Politics & Policy

A Work in Progress

Afghanistan's progress report.

After spending a week in Kabul as part of an International Republican Institute (IRI) political-training mission, the one word that best describes this city is…chaos.


Driving is a nightmare, and the omnipresent traffic cops don’t so much direct drivers as offer weak suggestions, which are robustly ignored, as are the one or two traffic lights we saw that actually worked. In fact, the traffic police look downright petrified, and frankly, I would be too. The worst of the lot are the U.N. and NGO crowd tooling around in their Toyota Land Cruisers, the drivers of which have adopted the motto, “I am the only driver, and mine is the only car.” Some Afghans derisively call them the “Toyota Taliban.”

Besides the traffic, what you see on the streets here every day is a raw and unbridled capitalism. There are no taxes, no regulations, no zoning, no anything–except business. Living along an ancient trading route, the Afghans come to business and trade naturally: Entrepreneurs have built right into the rubble of west Kabul to set up small shops selling whatever they can get their hands on from Pakistan. Carts stacked high with watermelons, okra, eggplants, coconuts, tomatoes, potatoes, and other vegetables are everywhere. Ice-cream shops and a couple of cinemas point to a future in which families have disposable income, and represent a yearning for normalcy.

The stadium that was once used by the Taliban to hold public executions is now used for its intended purpose. We visited the site one day, to see what had become of the place that shocked the world when the videotape of the atrocities committed there came to light. We actually found a few athletes training in the stadium; as I flew over it on the way out, there was a soccer match in progress. Afghanistan has also sent weightlifters and wrestlers to the Summer Olympics in Greece.

Later in the week, we visited the premises of Erada, an Afghan newspaper supported financially by IRI. The publishers are very proud of the 30-year-old printing press that not too long ago was the only one in Kabul. Because of the age of the press and advances in printing technology, they had difficulty finding anyone with knowledge of how to run the thing. But as in so many other areas here, they adapt. On Thursdays they print an English-language insert, and estimate that daily circulation for the paper is about 10,000. Again, a sign of small but steady progress.

You see the depressing aspects too: the amputees, and women in their burkas, with their dirty children sitting in the middle of the road near speed bumps, begging. Then there are the dirt, the dust, the poverty, and the crowded and dangerous living conditions. We were told that the population of Kabul had grown to three million (impossible to know for sure), but that the infrastructure was only meant to support 300,000. And of course there are the occasional rocket attacks. Thankfully, only one of those happened during my visit. The explosions were drowned out by the fine traditional Afghan band at a backyard gathering, but the attack did kill one construction worker.

The streets of this city may be deserted by 9:30 P.M., but up until that time it is nonstop activity, with every person here trying to scrape a living in a country with the highest percentage of people living on less than $2 a day, making it the world’s poorest by that measure. But if things keep moving in the direction they are now, it won’t be that way for long–and Kabul ten years from now will be a very different place. For that to happen, though, peace and stability must be brought to this country, which for 25 years has had neither.


That cause was certainly advanced two weeks ago when Afghan President Hamid Karzai took a big gamble and decided against choosing Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim–an ethnic Tajik–as his running mate in the presidential election scheduled for October 9. Fahim is not only the Minister of Defense and the current first vice president, but also the strongest warlord (more often referred to as “commanders” by Afghans), with the largest private army in all of Afghanistan.

Fahim also led the Northern Alliance, the only serious opposition to the Taliban during their years in power, after Ahmad Shah Massoud was murdered by al Qaeda operatives just days before 9/11.

Many believed that Karzai’s rejection of Fahim might lead to an armed response by the warlord. But in a show of solidarity with Karzai, coalition troops positioned themselves near Fahim’s residence and his troops north of Kabul. The feared uprising never came, and Fahim and his political allies have decided to fight back at the ballot box–for now, anyway.

Karzai’s decision to rebuff Fahim represents a major shift. Up until now, the strategy has been to co-opt the warlords by bringing them into the government instead of confronting them. This was always an unrealistic option: Instead of being turned into democrats, the warlords have used their new positions in the government to become even stronger.

One case in point is the Afghan minister for urban affairs, Gul Agha Sherzai. Before becoming a minister in Karzai’s government, he was a warlord whose militia had taken over the important southern city of Kandahar after the fall of the Taliban. After their ouster, he had appointed himself governor of the entire province. As part of the strategy to co-opt these regional commanders, Karzai, with full international backing–if not prodding–invited Sherzai to join his government. Sherzai placed his deputy in the governor’s office, went to Kabul, and proceeded to direct resources from the ministry into Kandahar. Most observers accept that he is now far more popular in Kandahar than when he was a mere regional warlord, and now he enjoys a national profile with more political power and resources at his disposal.

This is one reason Karzai has allowed his strategy to evolve, and now wants to call the warlords’ bluff. If they disarm, the president can consider them democratic partners. If they choose not to disarm, as Fahim has repeatedly refused to do, Karzai will treat them as the problem they remain.

Spend enough time here and it is clear that the disgust with the warlords is high among every major ethnic group, including the Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, and Karzai’s own Pashtuns. Therefore, the selection of a major warlord like Fahim would have cost Karzai votes, lots of them, possibly enough to deny him the majority he needs in the first round of balloting to avoid a run-off or worse. And Karzai needs a resounding win if he is to take back the country from the drug dealers and the warlords.

Karzai’s move was not without risk. Education Minister Yunus Qanooni, a Tajik like Fahim, had been a backer of Karzai. But on the same day Karzai made his announcement, Qanooni declared his presidential candidacy with Fahim’s support. If the Tajik community can unify behind the Qanooni candidacy, it could cause problems for Karzai. But the ethnic pull may not be enough: The Tajiks’ disgust with the warlords, even one of their own, is so great that they are willing to support Karzai as the only leader who can stand up to them.

