War in Afghanistan

Karzai's next challenge is to rule without warlords

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 October, 2004, 12:00am

With most votes counted, and with questions over ballot irregularities expected to be settled soon, it is now all but certain that Hamid Karzai will become Afghanistan's first directly elected leader. Coming three years after US-led forces toppled the country's Taleban rulers, Mr Karzai's election is a milestone in Afghanistan's transition to peace after decades of conflict.

The challenges do not end with the conclusion of the poll. Mr Karzai's simple majority means that he is now more than just a temporary head of state, installed by the United States and confirmed by a conference of tribal representatives.

At the same time, Afghanistan's pursuit of democracy and stability has received wide moral support from the rest of the world: the coming few years will be a time when that goodwill has to be translated into development and security aid.

The weekend suicide attack on one of the capital's most popular shopping streets was a reminder that security is still a concern. Nato peacekeepers have been thin on the ground outside of Kabul, and aid workers are unlikely to return to outlying areas until security improves. A United Nations programme operating since last year has disarmed 21,000 private militia fighters, but an estimated 60,000 remain active. A 16,000-strong Afghan army, and a minimal Nato presence, will both have to be augmented.

The 80 per cent turnout in the face of threats of violence is proof of how determined the Afghan people are to return to normalcy. Yesterday's decision by an independent investigating panel to release a number of quarantined ballot boxes for counting is another sign that the experts will soon announce they are satisfied that reported irregularities were not widespread enough to prevent the vote being declared valid. Mr Karzai's main opponent has conceded. A decision that the vote was not rigged will, it is hoped, put doubts to rest and encourage all camps to rally behind Mr Karzai's rule.

Connected to the security dilemma is the question of power-sharing. Many will be watching to see if Mr Karzai cuts any deals with tribal warlords, many of whom control private armies. Complicating matters, they have revived the lucrative opium industry banned under the Taleban. Mr Karzai's margin of victory allows him to move swiftly to dismantle warlord influence, and it is an opportunity he should not waste. He has to follow through on his campaign promises not to appoint any warlords to his cabinet.

Such compromises might seem politically expedient in the short term, but concessions that prolong the grip of these strongmen will undermine any efforts to improve security and deepen democratic development. Having them in key ministries over the past three years has brought the opposite of stability. Building an Afghan national identity might also be easier once tribal and ethnic divisions are made less important in politics.