Afghan Brave Violence to Elect New Leaders
By AMIR SHAH, Associated Press Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghans chose a legislature for the first time in decades on Sunday, embracing their newly recovered democratic rights and braving threats of militant attacks to cast votes in schools, tents and mosques.
Reports of violence came in from around the country as it sought to claw its way back from a quarter-century of conflict. But there were no signs of a spectacular attack by Taliban militants who had vowed to disrupt the vote.
A wave of assaults in the hours leading up to the vote left 16 militants, five policemen and a French special forces soldier dead. Security forces said they thwarted four bombings, including an attempt to blow up a massive dam.
The French soldier was killed and a second was seriously wounded when their vehicle struck a mine in southern Afghanistan, French officials said. The patrol was part of a major operation to ensure security while Afghans voted.
Two rockets hit a U.N. warehouse in the Afghan capital, wounding a local staff member, while fierce fighting erupted in eastern Afghanistan, killing three militants and two policemen and injuring two U.S. troops, officials said.
But Sunday was mostly about getting out to vote and making a difference. Officials predicted a massive turnout despite a Taliban boycott call.
"We are making history," President Hamid Karzai said as he cast his ballot. "It's the day of self-determination for the Afghan people. After 30 years of wars, interventions, occupations and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward, making an economy, making political institutions."
Some 12.4 million Afghans were registered to vote for the national legislature and provincial assemblies at more than 6,000 polling stations. They were guarded by some 100,000 Afghan police and soldiers and 30,000 foreign troops.
"Today is a magnificent day for Afghanistan," said Ali Safar, 62, standing in line to vote in Kabul. "We want dignity, we want stability and peace. Thirty years of war and poverty is enough."
Afghans clutching voter identification cards filed into schools with lessons still scrawled on blackboards, or stepped over piles of shoes to cast their ballots in mosques. In remote areas, polling stations were set up in tents.
With nearly three-quarters of the population illiterate, voting was slow as people waded through ballots up to seven pages long to find pictures of candidates or symbols that represent them. Some voters spent as long as 10 minutes behind cardboard screens marking ballots, some the size of posters.
Women, some in all-covering burqas, were segregated from men at many polling centers, entering through back doors and voting in separate rooms. At a Kuchi nomad voting center east of Kabul, an Associated Press Television News cameraman saw women handing their ballots to men to fill out as electoral officials looked on but did not intervene.
In a dispatch from a province northeast of Kabul, Human Rights Watch said children appeared to have voted at one polling station and some illiterate voters were asking electoral officials to point out candidates on ballots.
Each voter dipped a finger in indelible purple ink to prevent repeat voting.
The vote was seen as the last formal step toward democracy on a path set out after a U.S.-led force drove the Taliban from power in 2001, when they refused to hand over al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 attacks.
Many hope the legislative elections will marginalize the insurgents and end a spiral of violence that started in 1979 when Soviet troops invaded, before a devastating civil war and the oppressive rule of the hard-line Taliban.
The Taliban said they would not attack civilians heading to the polls but warned them to stay away from areas where militants might attack security forces and foreign troops.
Top U.N. envoy Jean Arnault said militants had failed to disrupt polling preparations despite violence during the six months leading up to the vote that killed 1,200 people, including seven candidates and four election workers.
A U.S. military spokesman, Col. James Yonts, predicted "a massive number" of voters would turn out.
"This election will send a powerful message to the Taliban that their influence is waning," he said on Saturday.
In Pakistan, thousands of soldiers stood by near the border with Afghanistan. Militants based on the Pakistani side of the mountainous frontier are suspected of crossing into Afghanistan to stage attacks.
Eds: Associated Press reporters Daniel Cooney and Steve Gutterman in Kabul and Noor Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.
Afghanistan holds first parliamentary vote in 30 years
KABUL (AFP) - Afghans streamed into polling stations under tight security for the country's first parliamentary elections in more than 30 years, defying threats by the ousted Taliban regime to disrupt the vote.
Violence marred the start of polling on Sunday with a French soldier killed and another wounded in a bomb blast, while two rockets hit a UN warehouse in Kabul, lightly injuring a staff member.
Despite the bloodshed, officials expected a high turnout by the nearly 12.5 million Afghans eligible to vote, marking another step on a difficult path to democracy launched after the hardline Islamic Taliban fell in late 2001.
On the ballot papers, voters found a cross section of Afghanistan's strife-torn society, including warlords, drug kingpins, former Taliban and -- marking a step forward for the conservative country -- women.
"I will vote for anyone who will help my country," said Abdul Rahim, 42, queuing to vote beneath the blue domes of the grand mosque in the western city of Herat.
President Hamid Karzai, who won Afghanistan's first presidential election in October 2004, said the vote showed the country was leaving behind decades of ruinous conflict.
"After 30 years of war, intervention and misery, today Afghanistan is moving forward," Karzai said as he cast his ballot in Kabul.
"It is making an economy, making political institutions and today we are completing the whole process, completing the laying down of the foundation of the Afghan state ... That is why we are making history."
The 26,000 polling stations, scattered from the parched southern deserts to the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush mountains, were due to close at 1030 GMT.
Officials said voting hours may be extended to allow for queues as Afghans struggled with the newspaper-sized ballots required to fit in the 5,800 candidates.
Full results are not expected until late October.
The United Nations, helping to organise the election, said voters should not be intimidated by Taliban warnings that they could be hurt if they went to the voting stations.
A spike in violence linked to Taliban militants has left more than 1,000 people dead this year, including seven election candidates.
The French soldier was killed in Kandahar province, the former heartland of the Taliban, the French chief of general staff said in Paris.
Insurgents meanwhile attacked a security post in the eastern province of Khost, killing two policemen and wounding two US soldiers and an Afghan soldier, police told AFP.
Three suspected Taliban were also killed. Another died when rebels attacked a polling station in the southern province of Helmand late Saturday, provincial officials said.
On Sunday militants threw a hand grenade into the house of a candidate in Nangarhar province, injuring five family members, an official said.
Police also defused a bomb discovered near a polling station in the northern province of Baghlan, interior ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal told AFP.
On the eve of the election, security forces arrested 20 rebels laying bombs to blow up a dam in southern Afghanistan, while three policemen were killed in the capital, government officials said.
Around 100,000 Afghan troops and police were deployed for the vote, supported by 20,000 US-led coalition troops and 10,500 NATO-led peacekeepers.
Election organisers said first reports indicated that security problems had affected only around half a dozen polling centres.
Some opened late and in Herat dozens of people were turned away because their voting cards had been marked wrongly during the October 2004 vote, witnesses said.
Up for grabs in the elections are 249 seats in the lower house of the national assembly, including 68 for women, and 420 seats on provincial councils.
Eight dead in Afghan election violence
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AFP) - Eight people were killed in fighting between security forces and suspected Taliban rebels, including a civilian in a US air strike, in the run-up to Afghanistan's landmark elections Sunday, officials said.
The attacks included a bomb blast which killed a French soldier near the Pakistani border and a rocket strike on a UN warehouse on the outskirts of Kabul which left a UN staffer with minor injuries.
The French soldier was the first to die in Afghanistan.
A second soldier in the same vehicle was seriously wounded in the attack, a statement said, adding the troops were part of France's contribution to the US-led operation in the country.
