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Interview: Afghan Minister Of Reconstruction Speaks To RFE/RL

Mir Mohammad Amin Farhang Afghan Reconstruction Minister Mir Mohammad Amin Farhang was interviewed on 18 August by RFE/RL freelance correspondent Tanya Goudsouzian in Kabul.

RFE/RL: Popular perception holds that Afghanistan's first democratic presidential elections will not be very democratic [see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 August 2004]. What is your opinion?

Farhang: No, I think the process will be very democratic. Everyone has the right to be a candidate for president and at the same time, the process of voter registration has worked out very well. Right now, we have more than 10 million registered voters, which means that popular participation is very high. We have prolonged the deadline [originally 15 August] for registration in some provinces by another week. But in some parts of the country, there are still some warlords who are trying to influence the process. The reaction of the people, however, has been positive. We have seen this in some areas where [warlords] have killed those who were trying to help the registration process. But the outcome of this was that the people increased their participation. This means that in spite of the pressure exerted by residual Taliban and Al-Qaeda, the people want to participate in the elections.

RFE/RL: According to various reports, most of the voter registrations are said to come from the north and urban areas. Where does this leave the volatile south?

Farhang: No, this is not correct. If 10 million people have already registered, this means that even in the villages, they have registered. In Afghanistan, the percentage of people living in the cities is very small. So if 10 million have registered, then it means that most of them are in the villages, not in the cities. The cities of Afghanistan do not have large populations, except for Kabul, which has nearly 3 million. The rest are very small. So 10 million means that most of the people who have registered to vote are from the rural areas. Granted, in the south, the turnout was not as great, but it is enough. It is larger than what we had expected, especially insofar as women's participation. In places, such as Khost, Gardayz [cities, Khost also a province, in eastern Afghanistan], and even in Kandahar [city and province in southern Afghanistan], there were many women who registered.

RFE/RL: There are allegations that Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai is using the Ministry of Frontier and Tribal Affairs to buy the support of the tribes....

Farhang: You know, it's always like this in elections everywhere in the world. They accuse the government, the government accuses others. This does not happen only in Afghanistan, but also elsewhere, even in developed countries, like the United States, Germany, and France. When one party believes he cannot win, or when there is rivalry among many parties, there are accusations like this flying about. But they must supply proof to support their allegations. Without proof, we cannot believe that all they say is true.

One thing I can say is that the government has decided not to spend too much money on the campaign. If the government spends too much money, it means that the government is taking this money from the budget, which belongs to the people, not the government. But other candidates have already spent millions of dollars. It begs the question: where did they find this money?

RFE/RL: But if Chairman Karzai does not want to spend so much money on the campaign, and the law limits the period of campaigning to 30 days before the elections, how much time and opportunity does it give the president, as well as the other candidates, to reach out to the people and win their confidence?

Farhang: The law has stipulated this period. We cannot do otherwise. But, we -- Mr. Karzai and his team -- will launch our campaign. We have divided the 33 provinces of Afghanistan into eight zones, and Mr. Karzai will travel to these zones to see the people -- the voters -- and talk to them and explain to them his political program for the future of Afghanistan. We have drafted a political program for the next five years, and Mr. Karzai will announce this to the people of Afghanistan. This is an electoral campaign. It could happen that Mr. Karzai is not successful. It is possible that another candidate wins. It is a democratic election, and everyone has the right to participate and to run for president.

RFE/RL: There are many who criticize Karzai for rarely venturing out of the palace to meet with the people.... He is especially criticized for his legions of foreign bodyguards.

Farhang: In the past 2 1/2 years, I have traveled with Mr. Karzai at least 20 times to various parts of Afghanistan. There, he met with the people, he spoke to them, he ate with them, and he gave speeches. In Kandahar, Badakhshan, Ghazni, Herat, Jalalabad.... I was with him. Even his bodyguards were scared because he did not do what they had instructed him to do. Remember that in Kandahar they tried to kill him [in September 2002]. He is not scared. He speaks to the people. But don't forget that our enemies, especially the Taliban, want to kill him, because if he is eliminated, the others will have their chance. This is why we must be very prudent. We cannot risk everything.

For example today [18 August], there was a ceremony marking Independence Day [from Britain in 1919], and Mr. Karzai was there in the stadium, and there were thousands of people there. These are risks.

But we can't exaggerate. Afghanistan is not a European country. In a European country, if one leader is not there, there are others and others... There are many who can replace him. But in our country, after the war and the experience we have had, the fate of the country is linked to the fate of the president, and if he is not there, we will have another crisis. Among the other presidential candidates, I can find no one who can replace Mr. Karzai. He has national credibility, as well as international credibility, and he has a lot of patience.

