- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Election fever has gripped Afghanistan. Stunning and unexpected political maneuvers of the past few weeks rocked the political status quo that came into life at the historic U.N.-sponsored conference on post-Taliban Afghanistan in Bonn, Germany, at the end of 2001.

A simmering summer of Afghan-style politicking ahead of presidential elections slated for October, followed by parliamentary elections next spring, will reshape the future power dynamics in the country and redefine the role of the international community in supporting stability and reconstruction efforts over the next several years.

It is incumbent on election contesters and members of the international community, who are helping shape and support the new Afghanistan, to avoid the political and security pitfalls that might result in a weak post-election government lacking a national mandate or pave the way for a chaotic parliament next year.

For stability’s sake and to ensure a decisive electoral outcome, frontline presidential contenders will have to reach across the ethnic and regional divides to break the rigid political molds that the country has inherited after years of conflict. Alienating any of the major ethnic constituencies promises to be counterproductive.

The good news is that for the country’s first-ever national elections, a stunning 90 percent of eligible adult voters — at least 40 percent of whom are women — have registered to vote thus far. Albeit fragile but alive, this is a young democracy in the making.

Last-minute decisions late last month about new candidacies and the selection of presidential running mates put the political process into high gear. Pundits and factions scrambled to align and realign their positions following the sudden decision by President Hamid Karzai to drop his original first-choice running mate, Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, in favor of Ahmad Zia Massoud, a less controversial newcomer on the national political scene and brother of slain resistance hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Mr. Zia Massoud also happens to be the son-in-law of former President Burhanudin Rabbani, who still aspires to be a key political player.

The decision has triggered favorable reactions in certain Afghan and foreign quarters, and stirred up apprehension in others. An eleventh-hour decision by Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, another former aide to Mr. Massoud, to throw his hat into the candidates’ ring added a significant twist to the overall electoral amalgam. The Qanooni camp was revitalized a few days later when Mr. Fahim and Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah endorsed his candidacy.

Confusion, however, seems to be the prevalent sentiment among the country’s political circles and militia commanders these days. The democratic machine still churns forward, but what Afghanistan does not need at this stage is political mayhem that could lead to growing mistrust and deepening fissures along ethnic and regional fault lines.

Last January’s Loya Jirga, called to ratify the new constitution, presented an occasion for reckoning with ghosts of times past, but also resulted in tensions arising between those who think they know best because of learned technocratic skills, and those who believe they should be recognized because of their past sacrifices.

On the surface, Afghan politics is still influenced by ethnicity, but it remains to be seen whether the ethnic vote will split as a result of the recent alignments in Kabul or whether various components of the so-called Northern Alliance are going to unite behind one candidate, as they did under fire in their struggle against the Taliban.

The buzzword among some circles in Kabul following last week’s dramatic decisions is “teamwork” once again. Efforts are underway by the leading contenders to bridge the divide and seek an accommodation. New post-election, power-sharing scenarios are already on the drawing board.

Over the last two years, the central government’s authority has been challenged by the growing pull of local commanders, resurgent Taliban and extremist militants, and an emboldened drug mafia, fueling rampant corruption. Afghans, however, would like to see terrorist infiltrations checked, private militias disbanded under a practical disarmament program, and drug barons put out of business, thus facilitating the emergence of an efficient and clean administration, a responsible parliament and a balanced judiciary.

This is easier said than accomplished. The events of the past two years have demonstrated that Mr. Karzai and the coalesced cabinet of ministers performed relatively well to pull the country together, promulgate a new constitution and start the work of rebuilding the economy and such institutions as the army and police. But the hard work still lies ahead, and requires a determined and united administration to wrestle with the factors of instability. A much-awaited reform of the cabinet, effectively fighting lawlessness in parts of the country and addressing the economic concerns of the Afghans, might be the first steps in that direction.

Modernization and reform are essential to improve the quality of life for Afghans, but stability is a prerequisite that cannot be compromised at this critical juncture. It is possible though to find balance between these two sets of goals that are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

On the other hand, it is essential that the international community’s constructive engagement continues to support the political, security and economic revivals underway in Afghanistan actively. However, constructive engagement and tangible support should not conjure overly intrusive and radical demands that undermine the balance required to uphold the new Afghan political structures or stir up deep-seated resentment among important blocks of voters.

Afghans overwhelmingly have welcomed the international community’s presence and showed great appreciation for the pledges made for reconstruction work. Afghans view this partnership as mutually beneficial — not just as a one-sided affair. Nurturing these relationships will still remain critical beyond the elections’ timeframe in order to solidify gains already achieved and to keep the country on solid footing.

The time is now for Afghan leaders with nationwide appeal and a comprehensive reform program to define and rally support for a common vision, to reach across voter constituencies and to build a political platform that can ensure a strong mandate for the next government. Afghan men and women have earned the right to cast their votes freely. May the best team win the country’s first election.

Omar Samad is the former spokesman of the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and current ambassador-designate to Canada.

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