The Afghan civilian was killed overnight when US-led coalition forces came under attack in the eastern province of Khost and called in air support to bomb the area, Khost's deputy police chief Mohamed Zaman said.
"One civilian's residence in Khalsas district was also bombed, which resulted in the one civilian death. Five people from the same house were wounded," Zaman told AFP.
The US military said it was checking the report.
Separately in Khost, rebels attacked a security post overnight and killed two policemen, police chief Mohammed Ayob told AFP. The US military said one US soldier and two Afghan soldiers were wounded.
Three Taliban fighters were killed in the firefight in Yaqobi district 130 kilometres (81 miles) southeast of the capital Kabul, Ayob said.
"Their bodies are still at the site," he said. "The voting process is ongoing as normal in the district," he said.
A suspected Taliban militant was killed in an assault on a polling station late Saturday in the southern province of Helmand, provincial governor Mullah Shir Mohammed said. The polling station was not damaged.
In the rocket strike on the United Nations children's fund warehouse near Kabul early Sunday, two projectiles were fired but only one exploded, police and a UN official said.
"There was a small fire, one local staff member was slightly injured," said UN spokesman Adrian Edwards.
Also on Sunday militants threw a hand grenade into the house of a candidate in the eastern province of Nangarhar province and injured five family members, an official said.
Candidates have been targeted in the run-up to the vote, which the ousted Taliban regime has vowed to disrupt, and seven have been killed.
Police also defused a bomb near a polling station in the northern province of Baghlan, and in Khost they arrested two people with bombs trying to enter another voting centre, officials said.
The violence would not affect the vote, US military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jerry O'Hara said.
"Incidents like this will have no effect on today's elections," he said.
The Taliban, ousted in a US-led campaign in late 2001 after they failed to hand over Osama bin Laden, stepped up their four-year-long insurgency ahead of the elections, the first parliamentary vote in Afghanistan in 30 years.
More than 1,000 people have died in violence so far this year.
Afghanistan's president 'honoured' to vote in historic ballot
Sun Sep 18,12:47 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - President Hamid Karzai said he was honoured to vote in Afghanistan's first parliamentary elections in 30 years, while the election chief urged voters to use their new democratic rights at the ballot box.
"It is a great honour for me as an Afghan and I feel independent to be able to vote of my own free will," Karzai said as he cast his ballot in Kabul soon after polling stations opened at 6:00 am (0130 GMT) on Sunday.
The head of Afghanistan's election body, Bismillah Bismil, said the parliamentary vote was a "momentous day in our land's history" and all eligible Afghan voters should take part.
"This election is for the Afghan people. By coming out to vote today you will be playing a vital role in Afghanistan's progress to democracy," he told reporters as he voted in Kabul.
"Let us act and vote together in solidarity to make this step to our democratic future smooth, peaceful and united," he said.
The vote is the second democratic election in Afghanistan since the hardline Islamic Taliban rulers were chased from power in 2001 in US-led campaign launched after they refused to hand over Osama bin Laden for the September 11 attacks.
The first was in October last year, when Karzai was elected president.
Sunday's vote for the lower house of parliament and 34 provincial councils was held under massive security after threats from the Taliban.
Polling stations were due to close at 4:00 pm, although they could stay open longer. The final results are expected in about three weeks.
Afghanistan: Rocket hits U.N. warehouse
Sep 18, 2005, 9:30 GMT
KABUL, Afghanistan (UPI) -- An election-day rocket slammed into a U.N. warehouse Sunday east of Kabul, Afghanistan, though no one was killed in the attack.
The rocket hit a UNICEF warehouse on a U.N. based east of the Afghan capital. A U.N. official in Kabul told United Press International that one person was injured in the attack that also resulted in a small fire.
No one has been blamed or taken credit for the rocket attack
However in recent days Taliban militants have threatened to disrupt the vote and called on Afghans to boycott it.
Some 12.4 million Afghans are registered to vote for the nation`s first democratically elected Parliament in several decades.
Twenty Taliban arrested for plot to blow up Afghan dam
Sun Sep 18,12:53 AM ET
KABUL (AFP) - Afghan and US forces have arrested 20 suspected Taliban rebels who were planting bombs at a hydroelectric dam in southern Afghanistan hours before key elections, the defence ministry said.
A patrol spotted the militants as they laid the explosives at the Girishk dam in restive Helmand province and they were arrested after an hour-long exchange of fire, ministry spokesman Mohammed Zahir Azimi told AFP on Saturday.
"Twenty Taliban were arrested today by joint Afghan and coalition forces as they were placing bombs to blow up the dam in Girishk district," Azimi said, without giving further details.
Locals said there would have been massive damage to surrounding areas if militants had succeeded in blowing up the dam, which was built more than 30 years ago.
"To rebuild this dam would have cost more than 100 million dollars and years of time. It would have been a disaster," said Haji Mirajan, a local elder who is standing as a parliamentary candidate in Sunday's polls.
He said the dam was around 35 kilometres (22 miles) from Lashkar Gah, the province's capital.
Around 25,000 families use water from the dam for farming and it supplies around 8,000 families with electricity, "although it does not work well", Mirajan said.
"The explosion of the dam may not have destroyed houses or caused civilian losses because the water would have ended in a vast canal, but three districts would have no water for agriculture," he said.
The arrests came less than 24 hours before millions of Afghans go to the polls in the war-shattered country's first parliamentary elections in a generation.
The Taliban have vowed to disrupt Sunday's elections. Three policemen and four suspected Taliban militants were killed in fresh violence, officials said Saturday.
On Thursday suspected Taliban fighters dragged a candidate from his house in another part of Helmand province and shot him dead. He was the seventh candidate to be killed.
In another incident in southern Afghanistan, US and Afghan soldiers Saturday seized a car containing explosives and arrested five armed men in Kandahar province, the former stronghold of the Taliban, Azimi said.
Three Taliban gunmen were arrested in Qalat, the capital of neighbouring Zabul province, during an Afghan army operation lasting several hours, he said.
Russia, Afghanistan to discuss foreign debt
12:13 | 18/ 09/ 2005
MOSCOW, September 18 (RIA Novosti) - Russia and Afghanistan are planning to discuss Afghanistan's foreign debt to Russia, foreign ministry's official spokesperson Mikhail Kamynin said Sunday.
" We are planning to discuss the issue at the 60th session of the UN General Assembly, during official meetings at the level of finance ministries and during annual consultations between the two nations' foreign ministries in May 2006," he said on the eve of September 18 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan.
Future of Afghanistan is uncertain - Russian diplomat
11:55 | 18/ 09/ 2005
MOSCOW, September 18 (RIA Novosti) - Prospects of the development of the situation in Afghanistan cannot be defined as expressly optimistic, foreign ministry's official spokesperson Mikhail Kamynin said Sunday.
"Although the...coalition forces contingent has become larger and the country has strengthened its army, police and justice system, the Taliban armed groups...are continuing to increase their resistance to [local] authorities and international military contingents," Kamynin said on the eve of September 18 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan.
According to the diplomat, the military potential of anti-government forces, primarily the Taliban movement, has increased significantly since the beginning of the anti-terrorist operation in the country.
"In that respect, it is necessary to continue coordinated international efforts under the aegis of the United Nations aimed to promote peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan after the parliamentary elections," Kamynin said.