And Karzai’s own Pashtuns appear to be getting a grasp of ethnic politics as well. We heard reports out of Paktia province, one of the most traditional Pashtun areas of the country, that the registration of women, until recently very sluggish, had suddenly spiked. The reason? A rival ethnic group, the Hazara, were registering their women in large numbers and the Pashtuns didn’t want to see their electoral power diluted.


Still, Afghanistan is not out of the woods by a long shot. The 6,500-member International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the 20,000 American troops in the country are not leaving anytime soon. ISAF forces especially will have to do more to make their presence felt. International forces need to make their presence felt because the Afghan army is just not strong enough to deal w/ warlords, and the difficult work of decommissioning and disarming them–one at a time if necessary–probably cannot be done without additional U.S. forces. And as long as the U.S. and ISAF forces remain in the country, it is highly unlikely the warlords will pick a military fight with Karzai. That would be suicide, and they know it. They will, however, try to frustrate a Karzai government and keep it weak by dominating the parliamentary elections now scheduled for April of 2005.

Warlords in every part of the country will run their own slates of candidates and intimidate opponents and voters. And they might be able to win enough seats to put together a sort of a warlord coalition that would cripple Karzai’s goal of expanding the power of the central government outside Kabul.


And then there is the constitutional provision requiring that a certain number of parliamentarians be women. While this sounds great in theory, it may have unintended consequences. It doesn’t take long to learn that Afghanistan is still a very traditional society. Despite news reports touting the liberation of women, the fact is that a) you seldom see women in public, and b) you never see women without a head covering, even in Kabul. Indeed, the vast majority of the women I saw in Kabul were still wearing the burka. (On my last full day in Kabul I witnessed an Afghan man and woman exchange pleasantries on a busy street, the only time I had seen any mingling of the sexes among Afghans. The sight was so unusual that it literally startled me.)

Rural areas are even more traditional, and the culture is such that no self-respecting Afghan husband or father will allow his wife or daughter to travel to Kabul to work in a body composed primarily of men. As a result, it is likely that the women who stand the best chance of being elected in these areas will be the most traditional, if not the most extreme, Islamists controlled by their radical husbands or fathers. A better method to advance the rights of women is simply to get them to vote: Once politicians figure out that women are an important constituency, change will come accordingly.

Further complicating matters is the fact that almost all neighboring countries, particularly Iran and Pakistan, clearly don’t want this election to succeed. A successful Afghan election would create problems with these nations’ own citizens, who would surely wonder, “If the Afghans, who’ve been fighting foreigners and each other for 25 years, can have a free and fair election, why can’t we?”

This much is clear: The Afghan people are hungry for peace and democracy. They are sick of the warlords and the fighting and the guns. They desperately want a chance at being a normal country and pursuing their individual dreams. The election of President Karzai is crucial to their goals.

Yet it appears Karzai does not want to muddy his hands with politics. He is adopting the Afghan version of a Rose Garden strategy. But it is imperative not only that he run, but that he run hard. If nothing else, he owes that to the election workers who are being killed almost daily across Afghanistan. In one instance, according to news reports, 17 men were executed merely for having voting cards in their possession. This is the new generation of freedom fighters in Afghanistan: They hope to achieve at the ballot box what their countrymen have so miserably failed to do with guns.


Karzai needs a strong mandate to complete the difficult work that lies ahead. In the process, he must build a political organization that can compete with the warlords in every region of the country. His opponents are well organized and well funded; if Karzai wants to succeed, building a political structure will be crucial for his election and for the parliamentary elections.

It also happens that the Afghan election will be crucial to the electoral prospects of another president: George W. Bush. An unsuccessful election will create an opening for John Kerry to attack the president as failure on what to date has been one of his greatest triumphs. If the election is marred by violence, or if Karzai loses, Kerry will argue that the “misadventure” in Iraq has drained resources from the real war on terror in Afghanistan and cost us victory there.

Almost every Afghan I met in Kabul asked me the same question, “Will George Bush win?” They are scared to death of a Kerry victory and almost every one of them cited Bush’s “decisiveness” as the reason they like him. They understand that without President Bush’s leadership the Taliban might still be in charge, and al Qaeda might still have free rein over their country. About the only people supporting Kerry in Kabul these days are some liberal careerists at our embassy, NGO do-gooders, and foreign aid workers. Indeed, Karen Hirschfeld of the Asia Foundation found time recently to organize and host a “Kabul for Kerry” day, replete with a donkey sporting Kerry yard signs. Hirschfeld and her crowd are not alone: The Taliban would love to see Bush lose too.

On a trip to Afghanistan just after my departure, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced that the Bush administration is ready to expand the role of U.S. forces–which now focus exclusively on hunting Osama bin Laden and destroying remnants of the Taliban–to include new efforts by Karzai to take on the drug lords, which means taking on the warlords as well. This would be welcome within Afghanistan, whose people see the warlords–not the Taliban or al Qaeda–as the main threats to a peaceful and democratic future.

Outside the entrance to Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, the finest in the city, stands a warning sign. It is a drawing of an AK-47 with a red “X” through it. Above it in Pashto and below it in English is written, “No Weapons.” When such a sign applies to the entire country, and not just one hotel, then we will know Afghanistan is ready to take its place among the civilized nations of the world, leaving warlordism behind.

But before any of that can happen, Karzai has to be elected. The stakes in October couldn’t be higher–for Afghans, and for us.

Joseph J. Eule is chief of staff to Rep. J. D. Hayworth (R., Ariz.).


The Latest

A Revolt in Cuba

A Revolt in Cuba

Last month, thousands of Cubans poured into the streets, daring to protest the government that has ruled them for 60-plus years.