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Afghanistan: U.S.-Based Experts Say Challenges Still Remain

Two noted U.S. scholars on Afghanistan are expressing skepticism in the ability of the new transitional administration to exercise authority in a country largely controlled by warlords. During a panel discussion yesterday at the Asia Society, a nonprofit organization in New York, Barnett Rubin and Robert Templer noted that security issues and a cooling in enthusiasm for aid pledged to the country threaten the success of the transitional administration led by Hamid Karzai.

New York, 14 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two noted U.S. experts on Afghanistan spoke about the situation in the country at a forum yesterday in New York co-sponsored by the Asia Society and the Central Eurasia Project.

Barnett Rubin, a professor at New York University, said that, contrary to widely held Western perceptions, the ongoing Loya Jirga, the grand legislative council in Afghanistan, is not a democratic institution.

The reality, he said, is that Afghanistan is a country with no rule of law, where most territory is dominated by gunmen, commanders, and warlords. Rubin said many tribal leaders throughout the country tried to ensure that they and their followers would be chosen for the Loya Jirga, and they did so through intimidation, bribery, and violence.

A day after the appointment of Hamid Karzai as the leader of the transitional administration, Rubin said, every group in the country except the Panjshiris (Tajiks from the Panjshiri Valley) believes they are underrepresented. Rubin says it is impossible for everyone to be satisfied. "The main demands of most people are not how many ministers there are in the cabinet, it's what services they are going to get where they live. And in the absence of any movement on that score, the composition of the cabinet is not going to mollify many people."

Robert Templer is the director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank in New York. Templer said the people of Afghanistan would like to see accountability on the part of the leadership. Templer said there is less than 10 percent of the necessary police force present and that fading interest among major Western donors will test the limits of endurance not only of the administration but also of ordinary Afghans, who find themselves enduring ever-increasing economic hardship.

"The responsibilities and interest of the international community is going to sort of drift off after this [Loya Jirga]. Already you can see it in motion within the past six months or so. There's been more talk about Iraq than there has been about Afghanistan. It's a real concern that this sort of thing is going to mean a sort of drift in the amount of resources that are available and the level of assistance that is there for this emerging government. Because there's an enormous amount that has to be done in Afghanistan to create a government that has a really solid legitimacy."

Both Rubin and Templer said many people in Afghanistan are firmly convinced that the Loya Jirga has been tainted by the appearance of manipulation by the West. The controversy over statements made by former King Zahir Shah and the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, have only fueled speculation inside the country that the Loya Jirga has been tampered with.

Nonetheless, Rubin says, it was the right decision for the former king not to seek the position of head of state. "If the king did become head of state, the problem would be that he is not capable of exercising the powers of the head of state himself because of his age, health, and so on. And therefore those powers would be exercised by an unaccountable coterie of people around him who -- you really have to see it to believe [it]. I must say I didn't know about it till I saw them operating at the Bonn process. So I personally think it's not a good idea for the king to be the head of state, though it's probably true that the majority of the Afghan people wanted him to play that role."

Templer says it is evident that initial international enthusiasm to aid the rebuilding process in Afghanistan has significantly cooled and that the donors are not willing to provide even what they have publicly pledged. "The amount of money that was pledged in Tokyo I think vastly overstates the willingness of the international community to actually address and fund a lot of the issues there. You are already seeing slippage on a number of areas. And one area that is of particular interest to us is the sort of long-term establishment of a judicial system in the country, which I think is vital in terms of moderating what are bound to be a large number of disputes over issues such as land and water."

Rubin said he believes the success of the country's small businesses will be of paramount importance for the success of the new administration. He said it will be vital for the leadership to establish secure transportation networks, customs agreements with surrounding countries and adequate security along transit routes.