Russia to assist Afghanistan
11:17 | 18/ 09/ 2005
MOSCOW, September 18 (RIA Novosti) - Assistance to Afghanistan is an unquestionable priority of the Russian foreign policy, foreign ministry's official spokesperson Mikhail Kamynin said Sunday.
Speaking on the eve of September 18 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, Kamynin said Russia's assistance to Afghanistan was an important part of the fight against terrorism and illicit drug trade.
"We hope that September 18 parliamentary elections will help create truly representative state mechanism in that country and become a watershed event in the post-war political settlement and reconstruction of Afghanistan," the Russian diplomat said.
According to Kamynin, "the new parliament should become an important element driving the Afghan society toward democratic values and establishing Afghanistan as a peaceful, independent and neutral state living in harmony with its neighbors and the world in general."
You stink: Afghan electorate gripped by high politics
By Tom Coghlan in Kabul and Colin Freeman The Telegraph (UK) / September 18, 2005
It is an insult normally confined to the playground rather than bandied around in political debate. But in the run-up to today's historic Afghan parliamentary elections, the vexed question of whether a certain candidate smells or not has become a potentially vote-winning issue.
Farida Kuchi, an illiterate Kuchi nomad whose only possessions are a donkey and a black tent, was incensed recently when her posh, university-educated parliamentary rival Parweena Durrani said that she stank to high heaven. Like any good politician, however, she has now managed to spin the slur to her advantage.
"Of course we smell bad," she told a gathering of fellow Kuchis huddled around a pungent dung fire on the plains outside Kabul. "We are Kuchis and we have to live in dirty places and use animal dung for our fires. Go to Parweena's office in Kabul tomorrow and see if she doesn't tell you that you have a bad smell? I am a real Kuchi. What does she know about the problems of the Kuchi?" Her audience nodded in agreement.
While the rhetoric may be a world away from Westminster, there is little doubting the enthusiasm among Afghanistan's novice politicians in their battle to become the country's first democratically elected MPs.
Despite threats from Taliban militants, more than 5,800 candidates will contest a total of 249 seats, a quarter of which are reserved for women. Seven candidates have been killed by the Taliban already, and coalition troops are on full alert for further violence at the polls.
For the diminutive Ms Kuchi, dressed in the traditional bright costume of the Kuchi, the campaign trail has meant days spent in a battered taxi on rutted, unsurfaced roads, or walking, with only her 16-year-old son for company, to remote campsites.
The stakes are high. If she loses to the more fragrant Ms Durrani, Ms Kuchi says she will have to flee to neighbouring Pakistan to escape £3,300 of debt run up during her campaign.
Defeat, however, is unlikely because she has already won the backing of the powerful Kuchi Shura - a council of Kuchi elders from across the country. Their 1.5 million rank and file tribesmen, who live mainly by herding, can be depended on to vote for whoever the council wishes.
Similar informal block-voting arrangements are likely among most of the electoral candidates, who are a colourful array of ex-warlords, Islamists, poets, tribal chiefs and even former Talibs.
Human rights groups have criticised the decision to allow some ex-warlords to stand, but Afghanistan's pro-Western president, Hamid Karzai, has said that banning them would impede the process of national reconciliation after more than 30 years of war. All the candidates have one thing in common - a sense of danger on the hustings.
In the Taliban stronghold of Ghazni City in southeast Afghanistan, The Sunday Telegraph watched Pir Mahmud Agha, a National Islamic Front candidate, strap a pistol under his shirt before he delivered a speech to a mosque packed with tribal elders. The extra precaution was taken despite the presence of armed bodyguards, police snipers and United States troop checkpoints on roads into town. "I inform the US military wherever I am campaigning," he said.
Warriors of bloody Afghan past fight for votes
Communists, warlords and former Taliban join in democratic election
Declan Walsh Paghman in Afghanistan Sunday September 18, 2005 The Observer (UK)
A committed jihadi from Paghman, a valley overlooking Kabul, Walid Muhammad neither gave nor took quarter to defend his city. In the 1980s he fought the Russians, who torched his house and killed his relatives. Then he took up arms against the Taliban, who lashed him to a bed and flogged him with a cable.
This morning, when Muhammad casts his vote for Afghanistan's new parliament, the retired holy warrior will see the faces of his former enemies on the ballot sheet. It makes him furious.
'The communists sold our country to the Russian infidel. The Taliban turned it into a terrorist haven. And now they want to be part of government?' he said incredulously.
More than 12 million Afghans are eligible for today's election to choose the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga - lower house of parliament - and 34 provincial councils in a vote fraught with peril. Yesterday 12 people were killed in clashes with Taliban insurgents while police in Helmand province foiled a plot to blow up a dam that could have killed thousands. US military officials predict further violence today, but said that it would not deter a record voter turnout.
Although the landmark election is supposedly about the future, it has in many ways become a reckoning of the past. Ghosts from the various regimes that ruled and ruined Afghanistan for a quarter of a century have emerged from the woodwork to run for office. First are the communists who collaborated in the 10-year Soviet occupation, marked by a catalogue of brutality.
Muhammad Gulabzoi has returned from Moscow after 17 years in exile to stand in the town of Khost. A former army officer, he helped to overthrow King Zaher Shah in 1973 and served in three communist governments.
Six senior Taliban officials, freed from US custody after renouncing their leader Mullah Omar, are also in the race. The most prominent is Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, a former minister; the most notorious is Maulvi Qalamuddin, whose religious police beat beardless men, smashed televisions and hanged alleged adulterers.
Candidate lists are peppered with hundreds of former mujahideen commanders, many of whom apparently forgot to hand in their arms first. Election officials identified 210 warlord candidates, but just 32 have been disqualified for retaining their private armies. Human rights groups say this is a travesty of democracy, but President Hamid Karzai says that it is necessary for a smooth transition from the rule of the gun.
With so many questions about the past still unresolved - there has been no South African-style peace and reconciliation process - the election campaign became a vehicle for anger.
'The mujahideen leaders are criminals with blood-stained hands. They destroyed Kabul and killed more than 65,000 people. I saw it with my own eyes,' said Dr Kabir Ranjbar, a former adviser to the communist dictator Najibullah, who heads the Afghan Democratic party.
'It's all propaganda,' insisted Haji al-Mas, a mujahideen commander who is standing in Parwan. 'We saved this country from the Soviets. Then we destroyed the terrorists. Now they call us warlords.'
Ill tempers will not be settled by today's ballot. Although 5,800 candidates are standing, there will be no clear winners because the voting system chosen by Karzai sidelines political parties. Instead, the election has effectively become a vast popularity contest between individuals, ideologies and histories. Revisionism is rife.
One of the most contentious candidates is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a powerful warlord running in Kabul. Sayyaf has been subjected to a series of allegations - during the 1990s his troops raped and tortured, according to human rights groups. He is considered a fundamentalist, funded by Saudis promoting the extremist Wahhabi strain of Islam.
But supporters insist that his past is as white as his snowy beard. 'He is a great intellectual, a great mujahid and a great man,' said Muhammad Asif, an 84-year-old from Paghman, whose three sons fought with Sayyaf. 'Whatever anyone else says about him is just lies.' In a rare public appearance, Sayyaf held a rally in a mosque last week. Surrounded by gunmen, he announced a vision of an Afghanistan 'led by men of good Islamic character'.
It is impossible to say who will prevail in today's vote. Many insist they will not be fooled by candidates' weasel words.
