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Afghanistan: Interim Government Faces Serious Obstacles In Stabilizing Country

  • Alexandra Poolos

Afghanistan's interim government officially takes office tomorrow in Kabul. Both the international community and Afghan citizens alike are nervously watching the transition to power for the 30-member body, which will rule Afghanistan for six months and hopefully put the war-ravaged country on the path toward peace and stability. RFE/RFL correspondent Alexandra Poolos looks at the potential obstacles that await the new administration.

Prague, 21 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The 30 newly appointed ministers of Afghanistan's interim government face daunting odds in stabilizing their country.

They will confront a land with almost no infrastructure and largely untapped natural resources, a nation where most people are hungry and cannot read. Worse, they must overcome the country's tendency toward ethnic warlordism, which has consistently scuttled past attempts to bring peace.

But the new administration is built on a combination of personalities that -- coupled with a strong international commitment -- may just give it the edge it needs to survive its six-month tenure.

Pashtun military commander Hamid Karzai will lead the cabinet as prime minister, which has a triumvirate of Northern Alliance figures in top positions -- Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, and Defense Minister Mohammed Qaseem Fahim.

One notable element of Karzai's cabinet is that it will include two women. Suhaila Seddiqi, a doctor in Kabul, will be the minister of public health. Sima Samar, who works with a non-governmental organization in Quetta, Pakistan, will be minister of women's affairs, as well as one of Karzai's five deputies.

The UN-brokered agreement reached on 5 December near Bonn calls for Karzai and his government to stay in power for about six months, at which time a Loya Jirga, or tribal assembly, will meet to choose a transitional government. That government, in turn, will last about two years, during which time a new constitution will be drawn up. Elections will follow.

Karzai said recently that he hopes Afghans will leave violence in the past and bring "justice" to Afghanistan: "I hope all Afghans will see to it that revenge is forgotten, that we become compassionate, that we become kind but just. We must be kind, but we must have justice."

Overcoming warlordism in Afghanistan will not be an easy task. Karzai and his cabinet are likely to face challenges from Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Northern Alliance leader who was the UN-recognized president of Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule but who was excluded from the new government. Rabbani has acquiesced, saying he will work with Karzai but calling the Bonn agreement an "interference" by foreign powers in Afghanistan's affairs.

Another potential spoiler is Uzbek military leader Abdul Rashid Dostum, who controls a big chunk of northern Afghanistan. There are reports that Dostum is angry that the three most important government portfolios -- defense, interior, and foreign affairs -- went to his Tajik rivals within the Northern Alliance.

But the UN's special envoy for Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, said recently that he had received a letter from Dostum saying the Uzbek commander is "100 percent committed" to the new government.

Thomas Withington of "Jane's Defence Weekly" says that people like Rabbani and Dostum will cooperate with the government if they see it as actually having power in the country.

"I think that people like Rabbani and other potential power brokers will come on board if they feel there is more to gain by keeping this administration going and keeping it running than staying outside it," Withington says. "And if there is a kind of bombardment of aid in Afghanistan and reconstruction begins and the international community does have a presence on the ground -- people like Rabbani, you simply won't have to worry about them. They will simply come into the fold."

Withington says the key to Karzai's success is a firm international commitment. He says past attempts at peace in Afghanistan never got off the ground because other countries were more interested in conducting what he called "geopolitical intrigues."

"By having these kind of international political equivalents of one-night stands, the consequences can be very unpleasant. If you're going to come into a country like Afghanistan, it has to be long term. You have to help to reconstruct the country," Withington says. "The interim government will work as long as there is a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. That's what you need. If you can demonstrate that by having this government and having these initiatives, that it's improving the lot for ordinary Afghans and it's helping to mitigate the poverty and it's helping to de-mine the country -- it has every reason to survive. Remember that extremism and chaos function best when the country is in complete disarray."

Withington listed the first priorities of the interim government: "The first thing that they should do is seriously consider disarming the population. They need to work with the international community to guarantee law and order. That's crucial, particularly in view of the Northern Alliance's last exploits in Kabul, when -- should we just say -- they weren't exactly the armed wing of Amnesty International. That's the first thing. The second thing is getting emergency aid in to people over the winter. Afghanistan has had a bad drought. People do need food. They need medicine. Alongside that, the other thing that's got to happen is the country needs to be cleaned up in terms of unexploded ordnance and land mines. I mean, Afghanistan is possibly the most land-mined country on Earth. That's got to be dealt with."

A UN-backed international security force will be crucial in ensuring the safety of the new government and facilitating the transport of humanitarian aid. The UN Security Council yesterday approved the deployment of a British-led peace support mission expected to total 5,000 at most. The troops will remain in Kabul and its surroundings for at least six months, until the interim government steps down in favor of a new transitional authority.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon says the presence of the security force in Afghanistan reflects the backing of the international community: "The International Security Assistance Force is a reflection of the strong international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan. We'll go to Kabul with the backing of a wider international community."

Amin Farhang, the interim minister for reconstruction, told RFE/RL this week that Afghanistan has a long way to go: "Therefore, I believe that we have two phases. The first phase is reconstructing Afghanistan, in which we should put aside any differences we have and work together to serve the country, taking into account the interests of society to ensure awareness and well-being of our people, so that they have a prosperous, peaceful, and dignified life. The second phase is the future development of Afghanistan. In this phase, too, we can be at a dialogue and see what can we do further. The most important thing is that we live together on the basis of democracy, not on the basis of force, violence and the like."

Evidence of the success of the interim government will not be seen for at least several months, if not several years. Withington says such success hinges on the depth of outside commitment.

He says that if the international community walks away, Afghanistan will immediately descend into chaos. Then, he says, "It won't be the Taliban that comes to power, it will be someone else."

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