RFE/RL: One very strong candidate who may pose a real challenge to Karzai is said to be Yunos Qanuni, former education minister....

Farhang: Mr. Qanuni reacted with his emotions [for more reactions on Qanuni's candidacy, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 18 August 2004]. When Mr. Karzai did not accept [Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim] Fahim as first vice president, the group from the north -- not all, but a part of the group -- reacted in an emotional way and they obliged Mr. Qanuni to run for president [see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July 2004]. This is his right. Why not? He is now one of the candidates, and he has started his campaign. This is totally democratic and no one has the right to stop him. But I believe that Mr. Qanuni committed political suicide, because his position in the government was very strong, and now he is out of the government.

RFE/RL: Is there any truth to the rumors that there are backstage negotiations taking place to reach an agreement whereby Qanuni would relinquish his candidacy in exchange for key ministerial posts for himself and his supporters?

Farhang: Mr. Qanuni tried several times to speak to the president and return to his post. The president told him that the door of his ministry is open. But from elsewhere I heard that Mr. Qanuni has started to use students, professors, and schools to further his electoral campaign. The last time I saw him was about a week ago, and I told him that he is free to campaign, but he should not politicize the education system of Afghanistan. If he does this, then it will go down in history in black words. But he is doing this now. And in my opinion, it is treason to use young people, who are impressionable. He has started this and he has done it in Nuristan, where he changed the head of education. He replaced him with another person who works for him. But we rectified this matter.

The president told me that Mr. Qanuni is free to return to his post, but the government will not give any concessions to those who return. He can return, but he cannot demand political concessions. Personally, I think that if he does return, he will not be as strong as he was before his resignation. If he comes back before the elections, it means that he realized he would not win, and this means that he is a weak politician. It is the same for [former Planning Minister and presidential hopeful] Haji Mohammad Mohaqeq, who is always asking for a ministerial post [for more on Mohaqeq, see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 11 March 2004]. He says that if he gets it, he will quit his campaign. It is my personal opinion that the president should not give concessions to anyone. We must allow the people to decide. If the people vote for Mr. Qanuni, why not? If the people vote for Mr. Mohaqeq, why not? This is democracy. If we lose the elections, it is better than giving away political concessions.

RFE/RL: What do you think of members of government who support presidential candidates running against Karzai?

Farhang: It doesn't work that way. Marshall Fahim, for example, is working against the government, while he is still a member of the government [see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 August 2004]. This, of course, is illegal. Those who are candidates must resign from their government positions, but Marshall Fahim has kept his position, while he is working against the government. Even though this is illegal, he is doing it quite forcefully.

RFE/RL: There are many who say that much of the rehabilitation of Kabul over the past three years is the result of private investment while the central government has done very little.

Farhang: Frankly, the central government hasn't done much, and there are many reasons for this. After the Tokyo conference in January 2002, when the international community pledged $4.5 billion, we did not have enough capacity of absorption in our economy. The country was just coming out of 25 years of war, and all the capacity was destroyed. That is why the international community gave most of the money to the United Nations and to the various branches of the UN for humanitarian aid, as well as to the NGOs. The Afghan government received very little money, and this is why we could not achieve our priorities for the reconstruction of the country. We were lacking money, we were lacking experts, and the worse thing was that the NGOs and the UN lured our own experts by offering higher salaries....

At the beginning of this year, at a donor's conference in Berlin, we were able to present to the international community a comprehensive program for the reconstruction of our country. The international community was persuaded that this program could be realized, and this is why in Berlin, we decided to give most of the money to the government of Afghanistan. And now we have our projects, our priorities. The feasibility studies are completed and we have started with the project.

You know that in a country that has seen war -- especially civil war -- there are several kinds of reconstruction. There is political reconstruction; We had some success there. There is social reconstruction; This is very difficult because there are rivalries between various ethnic groups in Afghanistan. And we even need psychological reconstruction, because every Afghan has been affected psychologically. War is a terrible thing. Two generations of Afghans are the product of war. And finally, there is economic reconstruction. We must first create the conditions for economic reconstruction and in the past 2 1/2 years, we were preoccupied with trying to create the preliminary conditions without which we cannot proceed. We can create a factory, but if the people cannot work in this factory, what can we do? We must first focus on capacity building in the country and then we can move toward material reconstruction. This process is very complicated.

I understand my Afghan compatriots. They have seen war and they have had many problems. They have lived in exile for so long, and they want to see the fruits of reconstruction very quickly. But it doesn't happen like that, technically. For a single project, we need at least a year to study a project.