Yesterday Nadir Muhammadi, a puncture repairman, sat on the verge of a broad Kabul street. Behind him lay the shell of a neighbourhood pulverised by inter-factional mujahideen battles in the early 1990s. Across the street is the sports stadium where the Taliban chopped off limbs and stoned people to death.
'Our past rulers brought disaster to this country, they destroyed everything,' he said grumpily. 'I'm voting for a candidate who has no party, no faction and no past.'
The new parliament is unlikely to resolve the old difference between the communists, the jihadis and the Taliban. The ban on political parties now means it could take years for solid political caucuses to form.
And when the novice politicians traipse into parliament, officials are worried about 'ethics' - whether, in the words of one, 'they will solve their arguments with words, fisticuffs or worse'.
The vagaries of the obscure electoral system have compounded jitters. Single non-transferable voting is easy for inexperienced electors to understand because they choose only one candidate. But officials warn it can result in disproportionate results favouring minorities, resulting in widespread claims of vote-rigging.
'There will be over 5,000 losers. I am concerned they will not accept the result,' said Peter Erben, the chief electoral officer.
Chaos might suit Karzai, whose American backers favour a strong presidency, but it deepens disillusionment.
'Karzai talks like a democrat but thinks like a king,' said Ranjbar. 'How can we build a democracy with such a totalitarian mindset?'
The greater peril is that a botched poll will blunt Afghans' new-found enthusiasm for democracy.
Mosque, school set ablaze in Khost, Logar provinces
Pajhwok Afghan News 09/16/2005 By Abdul Majid Arif & Qadeem Wayar
PUL-I-ALAM/KHOST - A mosque and a school were set ablaze by unidentified outlaws in Khost and Logar provinces overnight. A tribal elder Mualim Mohammad Wali Shah told Pajhwok Afghan News the mosque was burnt in Landi Kalay, south of the Khost City. He said the mosque was recently constructed with huge financial cost.
Wali Shah added the tragic incident had sparked a wave of anger among residents of the area and they wanted immediate action against the criminals. Khost deputy intelligence chief Naqibullah Asmati confirmed the burning of the mosque but added: "This may be an accident." It merits a mention here that the mosque is situated near the base of coalition forces in Khost.
Elsewhere in the Qalawi Wazir area of the Logar province, armed men burned a middle school for boys overnight. Chief of the crime branch of the police headquarters, Colonel Qudratullah said miscreants set ablaze the school to spread harassment among people ahead of the parliamentary elections.
He said investigations were on but no arrest had been made thus far. It is pertinent to recall that unidentified gunmen burned a girls' school in the Baraki Barak district of the same province some three months back.
Canada urged to withdraw troops from Afghanistan
OTTAWA, Sept. 17 (Xinhua) -- A famous anti-war British MP on Saturday urged Canada to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, saying that despite the country's refusal to fight in Iraq, it is complicit in the US war on terrorism by stationing troops in the central Asian country.
"I'm amazed that so many people in Canada believe they're not apart of this crime," George Galloway said at the sixth annual conference of the Islamic Circle of North America and the Muslim Association of Canada, which is being held in Mississauga, Ontario.
Canada has sent an army of 1,000 soldiers to Afghanistan (and ships to the Persian Gulf), Galloway was quoted by local media as saying before a crowd.
"Your ships in the Gulf and your soldiers in Afghanistan are doing the dirty work of (US President) George W. Bush and (British Prime Minister) Tony Blair. They are freeing American ships and soldiers to go to Fallujah and massacre the people of Iraq."
Galloway also called Canada's reputation as peacekeepers a lie,pointing to comments by Chief of Staff Rick Hillier, who said soldiers are fighting "detestable murderers and scumbags."
Hillier has said the Canadian Forces has a job to do and that involves killing people.
Galloway is known for his vocal criticism of the war in Iraq and was kicked out of the Labor Party in 2003 for urging British soldiers not to fight in the war.
He launched his own anti-war party and this year won a seat in parliament, unseating the Labor Party incumbent.
In his speech Saturday, he repeated statements he made recentlyin New York about why he believes Sept. 11 happened.
"These airplanes on 9-11 may have seemed to have come out of a clear blue sky but, in fact, these monstrous mosquitoes flew out of a swamp of bitterness and hatred and anger which exists in the Muslim world (because of) the injustice of western policy," Galloway said.
"It is a crime, it is a sin, in any language, in any religion, to punish innocent people for the crimes of guilty people," he said.
"But it is a crime and a sin whether it happens in Britain or New York or Fallujah or Baghdad or Palestine or Afghanistan or anywhere else the bombs and rockets are falling."
Afghan nomads place hope in poll
By Soutik Biswas BBC News, Kabul Saturday, 17 September 2005
Parwin Mohmand Talwasa, running in Sunday's Afghan elections, is an unusual member of her nomadic Kuchi community.
In her 40s and a mother of four children, she is a journalist with an American radio station, edits a magazine and drives a car.
"I am a modern Kuchi," smiles Ms Talwasa as she emerges from a restaurant in Kabul after a meeting with other women candidates.
Ten seats have been reserved for Kuchis in the 249-member Afghan parliament - seven for men, three for women.
Seven women are running for the three Kuchi seats - it is a tough call because the candidates have to travel all over the country to solicit votes in the absence of electoral constituencies.
Warlords and drought
There are an estimated 3.5m Kuchis in Afghanistan who, for centuries, have led nomadic lives.
The Pashtun nomads move from one province to another from season to season, pitching patchwork tents in the shadow of the mountains with their sheep, goats, horses, camels and sometimes dogs.
But the Soviet invasion and the bloody civil war that wrecked the nation shattered the lives and migratory patterns of these proud people.
They began losing their animals to mines, warlords and drought and slid into poverty.
By one estimate, the Kuchis had lost 35,000 animals to mines by 1997.
The rampaging warlords would usually take away their animals during the civil war, leaving them very little.
The nearly decade-long drought meant that many of the animals died, further impoverishing the community.
Today, Kuchis are largely forgotten in a war-ravaged country struggling to pick itself up.
Ms Talwasa says that she can make a difference in the fast-changing lives of the Kuchis, the majority of whom, she says, cannot rely on their animals for a livelihood these days.
"Kuchis are no longer interested in raising animals," she says.
"Their sheep are mostly dead, so they don't get any wool, which was Afghanistan's major export once."
In her campaign travels through Kuchi tent cities all over the country, Ms Talwasa found that the nomads were tired of scrounging for a living and wanted to settle down and do odd jobs.
"The challenge is to get a plot of land for every Kuchi family. They have never owned land, so we owe it to them. Then the other things like schools and clinics can come," she says.
Most Kuchis are jobless, she says, and do not have a clue about coping in modern-day jobs.
Many of them are struggling as day workers. Most cannot read or write.
Alongside a bumpy, cratered road linking Kabul with Jalalabad, a Kuchi tent city is testimony to how the lives of the nomads have changed for the worse.
Islamuddin lives with his family, a few sheep, a horse and a handsome guard dog in a tatty tent under the Hindu Kush mountains as the busy traffic kicks up clouds of dust from the highway.
This is far removed from any stereotype of an "idyllic" Kuchi lifestyle - sheep grazing in lush green grasslands, their owners watching over them under snow-capped mountains.
