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2003 & Beyond: Afghanistan Looks Toward Presidential Elections, Despite Violence

This year has seen continued fighting in Afghanistan between U.S. forces and the Taliban, as well as factional violence. But the country also reached an important milestone in its efforts to create a new political order -- the writing of a national constitution. That sets the stage for the next big step in Afghanistan's political evolution, a presidential election planned for June. RFE/RL looks at Afghanistan's progress in 2003 and what the coming months hold.

Prague, 10 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the news from Afghanistan in 2003 has been dominated by continuing unrest as U.S. troops battle Taliban guerrillas, as in the current Operation Avalanche, and factional leaders vie for power.

By many reports, the violence worsened over the course of the year. Britain's daily "The Times" recently quoted international aid workers as saying at least five of Afghanistan's 32 provinces are now virtually off-limits to foreigners. Since March, 13 aid workers have been killed, hampering the delivery of assistance in some areas.

The continuing unrest has prompted NATO, which leads the 5,700-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, to look for ways to expand its influence beyond the capital. As part of that effort, NATO created six Provincial Reconstruction Teams, with more planned to follow. The teams of soldiers will carry out and secure development projects in the provinces.

But the pace of the ISAF expansion has disappointed both the United States -- which independently has some 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan -- and Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai.

U.S. Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld voiced some of that frustration during a visit to Kabul in September. He said NATO members have been slow to volunteer troops for an expanded ISAF, but did not explain why. "I certainly agree that an expansion of ISAF would be a good thing, [but] for whatever reason, there have not been countries lining up to expand ISAF," he said. "It may vary from country to country. But we have encouraged it. [Karzai] has encouraged it. And I don't want to suggest I can see into the future, but the fact that NATO has done what they have done, and the fact that there is some discussion about some broader participation in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, [suggests] that there is at least the possibility that we could see somewhat of an expansion."

One reason some member states may be slow to support a wider ISAF deployment is their growing preoccupation with Iraq. Several of Washington's closest NATO allies have sent units to Iraq as part of multinational forces there and may be unprepared to take on additional duties in Afghanistan.

The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan has been particularly worrisome this year because it comes at time when the country is trying to successfully pass several key milestones under the Bonn agreement. The Bonn accord, which sets out the timeline for Afghanistan's political transition, was brokered by the UN among major Afghan parties shortly after the Taliban was ousted in late 2001.

The country reached one major milestone in November with the completed draft of a new national constitution to pave the way for popular elections.

Afghan Constitutional Commission Chairman Nematullah Shahrani unveiled the draft constitution at a ceremony in Kabul attended by former Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah. The king, who has no executive powers but holds the honorary title of "father of the nation," said he hoped the document will guide the Afghan people to a better future. "I hope that this constitution guides the people of Afghanistan toward prosperity and happiness," he said. "I wish that this constitution should be based on Islamic laws and democracy, and I ask God for prosperity for the people of Afghanistan forever."

The constitution is due to be presented for approval to a 500-member convention, or Loya Jirga, on 13 December.

Analysts say parties opposed to the constitutional process may be deliberately stepping up the level of violence in the country in hopes of derailing the Bonn process as it picks up speed. The adoption of the constitution will set the stage for the country's first direct presidential election, most likely in June. The presidential election is to be followed by formation of a two-house national assembly a year later.

Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., says the unrest in Afghanistan is in areas where local power holders or the Taliban refuse to accept the authority of the Karzai government. "The problem of insecurity really comes in areas that are contested, and above all, in those areas where the local powers that are trying to assert their hold are not acceptable to the Karzai government and to the U.S. That's why you have a lot of problems now in the Pashtun areas, because if there was no outside intervention, the Taliban would reconsolidate its hold over those areas," Ottaway said.

Opponents of the Karzai government often charge it with sharing too much power with leaders of armed ethnic Tajik militias from the north of the country. The militias -- which made up the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance -- have largely remained in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban government in a U.S.-led military campaign. That is despite pledges at the Bonn conference that the capital would be demilitarized.

A spokesman for Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim said this month that his private militia has agreed to withdraw heavy arms and factional fighters from Kabul. The spokesman said a special commission is now working to locate all the weapons and the fighters in the city.

Ottaway says the big challenge in the months ahead will be to cope with a possible further increase in unrest once the country moves toward presidential elections. Regional power brokers intent on protecting their interests are likely to regard a directly elected government as considerably more threatening than Karzai's current administration because it will have a stronger popular mandate.

That means 2004 could be a crucial one in determining how Afghanistan's often fiercely independent faction leaders see the future. They will have to choose whether to set aside their differences and stake a claim within the new national political order or continue to try to maintain their influence -- and settle their disputes -- outside it.

One hopeful sign that faction leaders may be able to set aside their rivalries came late last month as soldiers from two feuding militias in northern Afghanistan began handing in their tanks and heavy weapons for storage. The militias -- one loyal to ethnic Uzbek commander General Rashid Dostum and the other to ethnic Tajik commander General Ata Mohammad -- have clashed repeatedly in the past, despite appeals from Kabul to come to terms with one another.

The clashes have been particularly embarrassing for Karzai's government because both factions are part of the former anti-Taliban alliance. Observers will be looking to see whether the disarmament process can be completed and if it can become a precedent for other militia leaders to follow.