Continuing disorder in Afghanistan appears to be forcing a second realignment of the country's election timetable. Officials in Kabul now indicate that presidential and parliamentary elections will be decoupled, with the presidential poll being pushed back until mid October and the legislative vote coming as late as next spring. The reshuffle is fueling concern over whether the elections will achieve the goal of cementing Afghanistan's stabilization process.
The presidential and parliamentary elections originally were scheduled to be held jointly in June, and were then postponed to mid-September. In recent days, after much uncertainty and behind-the-scenes wrangling, representatives of President Hamid Karzai's administration admitted that the country could not keep to the September timetable. Officials have yet to agree on new, specific election dates.
Afghanistan's security situation appears to be deteriorating by the day, as Karzai's administration struggles to contend with resurgent Islamic radical forces and recalcitrant warlords who are firmly entrenched in many of the country's provinces. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. A revival of drug cultivation in Afghan provinces is also undermining the central government's authority. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The inability of the central government to extend its influence in recent months heightened concerns that the elections would not be free-and-fair outside of Kabul, with voters prone to intimidation by local warlords and/or remnants of the radical Taliban movement.
Chaotic conditions in the provinces weren't the only factor in forcing the second postponement. Representatives of the United Nations, which has been helping the Afghan government with logistics, admitted in early July that a slow response by international donors left election preparations drastically under-funded. At the same time, according to the UN, about 5.5 million of the country's estimated 10 million potential voters had been actually registered as of the end of June. Election officials also lack accurate census data that would allow them to draw parliamentary districts.
The Afghan presidential and parliamentary elections were envisioned as the last step in a political transition process agreed upon during the Bonn Conference in late 2001. The Bush administration is reportedly anxious that at least the Afghan presidential election be held by October, thus allowing US President George W. Bush to claim a foreign policy achievement during his own effort to win reelection in early November.
Pushing the elections back will doubtless alleviate some logistical problems, in particular the voter registration issue. However, some observers question whether the extra time will result in an improved security climate. Taliban attacks aimed at undermining voter confidence have steadily increased in recent months. On July 5, for example, a local official in southern Helmand Province, Haji Manaf Khan, narrowly escaped a Taliban assassination attempt.
Meanwhile, a drug-related dispute reportedly sparked a clash in northern Balkh province between a militiamen loyal to warlord Ata Mohammad and local police. Both sides accused the other of involvement in narcotics trafficking. During the confrontation, which began July 3, Ata's troops captured several government buildings and took roughly 100 police officers prisoner.
Bolstering Afghan security was among the main topics of discussion at the NATO summit in Istanbul in late June. Participants confirmed a decision to expand the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) from 6,500 to 10,000. The reinforcements will allow ISAF to keep expanding its operations beyond the capital Kabul, and to provide assistance in the on-going voter registration drive. In addition, the United States has created more so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), which blend aid workers and soldiers, to promote stabilization outside of Kabul. US officials say they hope to have PRTs in every Afghan province by the end of 2004.
Despite such measures, a significant number of Afghans seem pessimistic about the prospects that elections can break Afghanistan's vicious cycle of violence. "The warlords have grown stronger in the past two years. They have a lot of money in their hands and can manipulate the parliamentary election," said Sarya Saadat, a student.
Given that social conditions will remain strained for the foreseeable future, the pessimistic mood may prove difficult to dispel. For example, a recent study prepared by the group Refugees International said the wheat harvest in 2004 is projected to be "less favorable" than that in the previous year, meaning "a need for increasing amounts of food aid."
The report went on to say that persistent drought is posing a serious threat to Afghanistan's agricultural sector, which employs approximately 70 percent of the country's population. "The growing demand for water matched against its scarcity argues in favor of careful national policies for utilizing water wisely," the report said.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard has reported from Afghanistan and Iran for EurasiaNet.