"I am a day labourer. I carry bricks and my horse carries loads too. That's the only way I can earn now," says Islamuddin. "The old life is gone."
Moment of change
The only thing that Islamuddin has still not given up is the nomadic habit - he says he will move to Jalalabad when the winter sets in.
Ms Talwasa is one of the luckier Kuchis, born in eastern Nangarhar province to a schoolteacher father - a small portion of Kuchis moved on to jobs early in their lives.
She studied journalism in Kabul, and then worked in newspapers and television.
Today, she edits a magazine and her business card has a prominent picture of a tent to remind people of her roots.
Ms Talwasa is hopeful the Kuchis can prosper, as their elected representatives can pressure the government to give them land and other benefits.
"Nobody bothered about the plight of Kuchis in the past. Now the future looks brighter if we can win and get the government to act," she says.
Islamuddin, for example, is aware of Sunday's election and says he is definitely going to cast a ballot for the first time in his life, although he will not say for which candidate.
The poll may yet prove a moment of change for Afghanistan's nomads.
Disabled Afghans Seek Special Polling Stations
Daily Afghan Report - September 16, 2005 - Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Disabled Afghans in western Herat Province are asking the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) to set up polling stations near their homes, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 15 September. Some people with disabilities say that without such separate polling stations, they would have to travel long distances and wait in lines that could prevent them from being able to vote. Officials with the JEMB responded that special measures to help disabled people vote had already been taken, including setting up three new polling stations in the province. Mohammad Yaqub Qazizada, head of the provincial department of disabled and martyr affairs, encouraged other Afghans to let the disabled vote first. CP
Dreams of Democracy
Mixed hopes and fears as Afghanistan holds its first democratic parliamentary elections in more than three decades.
By IWPR staff in Kabul (ARR No. 188, 16-Sep-05) Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Millions of Afghans head to the polls on September 18, hoping to leave behind years of warfare but also fearful of what their votes may produce for the future.
At stake are seats in the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, and the provincial councils which will run local affairs and also help shape the legislature’s upper house, the Meshrano Jirga.
Fifty-five thousand police and 28,000 Afghan soldiers, backed by an international force of more than 10,000 troops, have been deployed to provide security against possible attacks by the Taleban, whose fighters are still battling a 20,000-strong US-led Coalition force.
While the massive security arrangements seem to be inspiring confidence, many voters appear to be concerned about the eventual outcome of the vote.
"If I and others don't vote for the good candidates, parliament will be full of criminals and killers," said 28-year-old Farhad in his shop at Kabul's Pashtunistan intersection, adding that he would not vote for a fundamentalist.
It was a view frequently repeated by others who spoke out vehemently against those candidates with "blood-stained hands".
Abdul Shukur, 30, from Wardak province, summed up such concerns succinctly, "Our nation is torn by war, and those who had their swords drawn yesterday should today be stopped from getting into parliament."
Those elected to parliament must focus on benefiting the whole nation, and not be swayed by ethnic or regional interests, he added.
When the polls open at 6 am on September 18, the estimated 12.5 million electorate - many of them illiterate - will have a chance to vote at polling stations across the country, some of them so isolated that donkeys and camels had to be used to bring in the election materials. Others will make their way to mosques and schools in towns and villages that have been turned into polling stations for the day. The 26,000 stations will be open until 4 pm.
Each person will cast two votes, one for a parliamentary candidate and one for the provincial council.
In the capital, Kabul, voting will be a formidable exercise. Nearly 400 candidates are standing for the 33 parliamentary seats allocated to Kabul, which has meant production of a ballot booklet carrying the photograph, symbol and number of each would-be politician. Each voter will have to search through this list for his or her chosen candidate.
Across the country’s 34 provinces, there is widespread distrust of many of the 3,000 candidates contesting the 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga.
The candidates themselves are a mixed bunch. Among them are former warlords and lower-level commanders whose militias destroyed much of Kabul and caused thousands of deaths between 1992 and 1996 in the internecine conflict between rival mujahedin groups that followed the ousting of the communist government.
They also include a former Taleban official responsible for the “promotion of virtue and prohibition of vice”, and a woman who was spurred to contest a seat by the memory of being whipped by the same official's religious police in a Kabul street.
More than 300 women are vying to enter parliament, where a minimum of 68 seats are reserved for them.
Political analyst Bashir Bezhan sees little chance of a truly representative parliament emerging. "Just as the presidential election was conducted according to the will of a few individuals, the parliamentary ones will be the same, and these people will get the parliament they want," he said
Bezhan and some other analysts worry that the vote will be affected by external influences. The international community has reportedly invested over 150 million US dollars to finance the election.
"The Americans will do whatever it takes to get their own platform implemented and obtain their chosen parliament," he said, without elaborating on what he saw as Washington's aim.
Analyst Qasim Akhgar also doubts that the election will produce true representatives of the Afghan people, and fears that it will instead be dominated by the rich and powerful.
"Foreigners are directly involved in the parliament because a huge amount has been spent and it is obvious the Afghan government does not have this kind of money. And of course those who subsidise this process will have their goals fulfilled in this parliament," he said.
Akhgar added that independent candidates would have no chance of getting elected because they did not have the necessary backing. "This parliament won't be an effective one," he concluded.
Vetting was supposed to have eliminated any candidate with current links to armed groups, found guilty of war crimes, or still hanging on to a government post. But the process has been widely viewed as being ineffective.
Just five days before Sunday's poll, three supporters of a parliamentary candidate were wounded when gunmen attacked the convoy in which he was travelling in the northern Takhar province. According to press reports, the candidate, a former militia commander, accused his rivals of carrying out the attack.
Two high-profile parliamentary candidates, Mohammad Younus Qanuni and Salam Rakiti, traded accusations of mass murder and human rights abuses in a televised programme, each saying the other should be struck off the ballot list.
Neither candidate has been charged with war crimes or other human rights abuses, one of the criteria for disqualification.
There is confusion over whether the Taleban, ousted by US forces in 2001, intends to try to disrupt the poll on election day. The group’s spokesman, Lutfullah Hakimi, has said the Taleban will not attack voting stations because it does not want to be responsible for injuring innocent people.
But his statement comes against a background of increased violence in which the Islamic movement has been blamed for the killing of at least six candidates and five election workers.
Hakimi dismisses the election as a sideshow in the Taleban’s war, which he says will go on beyond the ballot box until foreign forces and the government they support are driven out.
Officers with the US and Afghan militaries, and those of the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, say they are ready for any eventuality and are confident they can ensure the elections will not be disrupted, a view shared by many of the capital’s residents.
The owner of a Kabul shop, who asked not to be named, said, "Although the opposition group [Taleban] may try their best to disrupt the process, I don't think they will succeed."
He believed everyone should vote "because this election is seen as a step towards real democracy and it means we will have a body with the power and authority to be involved in government affairs".
His optimism was shared by 34-year-old Akhtar Mohammad, who owns a shop at the Nader Pashtun intersection. Once parliament is elected, he believes many problems will be solved. "I'll vote for a person who is honest, competent, Muslim and whose hands are not stained with people's blood," he said.
Aziz Ahmad, a lecturer at the law faculty of Kabul University, was optimistic about the composition of the new national assembly. "I think Afghans know who they should vote for," he said.
But some are not so confident about the elections. A shoeshine man waiting on the pavement for customers told IWPR he thought parliament was "a waste of time and money".
