Kabul, Asharq Al-Awsat- The topic of the moment in Kabul is the first parliamentary elections to be held after 25 years of wars and conflicts, beginning with the war against the Soviets, followed by the fundamentalist Taliban”s seizure of power in the country, and ending with the Northern Alliance”s takeover and the collapse of the Taliban regime at the end of 2001.
Participants in Afghanistan”s elections are aware of its gamble that will either lead to stability and development and or disagreements and war. Some are warning of the Taliban”s return through the back door since 11 of the movement”s leaders are candidates in the upcoming elections that will begin on 11 September, according to sources at the US Embassy in Kabul. Most prominent among these leaders are Wakil Ahmad Mutawakkil, Mullah Omer”s foreign minister before the fundamentalist regime”s downfall. However, the same sources describe the Taliban candidates in the elections as moderates and open-minded.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq al-Awsat, informed sources among former Taliban leaders disclosed the names of members of the fundamentalist movement who are candidates in the elections. They include Mullah Mohammad Khaskar, the governor of Kabul who handed over the capital to the Northern Alliance forces at the end of 2001. There is also Mullah Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the Taliban”s envoy to the United Nations who reconciled with the new Afghan government. Several other Taliban leaders also reconciled with the government, took on the notion of moderation, and carried the banner of democracy in line with the new era. They include Al-Haj Qalamoddin, the former Head of Department of Preventing Vice and Propagating Virtue, one of the sovereign ministries under Taliban”s rule that was responsible for implementing the punishments under Sharia law, such as amputation of a thief”s hand and the stoning of male and female adulterers.
Among the Taliban leaders who had declared their loyalty to the new regime, and who are now candidates for the election is Mullah Jalaloddin Shanwari, the former deputy justice minister who is from the Nangarhar province; Abdel Hakim Munib, the deputy minister of frontier affairs and Mullah Haqqani from the Paktia Province. Some observers believe that despite the Taliban”s failure militarily, it is scoring political success, particularly as there is a liberal and leftist tendency that is trying to depict the elections as the only route to democracy.
On the other hand, there is a fundamentalist tendency that is seeking to apply Islamic Sharia so that the Holy Quran will govern all aspects of life. It calls on women to wear the veil and remove the burqa that is imported from India.
Asharq al-Awsat met Mohammad Sadiq Mubashir, one of Taliban”s most prominent candidates who is fluent in Arabic and is a graduate of the Faculty of Da”wa and Us”ul –ud-din (Islamic preaching and Religious Ruling) at the Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. He is a bearded businessman in his early forties whose election posters are all over the city”s streets. Mohammad Mubashir adopts issues that are relevant to the residents of his district in the city center, such as unemployment, which is widespread among the Afghans, and the demand that the Russians should apologize and compensate for the years of occupying the country. However, his most controversial view is his demand for separating the male and female deputies inside parliament.
Many questions have arisen about the fate of foreign aid that has entered the country, which still suffers greatly from abject poverty that is noticeable to foreign correspondents everywhere in the Afghan capital. The visible sewage on both sides of Shahrano Street, which ironically means the "new city", and the frequent electricity cuts are two of the most obvious signs of a lack in investment in the infrastructure.
Despite the shortages in services, the Americans are asserting that the upcoming elections are more important in the country”s road to stability. Ronald Neumann, the new US ambassador in the capital Kabul, voiced his confidence in the forthcoming elections and their ability to change the entire situation in favor of the Afghan people.
Neumann appears enthusiastic and confident when he talks about the future of the Afghani people and does not consider himself as an outsider in the region. His father also served as ambassador in Afghanistan. He speaks fluent Arabic and worked before as his country”s diplomat to Yemen, Abu Dhabi, and Iraq and as the American ambassador to Bahrain and Algeria.
Dozens of the "mujahidin" leaders are preparing to compete in the elections and continue their involvement in political life via legitimate means. The picture of one of the candidates, Abdorrab Rasul Sayaf, fills the capital”s streets and are posted on his supporters” four-wheel drive luxury vehicles.
