Controversy is swirling around Afghanistan's upcoming parliamentary election. Lingering security problems and a lagging voter registration effort has prompted speculation in Washington that the vote, now scheduled for June, may be delayed. Government representatives in Kabul, however, insist the election will be held according to schedule.
A February 15 report in the New York Times said Bush administration officials were mulling a postponement of the vote to allow for more time to improve security conditions and to register more voters. The article went on to say that just 8 percent of eligible voters have been recorded on voter lists. A day later, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's administration acted to quash speculation about a postponement. In its determination to adhere to the existing election timetable, the Afghan government is planning a massive voter-registration drive.
Even if such a voter-registration effort succeeds, observers say Afghanistan's tenuous security environment will continue to threaten the election. They point out that a major government initiative to improve security, a United Nations-sponsored disarmament program, is struggling to fulfill its aims.
At present, the authority of Karzai's administration does not extend far beyond Kabul, the capital. Warlords remain in firm control of many parts of Afghanistan, while Taliban insurgents are moving to fill the power vacuum in areas where authority remains contested. [For background information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program is designed to help Karzai's government extend its control over the entire country by promoting the demobilization of 100,000 Afghan fighters before the June elections.
So far, only about 2,246 military personnel have been demobilized in Kabul and the cities of Kunduz and Gardez in northern and eastern Afghanistan. Nearly 80 percent of those who have entered DDR have completed a retraining program, with some returning to occupations in the civilian sector, while others find position in the new National Army and the police force.
DDR appears to have run afoul of interethnic tension, which has complicated many aspects of Afghanistan's reconstruction process. The Afghan Ministry of Defense, which oversees the $200 million, three-year disarmament program, is itself part of Afghanistan's complicated mosaic of ethnic militias. Defense Minister Mohammad Fahim is an ethnic Tajik who initially delayed the diversification of his Tajik-dominated officer corps -- a UN requirement for the DDR program to begin.
"The Ministry of Defense has a big footprint on the process," Vikram Parekh, a senior analyst in Kabul for the International Crisis Group (ICG), told EurasiaNet. "There is no independent force in charge of the DDR process that is going to be considered impartial by various Afghan commanders."
In exchange for handing over their weapons, soldiers are paid roughly $200 about $16 more than the annual per capita income for 2002. In focusing the program on soldiers, Parekh suggested the UN is overlooking an important element of instability militia commanders. He added that warlords command units equipped with tanks and heavy artillery, and who control significant chunks of Afghan territory. "[T]he main security issue in Afghanistan is not the foot soldiers. It¹s dealing with the mid-level and low level commanders," Parekh added.
As a result, weapons handovers carried out under the DDR have had only limited success in improving security. Large sections of southern and eastern Afghanistan are inaccessible thanks to a recent surge in Taliban activity. Elsewhere, particularly in the north, warlords demonstrate no willingness to diminish their powers. Last October, for example, a clash near Mazar-i-Sharif between rival warlord militias left about 60 people dead. The incident included some of the heaviest fighting in the region since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban during the US-led anti-terrorism blitz.
Some militia leaders have set their own conditions for disarmament. In return for demobilizing his soldiers and surrendering his weapons, for example, Uzbek strongman General Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former leader of the Northern Alliance, demanded that he be named army chief of staff, and that all other militias demobilize first.
Despite the problems to date, some Afghan commanders believe the disarmament program will eventually succeed. Munir Muhammad, a commander in Galdez, expects to demobilize 1,300 of his soldiers soon. "I am optimistic because this program has a degree of international backing and some of the mujahedeen want to reintegrate into civilian life," he told EurasiaNet.
One of Muhammad¹s soldiers agrees. "We all are sick of weapons," said 28-year-old Zmray Mangal. "If enough assistance is offered, everybody will be happy to hand over their arms."
In remarks last December, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that a failure by member states to restore the country's crumbling security situation could mean that "we may lose Afghanistan." At present there are almost 6,000 NATO troops now stationed in Afghanistan, while the United States has an 11,500-strong force in the country. But complaints are widespread that international forces doing enough to promote security in Afghanistan's provinces. "Without security, you cannot travel around the country registering people for the elections," Annan said. "Without security, candidates cannot move around and campaign freely."