"Away with you, brother! What’s parliament and what does it do?” he said aggressively. “Find another person to talk to. What benefit did we get from voting for Karzai?"
Parties Fume on the Sidelines
Political groups have been frozen out of the parliamentary election campaign, and many say it is part of a master-plan to weaken the legislature.
By Wahidullah Amani in Kabul (ARR No. 188, 16-Sep-05) Institute for War & Peace Reporting
The assembly that finally emerges from the September 18 parliamentary elections is likely to bear little resemblance to a viable parliament.
Observers of the political process say that if this happens, it will be far more than a failure by Afghans to understand parliamentary democracy. Instead, they argue, it is part of a well-thought-out plan to keep the legislature fractured and fragile so that it cannot present a challenge to the executive.
President Hamed Karzai has been ruling by decree since he was installed as the interim head of state in December 2001. His power increased after his landslide election as president in October 2004. It may be understandable that he would be reluctant to give up his near-imperial powers, but according to political analysts, the tactic that has been chosen will do little to bolster Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.
“Democracy does not work without political parties,” said Joanna Nathan, a senior analyst at the think-tank Crisis Group. “We are not going to see a strong parliament, we are going to see a parliament of 249 individuals.”
This is largely the fault of the electoral method - the Single Non-Transferable Vote, SNTV, where each voter casts a ballot for one individual, rather than selecting a party list with a distinct platform. This leaves parties with little opportunity to foster debate on issues, promote their programmes, or enforce party discipline among their candidates. Instead, each of the nearly 3,000 parliamentary hopefuls is trying to stitch together a patchwork constituency based on ethnic identity and personal ties.
Nathan says that is a recipe for a weak and splintered legislature, “Even the most optimistic say it will take six months to a year to form workable caucuses.”
When the election law was being drawn up, the parties lobbied hard to be given a role in the campaign. They insisted that up to 70 per cent of the seats be apportioned according to party lists.
In the end, they got nothing. The electoral law even prohibits party symbols in campaign literature and on the ballot.
“We were one hundred percent against this voting system,” said Aziz Ahmad Asef, public relations officer for the Afghan Millat party. “It is clear that those communities in the world where political parties have no role are not democratic.”
But the decision to go with SNTV was made by the government and by the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan, UNAMA, which has helped shape the political process. “Why they did it this way I do not know,” said Asef.
Certainly there were understandable reasons to keep political groups from trying to dominate the process. For one thing, the sheer number of registered political parties - 77 at present, with 16 more ready to come on board - could make a party system unwieldy, to say the least.
The flood of party registrations can partly be explained by the leniency of the requirements. Only 700 signatures, a party platform and a list of top officials are needed for grant registration.
“Of course this is not enough,” said Abdulghias Elyasi, who heads the justice ministry department charged with registering political parties. “But this is a decision made by the cabinet and we cannot do anything about it. We simply give the JEMB [Joint Electoral Management Body] a list of all the parties with their platform, their symbols and their addresses.”
Some government officials say privately that up to 90 per cent of the parties amount to little more than personal followings, and would not withstand real scrutiny. But, says Nathan, this is part of the political process. “That always happens at the beginning,” she said. “People don’t have to vote for [these parties].”
In any case, say observers, the plethora of groups will naturally thin out or amalgamate, “I am sure that all these parties cannot run forever, and some will join together, and we will have a small number of true political parties,” said Asef.
The justice ministry was opposed to SNTV, according to Elyasi. “We wanted to give the parties a role for the elections. But the cabinet and the JEMB are stronger than us, and we can’t tell them what to do,” he said.
The SNTV system had two main selling points: first, it was simple and replicated the process adopted during last October’s presidential elections. Second, the Afghan people are suspicious of political parties, associating them with communism or the gunmen and warlords who left the country in ruins after years of civil war.
But Nathan says that this fear was blown out of proportion to give the government the clout it needed to push the SNTV system through.
“I think there is widespread distrust of parties,” said Nathan. “It is understandable, certainly. There were the communists and the groups associated with factional fighting. But I think these fears are being exaggerated and used by the political elite, who basically want a weak parliament.”
The old former mujahedin factions, the “jihadi” warlords who are among the most feared and despised in the country, are still very much in the mix.
“What this system is doing is discouraging the emergence of new, democratic parties,” insisted Nathan.
Many party activists agree that parliament will be the poorer without a strong party presence.
“This election is the heart of democracy, and one of the most important components of democracy are political parties,” said Hussain Yasa, the editor-in-chief of Outlook, an independent daily, who is also political officer for Hezb-e-Wahdat-e-Islami-e-Mardom-e-Afghanistan, the predominantly Hazara party led by Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq. “But this system does not benefit democracy or the country. People with money and power may get into parliament, and then we will have problems. It will all be ethnic blocs, not parties.”
But, he said, the parties had no choice, as the system was forced on them by the government, “They did not want a strong parliament.”
Asked about the need for a simple system to appeal to an unsophisticated electorate, Yasa scoffed at the idea.
“The government says Afghans don’t know about politics,” he said. “But during the past 25 years the people of Afghanistan have been through the lot, and they certainly know enough about politics now.”
Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.
Facts, Figures About Afghanistan's Vote
By The Associated Press Sat Sep 17, 8:27 AM ET
Afghans elect a national parliament and provincial assemblies Sunday, the last formal step on a path to democracy laid out after U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001.
About 2,760 candidates are running for 249 seats in the Wolesi Jirga, parliament's lower house; 68 seats are reserved for women and 10 for Kuchi nomads.
More than 3,015 candidates are running for a total of 420 seats in 34 provincial councils. A quarter of the seats are reserved for women.
For parliament, 12 percent of candidates are women; the figure is 8.1 percent for provincial councils.
The 12.5 million registered voters — nearly 42 percent women — will cast ballots at 6,270 polling centers. The 40 million ballots range from one to seven pages. Because many Afghans are illiterate, they feature photographs and symbols for candidates.
More than 55,000 Afghan police and more than 28,000 Afghan soldiers will secure polling facilities. The 20,000-member U.S.-led coalition force and 11,000-member NATO security force will provide backup.
Counting begins Sept. 20, and partial provisional results will be released once 20 percent of the ballots in a province are tallied, which could be a day or two later. Complete provisional results are expected by between Oct. 4-6, and certified results around Oct. 20-22.
Demarcate border before fencing Durand Line: Afghanistan says to Pak
NewKerala.com, India / September 17, 2005
Islamabad: Pakistan’s proposal to fence its borders with Afghanistan, has run into rough weather with Kabul firmly putting its foot down over the proposal, saying that fencing could be initiated only after the boundaries were demarcated in accordance with international laws.
Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry spokesman Lutfullah Mashal has said that only after a demarcation could there be any further talk about fencing the Durand Line, The News quoted him as saying to the private Pajhwok Afghan News. He said that Afghans would never accept the fencing proposal before a demarcation of the border.
Accusing Pakistan of constructing security posts at Ghulam Khan, Zazai (or Jaji) and Babrak Thana partially on Afghan territory, he suggested the setting up a joint commission comprising experts from Afghanistan and Pakistan to demarcate the 24,000-kilometres long border.
Navid Ahmad Muez, the spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry, also said that Pakistan had not yet made any formal contact with Afghanistan regarding the proposal for fencing the border.
