U.S. hints of a delay on Afghan elections

Posted in Broader Middle East | 16-Feb-04 | Author: Steven Weisman| Source: The New York Times

Security is the issue for June vote, with only 8% registered

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has begun suggesting that Afghanistan's elections scheduled for June may have to be postponed because of security problems and the failure to register enough voters.

Administration officials said in recent days that security conditions remained dangerous or at least uncertain in a third of the country, hampering registration so badly that only 8 percent of eligible Afghan voters have been enrolled. Among women, only 2 percent have registered.

The United Nations has said that at least 70 percent of eligible voters should be registered for the elections to be considered successful. That leaves only four months to achieve a daunting objective at a time when registration workers are avoiding large swaths of the country that are considered unsafe. Afghanistan has about 10.5 million eligible voters.

"I am reasonably confident that we can get enough voters registered and provide security - it won't be perfect - that at least the presidential election can take place in June, or maybe July," an administration official said. But he added that security will have to improve to reach that goal, and that this may not happen.

President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan government bear the responsibility for deciding whether the elections must be postponed, administration officials said. But the United States is also expected to play a decisive role in advising the Karzai government about what to do in that regard.

Karzai is said to be determined to hold at least the presidential election on time, in part, because he expects to win. He is also said to be haunted by a concern that civil war erupted in the early 1990's when Burhanuddin Rabbani, a onetime anti-Russia guerrilla leader, refused to step down as president.

Under the constitution that was agreed upon in early January, Afghanistan is supposed to try to schedule both presidential and parliamentary elections in June.

The administration official said that it is very likely that the parliamentary elections, as opposed to presidential elections, will be postponed, possibly until next year, because even beyond security concerns, there are difficulties in setting district boundaries, choosing candidates and organizing political parties for the parliamentary elections. Registration is also hampered by Afghanistan's extensive illiteracy and the fact that many cities and towns do not have streets or addresses.

Many other experts say that in discussions with administration officials, there is a growing sense that the goal of holding prompt elections of any kind this year is receding.

Bush administration officials insist that U.S. politics are playing no role in decisions about whether to push for elections, but there is little doubt that President George W. Bush would like to claim an electoral success in Afghanistan as he runs for re-election himself. Similarly, the administration is pushing for a transfer of sovereignty to Iraq in June, another goal that some in the administration say is being influenced at least partly by the domestic political calendar.

Countering the American desire for an election in Afghanistan in June, many European and Japanese officials and private organizations involved in Afghanistan's reconstruction are in favor of putting off the elections out of fear that chaotic voting may do more harm than good. They also have influence with Karzai.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a former United Nations coordinator in Afghanistan who has just completed his mission as United Nations envoy to Iraq, is on record as saying that elections cannot be held quickly in either country.

Last month, Brahimi said at a closed-door Security Council session that Afghan elections could not be held in June, said an official who was there. Brahimi told the National Press Club two weeks ago that "a huge effort will indeed be necessary" to have "free and fair elections" on schedule. He also predicted that the parliamentary election should probably be held in the spring of 2005. Last week, in Iraq, he was trying to convince Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani that viable elections could not be held there until the end of the year.

But the administration is resisting a postponement in Afghanistan, even as it backs Brahimi's assessment for Iraq.

"If you read all the statements the administration is applying to Iraq - that security and logistics do not allow for quick elections - you'll see that they apply also to Afghanistan," said Barnett Rubin, a scholar on Afghanistan who is director of the Center for Preventive Action at New York University.

"At least Brahimi is consistent," Rubin added.

Administration officials say that attacks in the unsafe areas are being carried out by forces of the Taliban and Al Qaeda and of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a dissident Pashtun commander in the 1980's uprising that drove Russia from Afghanistan. Hekmatyar's forces at that time were subsidized by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Much of the resources for these fighters come from drugs, which account for half the country's gross domestic product.

The insurgent groups active now are mostly in the southern and eastern parts of the country, especially on the border with Pakistan, where pro-Taliban and pro-Al Qaeda elements are believed to be sheltering Osama bin Laden. Afghan authorities have demobilized 2,700 former soldiers of the country's many militias operating under various warlords, but many more remain active.

It is unclear whether Karzai, who was elected president in a grand assembly called a loya jirga, will run for re-election uncontested, in a vigorously contested general election or with token opposition. The hope of American officials is that he will be re-elected with broad support among Afghans. In part because Karzai is expected win a presidential contest, parliamentary elections pose a much tougher security problem and more delicate political quandary, administration officials say.

Even many neutral experts and military commanders say that a larger security force is needed before elections. At present, security in Afghanistan is provided by 8,000 to 9,000 U.S. troops, another 2,000 British, Canadian and other forces and perhaps 5,000 security forces protecting Kabul and Kunduz in the north under the guidance of NATO.