"Afghanistan is definitely heading in the right direction," said James Phillips, who researches Afghanistan at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "It has been much more stable in the last year than many people would have thought possible two years ago. Most significantly, the Taliban has not been able to stage systematic counter attacks. It threatened to disrupt [the presidential election] with terrorist attacks. But in the end, it was not strong enough to do so. And I think that's very positive going into the future."
But Phillips said that as President Karzai continues to extend Kabul's authority to other provinces, he should also be careful not to unnecessarily threaten the autonomy of regional leaders.
In March, troops from the fledgling Afghan National Army (ANA) were deployed to their first crisis outside of Kabul. With the backing of the U.S.-led coalition's military infrastructure, ANA troops were deployed to Herat to quell fighting between the militia forces of the western city's former governor, Mohammad Ismail Khan, and rival commanders.
Since then, Afghan army troops also have been working side-by-side with U.S. forces in the hunt for Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. Government forces also have been sent to stop fighting between militia factions in the west and northwest. Phillps said this cautious, case-by-case approach is best.
"The government must move gradually and incrementally," Phillips said. "It can't afford to challenge all of the warlords everywhere at the same time. In fact, what is perceived as 'warlordism' in the [Western world] often boils down to Afghanistan's traditional tribal structure. And I think over time, as the tribes see that their best interests are served by joining with the government to participate in economic development, the power of the warlords will naturally ebb."
Although the agenda set at the United Nations-sponsored Bonn conference in December 2001 was supposed to have been completed in June, its final item has been delayed until 2005.
"The Bonn process was supposed to conclude [in 2004] with the holding of elections for representative governance," Vikram Parekh, a Kabul-based researcher for the International Crisis Group, explained. "Right now, we've only got half of that process concluded. We've got presidential elections, but no parliament. And without the parliament, you're not going to have any checks and balances on executive authority. And any action taken by the [central government] will lack a certain legitimacy because it won't have any legislative review. So it's vital to go ahead with this."
The presidential polls provided lessons for both voters and international experts about conducting elections in the country. For example, many Afghans learned that a "secret ballot" means that regional militia commanders do not know who an individual votes for. As a result, Afghans might feel less threatened by warlords who tell them how to vote.
On the other hand, Parekh concluded that the continued dominance of factional militia groups in many regions makes the emergence of local opposition to warlords unlikely in the near future. He said the answer is to push forward with so-called DDR programs to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate militia fighters.
"There is a great likelihood that elections will go uncontested in areas where a militia enjoys complete dominance -- that is to say, one militia has a monopoly of power and is backing one of its members as a candidate," Parekh said. "People are going to think two or three times before challenging that candidate through an electoral process. And there is practically no way to ensure their security. So accelerating the DDR process -- continuing the collection of heavy weaponry -- will be an important factor in terms of how confident opposition figures are."
Parekh said that in addition to security concerns, there also are new logistical challenges facing the organizers of parliamentary elections -- such as the drawing of maps with the districts that each member of parliament will represent. He said coordinated efforts by the Afghan election commission and the United Nations are essential.
Parekh also noted widespread recognition in Afghanistan that the election commission itself should be reconstituted in a way that makes it genuinely independent and authoritative. He said that move is necessary because the commission appointed by Karzai before the presidential vote is seen by many Afghans as partisan and weak.
For his part, Karzai has made the battle against drug lords an immediate priority. In a passionate speech two days after his inauguration, Karzai declared a "holy war" on drug production and drug smuggling.
"God knows how hard it is for me when [representatives of the international community] come to my office and say that Afghans cultivate poppies," Karzai said. "I feel terribly ashamed. It's very difficult for my Afghan pride to listen to it. I cannot tolerate it when they come to my office and say Afghans cultivate poppies. This shame must be removed from our country. Free us from this insult. Let's repeat in one voice, 'We don't want poppy cultivation!' [Crowd repeats] 'We want life, honor and respect.' [Crowd repeats]'"
Karzai's declaration came a few weeks after the executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) -- Antonio Maria Costa -- warned about the influence of the Afghan drug trade.
"What are our biggest concerns? Is it the extent of [poppy] cultivation? I would say, 'No.' It's the risk that growing shares of the population at large -- whether government officials or provincial officials, army officials, or the private sectors -- that growing segments of the population are involved or, in any event, they benefit from the cultivation. That would go beyond the definition of a narco-economy and start getting into a narco-society," Costa said.
Karzai said he hopes the international community will continue to help Afghanistan to rebuild its economic infrastructure in the months ahead so that his government can do more to alleviate poverty.