In a statement following the inauguration ceremony, Kharzai named the elimination of poppy cultivation and drug trafficking and disarmament of armed militants as among the principal goals of his administration. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Karzai gave his oath of office on the Quran to Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari before himself swearing in his two vice presidents, Ahmad Zia Massoud and Karim Khalili. More than 200 foreign and Afghan dignitaries were in attendance, including US Vice President Dick Cheney, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi and North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.
Expectations had run high that Karzai would use the inauguration to name his new cabinet, but no announcements were made. Instead, attention has focused on a recent amnesty offer from the US that lies at the center of the government's push for post-Taliban reconciliation.
Under this plan, low-ranking Taliban forces would be granted amnesty from prosecution in exchange for surrender of their arms to US troops. The amnesty would not include "international terrorists" or those wanted for crimes in Afghanistan. Karzai would draw up the list of those to be excluded from the amnesty and then pass on the list to Pakistan's President Pervez Musharaff for endorsement. According to a statement made Sunday by US military commander Lt. General David Barno, fewer than 100 of the Islamic faction's top leaders could be excluded from the amnesty. If the Taliban accept the deal, withdrawal of the US's 18,000 Afghanistan-based troops could begin by June 2005.
With American military forces already stretched thin by operations in Iraq, the plan has obvious advantages for Washington. Kabul, anxious to end the Taliban's sputtering insurgency, sees the deal as a chance to build political stability and press forward with reform. On December 2, US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that Karzai had already been in talks with the Taliban about the deal, and urged the Islamic fighters to accept the amnesty offer, the Pakistani newspaper Daily Times reported. "Continuation of armed resistance... is against the will of [the] Afghan people and Islam," Khalilzad said.
A framework for reconciliation with the Taliban, however, is still not in place and it is still uncertain to what degree a peace deal with the government might appeal to Taliban foot soldiers, whose beliefs, a hybrid of radical Islam and rural Pashtun mores, may make them ill at ease with Karzai's schemes for fast-paced modernization.
Nonetheless, traditional Islam remains strong in Afghanistan, even among those who do not support the Taliban. Playing to this influence, recently the country's conservatives have begun to challenge Karzai's liberal policies, in an apparent bid to reestablish traditional Islamic values as a pillar of Afghan society.
While most analysts say that the conservatives are incapable of launching a serious challenge against Karzai, support for their ideas among the country's rural population is firm. Some local observers believe that to make a success of any reform drive, Karzai and his allies will have to take into account this group's interests.
A ban on cable TV, reinstated on November 12, illustrates the stakes involved. The original ban, first imposed by the Supreme Court in January 2003, was revoked in April 2003 after a government commission investigated claims of obscenity filed in Kabul and the eastern city of Jalalabad, the hometown of Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari. Although execution of the ban was eventually eased, restrictions on most western and Indian television shows remain firmly in place.
The decision to proceed with the ban could signal that the conservatives are primed to make use of Chapter 3, Article 1 of the new constitution, a clause that specifies that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."
The provision, a compromise forged with reformers who wanted constitutional protection for women's rights, puts the weight on the Supreme Court for implementation of the clause.
In theory, that could play into conservatives' hands. Even though he has repeatedly distanced himself from the Taliban's interpretation of Islam, Chief Justice Shinwari is an outspoken advocate of orthodoxy. With a background in religious matters only, Shinwari is seen as sympathetic to the pro-Wahhabist views of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a former mujaheddin commander and onetime associate of Osama bin Laden. Shinwari's tenure as Chief Justice drew particular notice in 2003, when he reinstated the hated Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, renamed as the Ministry for Haj and Religious Affairs.
Yet despite this potential perch, conservatives in Afghanistan are divided by internal political rivalries and multiple party alliances. Presidential candidate Ahmed Shah Ahmadzei failed to mount a serious challenge to Karzai, while former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a conservative Islamic scholar, backed the president's campaign. Sayyaf, an advocate of Wahhabism, also appears open for negotiations with the government. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Outrage against flamboyant Indian and Western television shows appears to have provided the country's disparate conservative factions with a much-needed common cause. "Afghanistan is a Muslim country and doesn't need this kind of cultural interference," Ahmadzei explained to EurasiaNet in reference to the decision to ban cable TV. "Submitting to modernist attitudes . . .doesn't help the country, but traditionalists will watch Karzai's government in the name of Islamic morality."
If reformers are intent on following through with pledges to liberalize Afghanistan, those feelings must be taken into account, commented Fahim Dashty, editor of the English-language Kabul Weekly. "Let's face it. . . Bollywood is not an ideal choice for everybody."
Claudio Franco is a freelance correspondent who covers Afghanistan. Camelia Entekhabi-Fard also contributed to this report.