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Afghanistan: Provincial Governors Promise To Deliver Millions In Back Revenues As Karzai Clamps Down

During a meeting with Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai today, Afghan provincial governors promised to deliver millions of dollars of customs revenue owed to the central government. Karzai has criticized the governors for failing to transfer such money to the cash-strapped central government. He also admitted that his government has not been able to deliver security and social justice to the Afghan people.

Prague, 20 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Twelve provincial governors in Afghanistan promised today to deliver millions of dollars of customs revenue owed to the central government.

Presidential adviser Zalmai Hewadmal said the governors all signed an agreement with Transitional Authority Chairman Hamid Karzai during a meeting today in the capital, Kabul.

Today's meeting came after Karzai -- dissatisfied with governors and warlords who largely ignore the central government -- hinted he would step down if he fails to stamp his authority on the provinces. He warned that under these circumstances, the Afghan peace process will not survive.

In speech to the Supreme Court on 18 May, Karzai said: "I intend that if in the next two or three months the situation of Afghanistan regarding incomes, regarding administration, regarding other affairs that are directly linked with the destiny of the Afghan nation and with peace, stability, security, respect and honor [does not improve], I will convene the Loya Jirga and will present this government before it and will say that this government did not work out. I will also give the reasons why it was unable to work out. I will indicate the people who did not do their work and why, so that the Afghan nation will once again decide in the Loya Jirga and will form another government to lead the country towards prosperity."

Karzai said Afghanistan is capable of generating more than $600 million a year through customs revenues, taxes, and other sources, noting that the country's annual budget is some $550 million. The Afghan Finance Ministry says only some $80 million reaches the central government in Kabul.

Afghan politicians, as well as many local and Western experts, agree that the problem of renegade governors and warlords is the most difficult issue Karzai's administration has been dealing with during its 18 months of existence.

The government complains that the 12 provinces, most notably the western province of Herat under Governor Ismail Khan, have been withholding their custom revenues from the central government, contributing to its inability to pay even the wages of its police and civil personnel.

According to Afghan Reconstruction Minister Mohammad Amin Farhang, the issue damages the government's credibility. "Generally, we can say that the government has been successful in some areas," he said. "For instance, some political and governmental institutions were created in Afghanistan [and] the security situation has been improved in comparison to previous years. But the issue of governors is our government's main problem. Some local governors do not want to obey the central government and refuse to settle taxes due to the government, refuse to hand over custom revenues, and subsequently, they weaken the government."

Karzai had promised to do more to collect custom revenues and redistribute these funds to some of the country's most impoverished provinces. Today's meeting in Kabul was part of that effort.

Some local experts predict Karzai will ultimately fail to fulfill his pledge, however. Fazel Rahmon Uryo, an Afghan journalist and expert on political affairs, told RFE/RL there is no reason to believe Karzai will be able to solve such a major problem in only a few months. "It is impossible to implement those promises made by Mr. Karzai. I think he has to convene the Loya Jirga, and the entire government -- along with Mr. Karzai -- should resign and a new government should be created -- a new government that is comprised of democratic and national elements," Uryo said.

Uryo said custom revenues and a lack of security are not the country's only problems, and that Karzai has failed to deliver overall peace and a fully functioning society. "Hundred of millions of dollars were wasted, thousands of people were killed. Fighting and barbarism are still going on in some provinces. There is no law, no stability. I think Mr. Karzai has responsibility for this situation," he said.

While criticizing Karzai for some failures, many residents of the capital, Kabul, say that -- under the circumstances -- another leader could not have done better.

Qomat Nazari, a Kabul resident, told RFE/RL he supports Karzai. "It is impossible to rebuild the country unless all people participate in the process. All sorts of incomes that belong to the nation must be transferred to the state budget in order to strengthen our government and make it capable of solving people's economic problems," he said.

Paul Burton, an expert with Jane's defense group in London, told RFE/RL he does not take Karzai's remarks about resigning seriously. Burton said that even if the Afghan leader did decide to step down, he would be under significant pressure from the U.S. to remain in office. "Karzai is not a well-respected leader," Burton said, "but he is important in terms of putting forward American policy in the region."

Burton said Karzai's latest remarks were aimed at the U.S., not at the Afghan people. "I certainly think Karzai's plea -- his claim to quit -- may be indicative of his desire to remind America of their obligations in Afghanistan and ensure that more aid is pumped through to the administration," he said.

He said Karzai wants to remind the U.S. that Afghanistan and its problems still exist, as Washington's attention is increasingly preoccupied by Iraq.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.