanistan¹s history. The voting will be a test of America¹s
nation-building efforts, which is why the Taliban militants have vowed to
wreck it

Get article background

THREE years ago, in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks, a
western coalition assembled by President George Bush joined forces with the
Northern Alliance, a grouping of Afghan fighters, to invade Afghanistan and
overthrow the hardline Islamist regime of the Taliban, who had been
sheltering al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden. Afterwards, despite
widespread scepticism, Mr Bush was determined to turn Afghanistan into a
peace-loving democracy. Now, with the launch on Tuesday September 7th of the
campaign for Afghanistan¹s first ever direct presidential election,
America¹s nation-building efforts are about to undergo a crucial test.

Hamid Karzai, who became Afghanistan¹s interim president, with American
backing, after the fall of the Taliban, is the favourite to come first on
polling day, October 9th. But he faces some serious challengers, and if he
fails to get 51% of votes cast there will be a run-off, probably in
November. On Tuesday, Mr Karzai made his first appearance on the campaign
trail, opening a factory near the capital, Kabul‹though he made no mention
of the election in his speech and was not reported to have kissed any

Mr Karzai is facing up to 17 rival candidates. His main challenger so far
seems to be Yunus Qanuni, the education minister, who is also a leading
figure in the Northern Alliance. Mr Qanuni has won the backing of Mohammed
Fahim, a powerful Afghan warlord whom the president dropped as his running
mate in July. However, Mr Karzai¹s main worry is not the rival candidates
but the remnants of the Taliban, who on Tuesday renewed their vow to wreck
the election by all means possible. A spokesman for the group said all
presidential candidates and anyone who voted would be targets for attacks.

The Taliban also promise to try to wreck elections for an Afghan parliament,
which were originally to have been held at the same time as the presidential
vote but were postponed until next spring because of security worries. Even
more than the presidential election, the parliamentary ones are likely to be
contested fiercely by candidates representing Afghanistan¹s patchwork of
ethnic groups and clans. Mr Karzai belongs to the majority Pushtun community
that has traditionally ruled the country, whereas Mr Fahim is a Tajik. The
Uzbek, Hazara, Turkomen and other ethnic groups are also likely to field

 As big a worry for Mr Karzai as the Taliban are the various warlords who
still rule over chunks of the country. Though they were once seen as the
heroes of the struggle against the Soviet Union¹s occupation of Afghanistan
in the 1980s, and later the battle to overthrow the Taliban, they have come
to be seen as the country¹s most worrying long-term problem. Since the
Taliban¹s fall, many have become heavily involved in the resurgent opium
trade, using the proceeds to buy weapons for their private armies. Their
annual income from drugs-trafficking has been estimated at about $2.3
billion, or almost eight times the government¹s tax revenues.

To the annoyance of many Afghans, Mr Karzai has not dared challenge the
warlords. Instead he has tried, without much success so far, to build
alliances with them. The warlords¹ non-cooperation has only made the
country¹s security situation more precarious‹Mr Karzai¹s detractors mock him
as the ³mayor of Kabul² for his lack of authority over most of the rest of
the country. This fact was underlined in July, when an international
medical-relief agency, Médecins Sans Frontières said it would leave the
country, after 24 years, because of security concerns.

Around 18,000 American-led troops remain in Afghanistan, hunting down the
remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, while a separate NATO-led force of
8,000 attempts to provide security to the Afghan people, alongside a newly
recruited Afghan army of around 14,000. Mr Karzai has been pleading with the
West to send more troops, but so far without success. Some Afghans have
criticised America and its allies for paying the warlords to help them hunt
down al-Qaeda, thereby further entrenching the warlords¹ power. Meanwhile,
the violence shows little sign of dying down. On Monday, said government
officials, at least four Taliban fighters and an Afghan soldier died in
fighting in Zabul.

Despite the threats and insecurity, Afghans have proved remarkably
enthusiastic about registering to vote. Indeed, with the electoral rolls now
containing over 10.5m names (of a total population of around 25m-28m), there
are worries that this can only mean that some voters have registered more
than once. Literacy levels are low in Afghanistan and, of course, its people
are not used to elections, so there are concerns that voters are vulnerable
to being manipulated by local warlords.

Fluent, famous and stylish

Ethnic and clan loyalties will no doubt play a large part in voters¹
choices, so the success of Mr Karzai and his rivals will to an extent depend
on their ability to win the endorsement of the various clan leaders. Mr
Karzai has already proved his ability to do this, having been chosen as
interim president by a traditional loya jirga (grand council). He may also
gain from being better known nationally than his rivals. Also counting in
his favour are his fluency in various Afghan languages and his friendships
with powerful foreign leaders (who have sent generous aid to the country).
Perhaps even his sartorial elegance will win a few votes‹Esquire magazine
listed him among the world¹s best-dressed men. By comparison, his main
challenger, Mr Qanuni, appears a rather colourless figure.

 Since Afghanistan¹s presidential vote comes just a few weeks before
America¹s, Mr Bush will be keen to see it go well, so he can have a
successful foreign-policy initiative to show his own voters. However, it
could quite easily turn into a fiasco, if the Taliban get their way. While
dodging bombs and bullets on the campaign trail, Mr Karzai and his rivals
will struggle to build enough support among Afghanistan¹s factional leaders
to carry off the presidency. The winner will then have to seek some sort of
working coalition in the parliament that will be elected next spring, and
thereafter will face the fearsome challenge of tackling the warlords and
guerrilla groups. Only then will Afghanistan begin to be transformed from a
battleground into a nation.

  Copyright © 2004 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All
rights reserved.


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