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Afghanistan: EU Delegation Arrives To Discuss Timing Of Elections, Security

A high-level EU delegation arrives today in Afghanistan for talks on the country's upcoming elections. The bloc has indicated that with continued security worries and low voter registration, June may be too early for the vote.

Brussels, 17 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- European Union officials are beginning to question whether Afghanistan's presidential and parliamentary elections -- tentatively scheduled for June -- should be postponed.

The EU has pointed to the continued absence of security outside the capital Kabul. It also notes that only 600,000 Afghans have registered to vote -- a tiny fraction of the country's 10 million eligible voters.

Unless the registration process can be accelerated -- preferably under the guidance of the United Nations -- EU officials have warned that the June vote will not be a proper representation of the Afghan people.

The new Afghan Constitution does allow for a delay, specifying only that a decision on elections must be made by June.
With this in mind, a high-level EU delegation is meeting today in Kabul with Afghan leaders for what has been called "intensive discussions" on the timing of the poll, and whether the presidential and parliamentary votes should be held at the same time.

The EU mission is led by Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen and the bloc's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten.

Speaking yesterday in Brussels, the EU's security policy chief Javier Solana said the vote may be postponed, but should still take place as soon as possible: "After the constitution was finished, we talked about the possibility of keeping the [election timetable] with President Karzai. There is the possibility of postponing part of the elections -- as you know, we will have presidential elections and parliamentary elections. We would prefer, in principle, to have both together, but it may be impossible to do it in the time that is left. Maybe it's possible to have the [presidential] elections, as President Karzai mentioned this morning. But in any case, we have to work very hard to get a climate of security that would allow -- the sooner, the better -- to have the elections."

Solana said the new Afghan Constitution does allow for a delay, specifying only that a decision on elections must be made by June.

EU officials have called for the activities of NATO-led ISAF stabilization forces and U.S.-led coalition troops to be significantly expanded in the run-up to the polls and during the elections themselves.

Speaking yesterday in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance is looking for ways to ensure that at least the presidential vote can be held in June.

"I was with President Karzai last week, as you know," he said. "And it is, of course, clearly his ambition to have the elections -– the presidential elections, that is -– as they are scheduled. We, of course, from the NATO side, are looking into to what extent ISAF can support the electoral process. Now, please do realize that when I do say that, ISAF of course is not able, because of the [limited troop] levels, to go everywhere to support the electoral process. But we'll certainly have a discussion in the NATO Council [of ambassadors] about what ISAF could do."

EU officials, however, must count costs as they consider any changes to security arrangements in Afghanistan. ISAF -- which is made up of largely European troops -- costs between 2 billion and 3 billion euros a year.

A German-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) currently being developed for work in the provinces, would reportedly cost an additional 500 million euros a year.

The EU has committed to spending 200 million euros a year in Afghanistan until 2007. The bloc has already overshot that margin considerably with security expenditures over the past two years.

This comes at a time when many member states are facing intensifying budget pressures at home. Finding extra troops for the 5,000-strong ISAF force has also proven difficult.

One possible solution may be expanding the role of PRTs from providing security for reconstruction work to counternarcotics and law-enforcement activities.

This reflects growing EU concern about Afghanistan's booming opium trade. Ninety percent of heroin sold in Europe is believed to come from Afghan-grown poppies.

EU officials also see a reduction in poppy cultivation as the key to disarming local warlords, who use proceeds from the drug trade to fund private militias and undermine the central leadership in Kabul.

Another issue to be discussed during today's talks will be the Afghan donors conference to be held in Berlin on 31 March and 1 April.

EU officials have said the bloc will make no new pledges. It remains to be seen whether any non-EU countries -- particularly the United States -- will make long-term commitments.