The official announcement on July 9 to postpone the Afghan presidential elections from September to October and the parliamentary elections from September to April or May of 2005 comes as no surprise. Analysts following events on the ground in Afghanistan knew many weeks ago that the growing insecurity in the country brought on by a resurgent Taliban would challenge President Hamid Karzai’s stubborn desire to hold the elections in September. Those elections had already been postponed from June for precisely the same reasons (see EDM June 14).
However, Karzai’s Kabul government continues to act as if it were unaware of the political realities in Afghanistan. Somehow, the situation on the ground takes a long time to affect government decisions. Appearing on Afghan state television on July 9, Zakim Shah, head of the joint Afghan-UN electoral commission, said that the commission has “decided to hold the presidential election on Mizan 18,” a date on the Afghan calendar that corresponds to October 9. Shah added that the parliamentary elections would be held in April or May 2005, presumably after the fasting month of Ramadan ends in November and the snows in the mountains of Afghanistan melt. Then, more importantly, Shah appealed to Afghan authorities and the international community “to create a more secure atmosphere for the candidates and the voters.”
But the incredulity continues. Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Tayyab Jawad, said that “logistics and not security” are the main hurdles in holding the elections. (Voice of America, July 9). In another example, a senior Afghan military official, General Syed Agha, said the Taliban attacks would not affect the forthcoming elections (Radio Tehran, July10, 2004).
This blind optimism was even reflected in remarks by UN Special Representative Jean Arnault when he visited the western Afghan city of Herat, where a bomb blast killed at least five people on July 11. Speaking to local media, Arnault said the “delay” in the elections would allow time to disarm factional militias and to delineate the country’s 370 districts to obtain credible data on potential voters. But a senior member of the Northern Alliance, Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, called the election delay “unconstitutional,” because the law calls for simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections (Reuters, July 11).
The debate on the timing of the elections had spilled over to Afghan newspapers even before the official announcement of the delay. The Dari-language newspaper Awa-e Waqt in Kabul said on July 4 that the postponement of the presidential elections by one month “will not improve the situation.” The newspaper editorial went on to say: “It is crystal clear that a month is not enough time to complete the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program; uproot the Taliban, al-Qaeda, warlords and gunmen; eliminate terrorism; and ensure security. It would have been better to delay the elections for a longer period so that a proper climate for free and fair elections could be provided. If elections are held at the date announced, nothing will change as people will not be able to go to voting centers and vote, and the elections will be held symbolically.”
An editorial in the Dari-language Kabul newspaper Eslah said on July 4, “The postponement of the elections indicates that the people in charge of the elections have not adapted their programs according to the conditions in the country, and the units involved in this process have not managed to direct the process seriously and efficiently. Therefore, if the government fails to hold the elections on time, the credibility of the United Nations and other units cooperating with the process will be thrown into question.”
Whether the ineptness of the Karzai government or the strength of the Taliban insurgency has forced the postponement of the September elections remains an open question. However, the real obstacle may be disarming the powerful warlords who are aligned toward Kabul but also want to continue to maintain their fiefdoms. Addressing this issue, Afghan radio reported on July 11 that “religious scholars” have called on the Afghan people to give up their weapons and end “the rule of the gun.”
The radio said the call had been issued during a meeting of the Afghan Ulema Council in Kabul. Pointing to the fact that plans to disarm militias have fallen behind schedule and that election workers have been attacked, the council said, “The time had come to rescue society from its abnormal condition that had established the rule of the gun as a way of life during more than two decades of war.” The council called on Afghans to support the government and take part in the nationwide disarmament program launched last May. The statement emphasized, “Religious scholars should encourage people in cities and villages to surrender their weapons.”
In a traditional and religious country such as Afghanistan, an appeal from indigenous Islamic leaders may very well carry more weight than secular and international exhortations.