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Afghanistan: Elections Now Look Set For September As Challenges Mount

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has told foreign diplomats that the target date for elections is being pushed back from the summer to September. From Kabul, RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports on technical preparations and security concerns, as well as contentious legal issues, that must be resolved before the vote takes place.

Kabul, 26 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- A major donors' conference for the reconstruction of Afghanistan is scheduled in Berlin next week, and the Afghan central government is eager to show it is making progress on post-Taliban reforms.

But according to one key measure of progress -- preparations for a presidential election initially scheduled for June -- reforms are moving slower than had been hoped.

When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Kabul earlier this month, Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai said the June election date would likely be pushed back to August. On 24 March, Karzai revised the timeline again, telling foreign diplomats in the capital that it is now his intention to conduct elections in September.

The latest delay follows bloody clashes between rival militia forces in the western city of Herat on 21 March. It also follows the 24 March release of a report by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan warning that elections, reconstruction, and human rights are threatened in Afghanistan by the lack of "medium or long-term security."

The chief UN spokesman in Afghanistan, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, summarized Annan's concerns on 25 March.

"The report stresses in particular that more progress is required to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate former combatants. Fighting in Herat and recent factional fighting in the north were serious recent indications that security remains an unsolved problem. The secretary-general notes in the report that 'while legitimate security interests must be taken into account at all times, all too often militia groups that wield the name of army units, police, and intelligence agencies are nothing but instruments of extortion, undue influence, and factional rivalry. Insecurity is their business,'" Silva said.

Annan's report concludes that extortion and intimidation must not be allowed to be used as tools for political influence in the upcoming electoral process. It says the success of initiatives to strengthen security depends on the expansion of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) into areas outside Kabul; the deployment of additional Provincial Reconstruction Teams by the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan; and an acceleration in the establishment of the Afghan National Army and national police force.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah says he does not expect the vote to be pushed back beyond November's presidential elections in the United States -- and certainly not into next year. In an interview with RFE/RL, Abdullah said the best-case scenario would be to conduct elections "around" late summer or autumn.

"Next year -- nobody has really looked at it as an option. I don't think that it's likely that we will have to delay it [that long]. But a lot more effort than what we have done so far is needed in order to be within -- around -- the time frame," Abdullah says.

Talk of autumn as the earliest possible date for the presidential vote also is raising debate in Kabul about whether the additional time to complete technical preparations will allow a simultaneous parliamentary election.

That approach would ease the concerns of non-Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan, who had lobbied for simultaneous elections during December's Constitutional Loya Jirga. Those lobbyists included political and military leaders of Afghanistan's ethnic Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara factions.

Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and there is widespread anticipation in Kabul that a Pashtun, such as Karzai, will win the presidential vote. Leaders from other ethnic groups argue that establishing a parliament at the same time will provide "checks and balances" against the centralization of authority under a strong presidency.

Abdullah tells RFE/RL that with so many unresolved technical preparations, it is still unclear whether simultaneous elections are possible.

"The initial thinking, and also according to our constitution, still is that maximum effort has to be carried out [so] that both elections are simultaneous. That's according to the constitution. What 'technical preparations' means is something else. So around May, we will be in a better position to give some clarity about the timing," Abdullah says.

A key task is to register enough voters to give the ballot democratic legitimacy. UN officials have said they hope to register about 10 million voters. But according to the latest UN data, only about 1.6 million people have so far been registered. Most are residents of urban areas like Kabul, Herat, and Jalalabad. There are few registration stations in the regions, and the UN has yet to send foreign election workers into parts of the south and southeast, where U.S.-led coalition forces are conducting a spring offensive against Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. That leaves hopes for a timely election hinging on a UN plan to enroll up to 8 million more voters in a May registration drive across the country.

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, says there are three other areas in which technical preparations need to be completed by the UN and the Afghan government. He says that after voter registration, the next most critical task is for the Afghan government to approve an election law it already has drafted that details how and when voting will take place.

"Third is the resolution of the boundary disputes in some [voting] districts. There is a commission that the government has appointed. That commission is going to report back on the 22 April. Fourth is the issue of population estimates so we can distribute [parliamentary] seats between provinces. The statistics office, I understand, has got estimates for 20 or 21 [of the 33 Afghan] provinces. The remainder has to be done. Party registration is taking place. I think the people are anxious for elections to take place. But I think there are a number of steps that still have to be taken, and both the UN and the [Afghan] government are working at it," Khalilzad says.

Foreign Minister Abdullah notes that under the new Afghan Constitution, the final deadline for fixing election dates is 4 June -- exactly six months after the conclusion of the Constitutional Loya Jirga. Abdullah says that is the one deadline the government is certain to meet.

But analysts in Kabul warn that pushing the presidential vote far beyond June could threaten Karzai's legitimacy in the country. Karzai's mandate as a "transitional" president expires on 19 June -- exactly two years after the conclusion of the emergency loya jirga of 2002 that confirmed his role as the leader of the Afghan Transitional Administration.