ISLAMABAD — Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, is clearly eager to claim that his newly installed government rests on a stable foundation.
Karzai’s six-month rule has been one of the more stable periods in the history of the embattled country, which has gone from one crisis to another since its invasion by the former Soviet Union in 1979.
While a “loya jirga,” the grand council of influential Afghans, just met to agree on a new government and wrangled over issues such as the allocation of Cabinet slots, the country’s long-term future depends on its ability to tackle a host of vital political, economic and security issues.
Karzai has successfully seen his government through a series of short-term difficulties, most notably bringing together an ethnically diverse group of warlords and beginning a fresh dialogue with the world community. But Karzai’s long-term success will be determined by his ability to tackle the root causes of the rot that has fueled instability in a country where warlords continue to dominate regional politics from behind the scenes.
Widespread poverty, which has worsened with the passage of time, promises to provide cannon fodder for scores of groups that could eventually establish armed bands to rule parts of Afghanistan. Karzai’s fate may eventually be decided in part by what becomes of the $4.5 billion in reconstruction assistance that Western donors have promised.
Already controversy is brewing over how far that assistance will go toward improving Afghanistan’s economic fortunes as opposed to becoming a source of patronage for various warlords. With Karzai’s central government having only loose control over parts of Afghanistan, the danger of warlords taking charge of foreign assistance resources remains real.
The future of Karzai’s efforts to decide Afghanistan’s fate rests on his ability to implement policies in three vital areas.
First, the management of Afghanistan’s ethnic composition and the role played by ethnic politics in a future government will help determine the country’s stability. A country that has traditionally been ruled by monarchs from the Pashtun tribe now finds many claimants to power from non-Pashtun factions.
Historically, the Pashtun ruled without challenge. But the billions of dollars that flowed into Afghanistan during the Cold War were channeled to different groups of resistance fighters, irrespective of ethnic affiliation, empowering them and encouraging them and others to demand a larger share of political power. Afghanistan’s political outlook is tied to Kabul’s ability to advance competing ethnic interests and recognize that the days when one major faction dominated the rest is over.
Second, the progress of Afghanistan’s economic rehabilitation will play a crucial role in efforts to achieve stability. While external support from the industrialized world will remain vital, equally so will be the ability of Karzai’s government to create the necessary conditions for economic revitalization. Toward that end, Afghanistan’s internal security situation will greatly influence its economic recovery.
Although there continues to be widespread disgust with the harsh methods of the former Taliban regime, the brief period of relative stability realized under that government was partially due its ability to bring safety to the main roads, facilitating domestic trade. In the short-term, Karzai may have to rely on administrative methods such as improved internal policing and the support of regional warlords. But in the long term, Afghanistan’s internal security will be determined by the extent to which its leaders can successfully work toward building a fresh national consensus behind ideas such as the establishment of a new national military, a national bureaucracy and new municipal structures.
Finally, future relations with countries surrounding Afghanistan that in the past have been partially responsible for fueling militancy will be a key factor in the central Asian country’s future. For too long Afghanistan has been at the center of power struggles involving interests backed by neighbors such as Iran or Pakistan. In the past, it appeared almost impossible to deter other countries from indirectly intervening in Afghanistan. But last September’s terrorist attacks adequately demonstrated the global dangers of insecurity in Afghanistan.
An unprecedented opportunity now exists for Karzai, with the backing of the international community, to guide Afghanistan’s struggle to restore itself. His response to this challenge may decide the extent to which a durable peace returns to Afghanistan, almost 23 years after Soviet troops came marching in at the height of the Cold War.
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