Operation: Stability in Afghanistan

The country is making steady progress, but it's facing huge challenges in getting ready for free elections next June

In dusty, desolate Kandahar, the roads are rubble and the buildings are ruins of brick and mud. The city, once the stronghold of the Taliban, looks as though it died when the regime deserted it after the U.S. bombing in October, 2001. There are few signs of life: An occasional pickup truck drives by with armed men in the back. In the unusually quiet bazaar, merchants sell fruit from handcarts or cheap Chinese electronic gadgets in tiny shops. Women rarely venture out, and when they do, fear still compels them to cover themselves from head to toe with burqas.

But away from the city center in a heavily guarded building that serves as the headquarters of an organization called Afghans for Civil Society, a more hopeful scene unfolded in early September. There, 31 Afghan women activists -- some illiterate, others educated -- shed their burqas and animatedly discussed Afghanistan's new constitution, expected to be made public in late September by Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan's transitional government. The women are hoping that the document, which is supposed to set the stage for national elections in June, 2004, will include equal rights for women in divorce, inheritance, and voting, as well as mandatory education for girls.

These are exciting, radical, almost seditious ideas in this conservative country. But the women are also worried about the reality outside, including the ever-present rule of the gun. "If there is no security in our country, how can people participate in elections?" frets Afifa Azim, director of Afghan Women's Network, a nonprofit organization in Kabul.

A simple question -- and one impossible to answer right now. Two years after the U.S. toppled the fundamentalist Taliban regime, Afghanistan's political and economic transition is lurching forward. The next nine months, the runup to the country's first-ever free elections, will be critical. In a schedule agreed upon by the Afghans, the U.S., and the U.N. just after the war, Afghanistan must by next June finish drafting its constitution, hold a constitutional loya jirga, or grand council, to ratify it, conduct a census, and register millions of voters -- most of whom are illiterate and have never cast a ballot.

Such a political agenda would be ambitious under any circumstances. But all this is happening at a time when American and Afghan security forces are battling resurgent Taliban fighters in the country's southwest. The Taliban have been conducting frequent ambushes. In the first week of September alone, four employees of international contractors working on the new Kabul-Kandahar highway disappeared, while six were killed. Meanwhile, a pilot U.N. program to disarm provincial warlords and their armies has been delayed. "Every attempt is being made to meet the challenges, but the challenges are enormous," acknowledges Sultan A. Aziz, an Afghan-American who is senior adviser to Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative for Afghanistan.

The continued instability is one reason some experts favor postponing the elections. "There have to be very major improvements in security and in the legitimacy of the government in certain areas of the country," warns Barnett R. Rubin, the director of studies at New York University's Center on International Cooperation who has worked through the U.N. as an independent expert with the Afghan constitutional commission. "Forcing elections too quickly could create conflict," he adds.

So far, though, most officials from Kabul to Washington seem determined to keep to the timetable. In fact, the looming election is spurring efforts to speed up reconstruction and reform projects, from revamping the banking system to vastly increasing the size of the police force. A free and fair election in Afghanistan next June would mark an important success for the Bush Administration, just a few months before President George W. Bush faces reelection. That is why Bush plans to double the amount of U.S. aid to Afghanistan, to $1.8 billion a year. For their part, Afghans, who fear aid will slump after their elections, are hustling to make as much progress as they can.

Indeed, Afghanistan's ministers are working overtime to meet their targets. At Da Afghanistan Bank, the country's central bank, Governor Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady is proud that he has stabilized the afghani, the local currency, and kept it trading at around 50 to the dollar. He recently granted licenses to three foreign commercial banks -- Britain's Standard Chartered Bank, National Bank of Pakistan, and the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation's First MicroFinance Bank -- to operate in Kabul. And he's setting up 84 branches around the nation for deposit and savings accounts.

Just down the road from the central bank, in Kabul's 18-story telecommunications tower -- the city's tallest building -- Communications Minister Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai is plotting a $100 million overhaul of the country's phone network. Land lines no longer work in Afghanistan, and cell-phone service is limited. Phones are particularly scarce among locals. But the new system will combine satellite services, cell services, and land lines to connect 15 cities by mid-2004 and the country's 32 provinces by 2005.

Some visiting businesspeople see improvements. When U.S. executive William J. Cleary arrived in March, "there was nothing -- no roofs, no power, no phones," he says. "But it has been changing at lightning speed," adds Cleary, who is working with Washington-based consultancy BearingPoint (BE ) Inc. to advise the Finance Ministry.

Little progress can be seen outside Kabul, however. With average annual per-capita income estimated at $125 or less, Afghans remain desperately poor. Most live in mud-pack huts. And four years of drought have destroyed the livelihood of farmers, who have boosted their cultivation of illicit poppy far above last year's level to raise their incomes.

The poppy crop worries Kandahar Governor Yusouf Pashtun. He blames opium, Taliban insurgents from Pakistan, and decades of ineffective government in Kabul for ongoing violence. "Terrorist activity has increased in the region because the government has failed to be present here for 20 years," he argues. Still, Pashtun hopes to bring schools, hospitals, and telecoms to his province -- to improve living standards and presumably build a political base before elections.

Whether Afghanistan succeeds in carrying out democratic elections next year will depend on how the Afghans, U.N. officials, and the Bush Administration work together in the coming months. A key step will be completing and ratifying the constitution. Although it's still being debated behind closed doors in Kabul, most Afghanistan-watchers hope the document will establish a directly elected presidency and two-chamber Parliament, and that strict sharia, or Islamic law, won't play a major role. That would likely please many of Afghanistan's 14 million women, half the population. But they will still have to worry about the men with guns -- and the fear and violence they bring.

By Manjeet Kripalani in Kandahar

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