The report said that many Afghan politicians and intellectuals have also expressed opposition to the fencing proposal and termed it impractical and unnecessary, and said that Pakistan had mooted the proposal to deflect criticism that it wasn’t doing enough to stop infiltration of Taliban fighters from Pakistani territory into Afghanistan.
"Partyless system will harm the country" - Qanooni
Gulf News 09/15/2005
The man who hopes to be speaker of the new parliament in Afghanistan yesterday said President Hamid Karzai's attempt to promote a partyless democracy would harm the country.
Former education minister Younus Qanooni lashed out at the "government's anti-political party stance" in an exclusive interview with Gulf News at his refurbished Khairkana home ahead of Sunday's key parliamentary elections.
"They say they are for democracy, but we believe those who want to destroy political parties are the ones that in reality are against democracy," Qanooni said.
"If we want to be a real democracy, we have to stop looking back, stop adopting divisive, ethnic identities and unite, under not so much an ideological platform but a practical agenda for political, economic and social reform."
Qanooni, who fought alongside legendary Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massood and was injured in the leg during the struggle against the oppressive Taliban, has launched a new party called Afghanistan Naveen.
Together with 14 other small parties, he has fashioned an opposition alliance that includes feared Hazara commander Mohaqiq, as well as Pashtuns like Taj Mohammad Wardak.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt and slacks, unlike the flowing chappan (robe) and shalwar that he normally sports, this was a new Qanooni as he aired his reservations about the government's attempt to pitch for votes on an ethnic basis, rather than encourage political parties that reflect the country's growing political maturity.
"Afghanistan is a land of minorities, we don't have one single ethnic group that is in a majority, that is say 50 per cent plus one. Instead we have many, marginally larger or smaller than the other. So in a parliament based on ethnicity it would be chaos, multiple voices. What we need are political parties that have left ethnic identities behind, that ensures equity participation for all."
"Look at India, its president is from a minority community. He's a Muslim. Its prime minister is from another minority community. He's a Sikh."
About 11.2 million Afghans will get their second taste of the rough and tumble of electoral politics on Sunday in the first-ever election to parliament and provincial councils, after presidential elections last year when Karzai won a landslide victory.
Qanooni, who nearly derailed that election by alleging electoral fraud, continues to insist he won by 53 per cent. "I accepted the verdict then so that Afghanistan would not descend into anarchy again, because I did not want to cause bloodshed after clashes broke out between my supporters and Karzai's supporters in Herat where two people died."
But he warned that the methods of ensuring a victory for Karzai were in place for his supporters just as they were the last time. "We are not against elections but against the way elections are being conducted. The process of ballot box stuffing can only take place when the ballots are being moved from the voting booths to the counting centres. Who proposed the transfer of ballot boxes? Who manages the security of the boxes during the transfer? Under whose control are the boxes? It's the government. Even the JEMB [Joint Electoral Management Body] is run by government officials. It is not independent."
Against the single non-transferable vote system in place, he would have preferred proportional representation. He had submitted a seven-point proposal some six months ago which called among other things for such a system. "It was rejected," he said.
The former mujahideen commander, who wants a Justice Commission that looks into all complaints about candidates's antecedents defended the role of mujahideen in the troubled war-torn years saying they had nothing to be ashamed of as they had played a vital role in fighting the Taliban.
Discounting reports of divisions in the ranks of the former Northern Alliance, he said that former Defence Minister Marshall Fahim "fully backed" him. "We have been together for 25 years, we fought side by side," while Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah could not actively participate because he had responsibilities in government.
Qanooni, fast emerging as the central figure around whom the opposition is coalescing, said: "I don't believe we will get a majority, or that even the government-backed candidates will get a majority but my priority is to provide leadership in parliament. Let's not forget, this is Afghanistan, we know nothing about parliament. For 35 years we have not seen parliament. I will ask the government to let me train parliamentarians so that we can run the business of government."
Putting the finishing touches to a shadow government, Qanooni held a meeting on Sunday night with other members of his alliance.
While he skirted the touchy issue of whether his alliance would prioritise the key approval of the members of Karzai's cabinet when parliament convenes, he did say that the 30 days provided to the new parliament to pass Bills was not enough. "Our first order of business will be to ask for more time to discuss and debate important Bills. I believe there are 300 Bills in such a short time," said Qanooni.
A glass half full - An opportunity wasted
The Economist - 09/15/2005 - As Afghanistan prepares to elect its first democratic parliament for almost 40 years, the country is doing better than many feared
Kabul – On the campaign trail this week, Mullah Qalamudeen, the former Taliban deputy-minister for vice and virtue, was warmly welcomed in Logar province, in Afghanistan's violent east. Seated on cheap Iranian carpets in open-air mosques, he presented his manifesto to huddles of bearded elders. It was strong on values (Islam and jihad); thin on policy. But Mr Qalamudeen pledged that if the Islamist clauses in Afghanistan's constitution are diluted as a consequence of the parliamentary and provincial elections due on September 18th, he will take up his Kalashnikov rifle in their defence.
Mr Qalamudeen is one of the more impressive of the 5,800 candidates contesting the polls: he is not promising Logar instant roads and schools, or blaming foreigners for all Afghanistan's troubles, and he can read. Nor, unlike one or two other prospective members of parliament, did he oversee the slaughter of several hundred thousand residents of Kabul in the civil war of the 1990s. Nor does he have a private army, unlike 207 would-be candidates, according to an estimate by the local and foreign agencies that are running the election.
Only 21 of those villains have been disqualified: the government of President Hamid Karzai excused all the rest. The electoral complaints commission fielded several thousand other objections to candidates which did not make them ineligible—including charges that they had committed appalling war crimes, and, from one sorry plaintiff, that a candidate had stolen his wife. One local warlord left in the race is Haji Almas, a well-built parliamentary hopeful for Parwan province, with plucked eyebrows and a gravelly voice, whose supporters allegedly mount illegal road-blocks and traffic in opium. "My name is well known across the country," boasts Mr Almas, as he promises to build national unity.
The same is hoped for the elections themselves, which were originally supposed to have been held at the same time as the presidential election a year ago that returned Mr Karzai to power. By imposing an important check on presidential power, and also drawing Afghanistan's poor regions into a centre that has done little for them in recent years, they are an important stage in a trail-blazing post-war reconstruction effort; in theory, at least.
The reality is murkier. Against the advice of most of the foreign donors keeping him afloat, Mr Karzai chose the unusual single non-transferable vote system, whereby the 12m registered voters select one name (or, for illiterates, the corresponding symbol) in huge multi-member constituencies. In Kabul, 400 candidates are vying for 33 seats and the ballot runs to seven tabloid-sized pages. Voters need to look through the whole lot before making their choice, and the top 33 get the seats. With studies suggesting that illiterate women did not know how to turn pages, mistakes were expected, and voting was thought likely to proceed at a crawl. In contrast to last year's election, Afghans may vote only in their registered polling station, a fact that seems to be little-known, and could prevent many from voting at all. So could violence in the south and east, where an insurgency by Taliban and other fanatics continues: on September 13th, seven men carrying voter registration cards were murdered on a road in Uruzgan.
