Sunday, September 18, 2005

Afghanistan sees new elections, old faces

KABUL - Almost four years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, the country's infrastructure is still poor. Even in the capital, few street lights work at night, a darkness made stark and ominous by the bright headlights of intermittent passing traffic.

The embattled residents of Kabul have a message for visitors: "Do not expect anything good, and stay wherever you are."

With Afghanistan's first parliamentary elections in three decades scheduled for Sunday, political observers have a similar message to the one of the street-savvy people of Kabul: "Don't expect anything good."

On the face of it, the elections mark a major step forward for Afghanistan as they will bring to an end the "Bonn process" instituted to fill the political vacuum left by the Taliban, and they will give the country a democratically elected parliament.

About 12 million people are registered to vote for about 5,800 candidates who are either standing for the 249-seat People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) or for a seat on one of the 34 provincial councils.

But little in Afghanistan is what it appears to be, and a cold assessment of what is happening can best be described as old wine in new bottles.

About 25% of the candidates are members of the Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, while of the rest, many are former jihadis or former communists. Among these combined ranks are a number of Taliban leaders who have been drawn into the political process, although their true colors remain suspect. The only difference nowadays is that all these candidates are nominally under the US flag and acknowledge President Hamid Karzai's administration.

"It [change] will certainly be negative on all counts," said Professor Khalilullah Jamili, who teaches political philosophy and who is also a director of the Cultural Council at Kabul University.

He told Asia Times Online: "I bet that things will come back to square one within six months of the general elections. I spent several years in Germany in the field of education and returned to my country in the hope that I would share my services in the process of rebuilding. Having spent several months here, I am facing a hopeless situation.

"The current parliamentary elections were supposed to bring professionals, intellectuals and real politicians into the parliament so that they could legislate for the good in the country. However, what we perceive is the return of the same people who brought destruction to this country," Jamili said.

"So why can't the right people contest the elections?" this correspondent asked, to peals of laughter from the assembled crowd in a Kabul restaurant.

"Where would we find the right people in Afghanistan?" Jamili retorted. "Twenty-five years of civil war and destruction have produced a mess.

"Now, with the same leaders coming back, my political acumen suggests another civil war after six months. Contradictions will emerge and people will point fingers negatively on the people they elected. Guns will remain the last answer for every problem, just like it has in the past," Jamili concluded.

As the people of Kabul say, "Do not expect anything good."

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