The Taliban fighters have pledged to spoil the elections, which US President George Bush hopes will run as smoothly as last October”s presidential elections. Security is a cause of great concern. The Taliban fighters and their allies have pledged to disrupt the elections. Elections campaign organizers noted that two candidates in the Zabol and Uruzgan provinces were killed.
Bush sent US troops to Afghanistan in 2001 to bring down the Taliban movement after it refused to hand over the Al-Qaeda leader, Osama Bin Laden, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Bush is eager to use Afghanistan and the success of the presidential, parliamentary, and Loya Jirga (tribal assembly) elections as a model of a relatively successful foreign policy, especially after the difficulties that the US-led coalition faced in Iraq later on.
Afghanistan”s army and police, the coalition forces, and the international force (ISAF) are preparing to protect the elections from the criminals. However, the coalition commanders are expecting terrorist operations as the countdown to the elections begin. Asharq al-Awsat observed a mobilization exercise in the Pol Sharji area west of the capital, near the highway to Jalalabad, by an Afghan army unit backed by armored vehicles and tanks in preparation for protecting the elections from Taliban”s violence.
Major Shir Mohammad presented the orders from the Defense Ministry to prepare for the elections to his commanding officer General Zohayr Wardak. Asharq al-Awsat noticed the repeated reference made in the Pashto language to suicidal operations. When asked about the fears surrounding these operations, he replied, "anything is possible, but the army and police are ready for any emergency and will triumph as they did before in the presidential elections last October." General Zohayr Wardak said he was expecting some violence before the elections "but we will overcome and defeat it." He pointed out that the military forces that he is commanding cover the Kabul, Vardak, Logar, Parvan, Jalalabad, and Nurestan areas, that is, almost 12 electoral districts that have 2,353 poll centers. He said, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban”s elements are the main enemies of the parliamentary elections.
Zahir Azimi, the deputy defense minister, admitted that the Taliban elements reorganized their ranks this summer but also stressed that the Afghan army forces "will defeat them as they did before in Zabol and Uruzgan."
As for the candidates, 5,800 people have announced their intention to compete in the elections campaign in 34 provinces. They include 583 female candidates, some veiled and others without veils. There are 72 political parties in Afghanistan but the majority of the candidates are independent and only 57 candidates represent these parties. The elections complaints office has so far received nearly 1,144 complaints about the background of some of the candidates and their alleged involvement in crimes or drug smuggling. Thousands of Afghans will be testing democracy for the first time as the countdown for the elections campaign begins.
The ”Loya Jirga” is the council of tribal notables and the largest council representing the Afghan people”s will. It is made up of the chairman, the vice chairman, members of the National Legislative Council, the attorney general, the cabinet, the public prosecutor, his deputies and members of his office, the Constitutional Council chairman, the heads of provincial councils, and representatives of every province according to the number of their representatives in the People”s Assembly. The people elect these representatives in a secret ballot.
The ”Loya Jirga” has 102 members, among them at least 34 figures of political, educational, social, and religious importance chosen by the chairman. According to those in charge of the elections campaign, the ”Loya Jirga” has the power to ratify and amend the constitution, approve a declaration of war or disarmament, and adopt the decisions that concern the important issues related to state”s future. Its meetings require at least a two-thirds quorum and the decisions are adopted by majority vote.
There have been ongoing discussions among political analysts and visitors to the Afghan capital about the importance of these elections for restoring confidence in the entire political process. Around 8 million Afghanis participated in last October”s presidential elections, representing the best response to the threats of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Though the reforms are moving slowly in the capital, other cities do not see such reform. The city of Jalalabad is four hours east of Kabul, yet the differences between the two are immense. The Americans are however asserting that the elections are the cure for the lack of development, the high unemployment rate, and the growing wealth of individuals who were previously fighting the Russians but are presently living in palaces and luxurious villas under heavy guard. The question remains, will Afghanistan succeed in the elections battle or move headfirst towards more problems, conflicts, and suffering?