Global Policy Forum

The Politics of Afghanistan

Sydney Morning Herald
April 1, 2004

The Bush Administration knows what it wants from Afghanistan: democratic elections and Osama bin Laden's scalp, in any order, but before the US presidential elections in November.

The inevitable postponement this week of Afghanistan's presidential and parliamentary elections can only diminish the Bush camp's hopes of using progress in Afghanistan to divert attention from the quagmire in Iraq. In January this year, to the UN's dismay, Afghanistan's interim President, Hamid Karzai, brought the elections forward to June, reportedly under pressure from Washington. Mr Karzai's decision to reschedule the polls for September keeps alive the possibility that Mr Bush may still get a democratic exercise of sorts. Afghanistan, however, remains woefully ill prepared for its first free election in over four decades. It has much to lose if the groundwork is not properly, and patiently, laid.

Only about 1 million of an estimated 10.5 million Afghan voters are registered, largely because escalating violence is hampering UN teams. Mr Karzai's government exerts effective authority over little more than the capital. Insurgents, including remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, are terrorising the south and east, targeting Afghan and foreign aid workers, demining personnel and reconstruction contractors and warning Islamic mullahs against co-operating with voter registration teams. Since the US-led invasion of 2001, opium production, which had virtually halted under the fundamentalist Taliban, has soared. Drug money, worth about $US2.2 billion ($2.9 billion) last year, is flowing back into the violent worlds of war lords and terrorists.

Yet the US and the international community are apparently trying to rebuild and secure Afghanistan on the cheap. Compared with operations in Bosnia, for example - with 18.6 peacekeepers for 1000 people and $US1390 in foreign aid a head over the first two years - Afghanistan is limping along. Over the same period, peacekeeepers and US troops combined in Afghanistan were less than 1 for 1000, and foreign aid totalled $US52 a head.

A freely elected government in Kabul is clearly desirable. But elections cannot break the cycle of war and terrorism unless there is a reasonable prospect that voting can proceed safely and that a new, unified government can secure the nation. The UN is right to warn that this is a difficult, long-term process. It should not be linked to US domestic politics. Washington has pushed its own agenda in Afghanistan in the past, arming Islamic jihadi factions to fight Soviet occupying troops in the 1980s. Civil war ensued and the Taliban and al-Qaeda emerged from the chaos.

With insufficient time, troops and funds, the rebuilding of Afghanistan could fail, with tragic results. International donors meeting in Germany this week must recognise this risk when they consider Mr Karzai's plea for $US27.5 billion over seven years. For Australia, Afghanistan's precarious situation has its own new political edge. The ALP may have won limited public support for its plan to bring troops home from Iraq for Christmas. However, Labor's assertion that the front line of the "war on terrorism" lies in Afghanistan has drawn appropriate attention to the unfinished Afghan war.

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