All this could create an opportunity for mischief by Yunus Qanuni, champion of the Tajik minority and Mr Karzai's main opponent. After coming a distant second to Mr Karzai in last year's poll, Mr Qanuni at first refused to accept defeat—and in an interview this week still claimed to have won 53% of the vote. Now vying for a place in parliament, he let it be known that unless he and his friends win half the 249 available seats he will again cry foul.
Even if serious glitches can be averted, the election should at best put in parliament a fractious rabble, with shifting factions bound by ethnicity and stealthy allegiance to the best organised political parties, most of them formerly communist. Such a body would struggle to rule on the 200-odd decrees Mr Karzai has handed down since his election, within 30 days of meeting, as the constitution seems to say that it must. The provincial assemblies will be much weaker, with no control over presidentially appointed governors—to the dismay of their would-be members, who were told this only mid-way through campaigning. Elections for local assemblies, also overdue, will not be held; due in part to the insurgency, district boundaries have not been fully demarcated.
Under the guiding hand of America, Mr Karzai's strongest ally, the electoral system was clearly designed to maintain a strong presidency. It is a strategy that could fail: Mr Karzai may find swift ad hoc support for his diktats, or he could be forced to spend distracting months negotiating to get his way. Whichever comes to pass, it seems right to ask whether Mr Karzai, a mid-level Holy Warrior against the Soviet occupation, and then an opponent of the Taliban, who has ruled Afghanistan since 2001, deserves now to find himself in such a powerful presidency.
Last year's election gave Mr Karzai the legitimacy he had previously lacked, and the temporary freedom to rule unencumbered by parliament. Excited pro-reformers, led by the finance minister, Ashraf Ghani, urged him to seize the chance: issue a 180-day reform programme, rid himself of ineffective provincial governors and other officials and accelerate the centre's outward reach. Mr Karzai responded by sacking Mr Ghani, announcing no new reforms and carrying on as before: ruling through slow consultation with tribal elders and the ex-mujahideen commanders who waged civil war before the Taliban sent them packing. Under pressure to remove Gul Agha Sherzai, under whose watch southern Kandahar province increased opium production by 140% this year, Mr Karzai instead recently shifted him to eastern Nangahar province, which had cut opium production by 95%.
One presidential adviser, and parliamentary candidate, causing particular concern is a former Saudi Arabian-backed jihadist leader named Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, a lobby group, he is "directly implicated in the abductions and the indiscriminate and intentional targeting of civilians". During the war against the Soviet army, together with Osama bin Laden, he founded training camps that sent Muslim fanatics to fight in Chechnya, Bosnia and the southern Philippines—where an Islamic terrorist movement, Abu Sayyaf, is named after him. In 1996, when Mr bin Laden was ejected from his base in Sudan, Mr Sayyaf invited him back to Afghanistan. Last week, at a meeting in the presidential palace in Kabul, Mr Karzai invited Mr Sayyaf to advise him whether to reappoint the heroic boss of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Mr Sayyaf advised against it.
In his defence, Mr Karzai could argue that he has had insufficient foreign help to take on the warlords. A NATO-led peacekeeping force, currently 11,000-strong, and known as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), keeps an eye on northern and western Afghanistan, from where most of the warlords hail. Yet, totalling a handful of small garrisons, and with most of its European troops forbidden by their national government to do aught more muscular than dig wells, it does little to assist with security.
ISAF played no role in the recent demobilising of 60,000 militiamen—many of whom are believed to have pocketed the UN's cash incentive and formed new bandit gangs. According to Major Luigi Mantoli, deputy chief of an Italian garrison in the western city of Herat: "Our military component is just for self-protection—it's a very, very light presence, a very, very, very light presence." True enough, Herat is currently peaceful. Yet a straw poll of Heratis milling outside the city's fine blue mosque suggested that security is their biggest concern.
According to Mr Karzai's logic, elections are no reason to risk civil strife. In defence of his caution, he can claim general progress. Last year, driven by wheat production, after decent rains ended years of drought, the economy grew by 13%. Government revenues are pathetically small—$350m last year, but growing too. Competent technocrats remain in charge of several key ministries, even if corruption beneath them is pervasive. The American-trained Afghan National Army is 30,000-strong, its desertion rates are dipping, and it provides useful support to the American-led coalition army that is fighting insurgents. And, moreover, several strongmen, notably Ismail Khan of Herat, and Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek from the north, have been co-opted into the government and so weakened.
Just so, reply Mr Karzai's critics—and their example should embolden the president. When sufficiently threatened, warlords have capitulated. Given that America and ISAF promised to take care of any troublesome disqualified candidates, the decision to disqualify so few armed men from standing for election seems an opportunity lost, especially given the rising uncertainty about how long Mr Karzai will be able to count on such assistance.
The elections probably do not amount to a genuine watershed in Afghanistan's creeping transition from abject dependency to, it is hoped, fragile self-sufficiency. Most Afghans have embraced them, but more in hope of benefits to come than jubilation at benefits received. In Pol-e-Khumri, a town in central Baghlan province, the menfolk of a destitute Pushtun family recently returned from exile in Pakistan said they would vote for any candidate who would bring them peace.
But peace is not all that the Afghans were promised in 2001. Of four road-building projects, barely one has been completed; work on the western stretch, from Kandahar to Herat, was frozen this month after Taliban assassins tossed a British engineer over a cliff to his death. The power sector is a shambles. Private investors remain discouraged by dozens of extraneous taxes, and now a corporate tax of 20% will be introduced after the election. Even with the requisite political will, because of a shortage of technical expertise, reforming the system will take years.
In the past four years, for aid and development, Afghanistan has received around $10 billion—about the annual cost of America's military venture there. Half has come from America but, unlike the contributions from Europe and Japan, the American aid comes without any long-term guarantees. There are fears in Kabul that, next year, America will not be so forthcoming.
That would not be in America's own interest, because its first job in Afghanistan, the suppression of al-Qaeda terrorists and the local fanatics who succoured them, is still not done. This year, 69 American soldiers have been killed by these enemies, the highest number since 2001; though the figure is swollen by two serious incidents, including the shooting down in June of a helicopter carrying American special force fighters, killing 16. An improvement in the guerrillas' bomb-making skills has suggested the arrival of help from Iraq's insurgents, but media talk of a "second front" emerging in Afghanistan is unfounded. American forces in Afghanistan admit to having killed 600 people since March, though given their propensity to kill from the air, the true number is probably considerably higher.
Grim as this sounds, America has improved its military tactics. Its regular soldiers are operating more like special forces, in smaller units, and in tandem with the eight battle-ready battalions of the Afghan army. At Mr Karzai's request, this year, restrictions have been placed on airstrikes and house searches, which has probably meant fewer civilians killed or riled. America can also expect some fresh help in its fight, with around 4,000 British and Canadian troops expected to be deployed to southern Afghanistan by early next year. Whether ISAF will take over the coalition's combat role, allowing American to withdraw several thousand troops from Afghanistan next year as it would like, remains in doubt. At a meeting of European defence ministers in Berlin on September 13th, Germany, France and Spain opposed giving NATO such extended duties.
Still, whether as NATO or as an American-led coalition, America and its allies will not be able to defeat the insurgents so long as their leaders are based not in Afghanistan but, as intelligence very strongly suggests, in next-door Pakistan. On September 12th, Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, suggested building a fence along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan to prevent all illegal incursions. It would surely be cheaper to start by arresting those Taliban leaders living contentedly, and relatively openly, in Pakistan's northern town of Quetta.
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