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Next Afghan President Faces Tough Road  - 2004-10-05


Afghanistan holds its first presidential election on October 9. Despite the celebration over this accomplishment of democracy, all 18 candidates, including the president, agree that Afghanistan is still in great danger of violence and turmoil.

Across Afghanistan and throughout the world, many are celebrating the prospect of Afghanistan's first free election in decades.

Few can be as happy as the United Nations diplomats who have been helping the Afghan transitional government arrange the vote.

But even U.N. officials admit that Afghanistan still stands at risk of spiraling back into the war and violence that have plagued it for more than 20 years.

As the U.N.'s spokesman in Afghanistan, Manoel de Almeida e Silva explains, the winner of the presidential race will have a lot of work to do.

"Oh my God, this poor man or woman who will become the next president will certainly have no shortage of problems," he said. "The next president will certainly need to focus on a number of issues at the same time. It will be very difficult to establish priorities."

Since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded, Afghanistan has been at war. First against the Soviet army, then in a civil war that eventually saw the hard-line religious Taleban take over in the 1990s before it was ousted in 2001 by a U.S.-led alliance. The country was left with its infrastructure and economy battered, and its civic institutions barely functioning.

Among the challenges Mr. de Almeida e Silva points to are the anti-government insurgents and warlords, along with the opium industry that helps sustain them. In addition, the new president will need to restore the rule of law, protect human rights, and rebuild the infrastructure.

All of the candidates have promised to tackle these and other problems.

But when it comes to which challenges should be the top priorities, the presidential contenders have their differences.

For transitional President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since the Taleban were ousted, economic recovery will be one key focus.

"I'm running for president, for eventually, in a few years' time, having an Afghanistan that does not have $200 income per capita, but an Afghanistan in which people have at least $1,000 income per capita. In short, I want to have an Afghanistan that's on its own feet, that has its own money," said Mr. Karzai.

He also sees the semi-independent militias, leftover from the war years, as a threat to Afghanistan's future and says he will push to speed up their disarmament.

One of Mr. Karzai's challengers, an independent candidate from eastern Afghanistan named Wakil Mangal, agrees that the militias and their commanders pose a top problem for the next administration.

But he says solving this issue goes beyond simply disarming the militias. Mr. Mangal says the key to saving Afghanistan is creating a strong central government that can rule the entire country.

He says not just militias, but anything that threatens centralized rule risks pulling Afghanistan back into the civil war of the 1990s. He says, for example, that as president he would speed up the creation of a national police force.

For some candidates, establishing an honest government is more important than establishing a powerful one.

Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai is a popular leader from Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. He is clear about what one of his own top priorities will be.

"Corruption, bribery, ? which is going on presently in our country," said Mr. Ahmedzai.

He says that anything the next government does will need a lot of resources, and that if those resources are not managed carefully, nothing will get done.

He charges that Mr. Karzai's administration has done little to stop corrupt officials from looting vital aid.

"What has happened for the last three years [is] that $4.5 billion came, and there is nobody to tell us how this was spent," he said.

Even President Karzai agrees that corruption is a major problem, which he will face if re-elected.

"We have not been able so far to handle corruption, and probably that's something more difficult to do," he admitted. "But still, we've made efforts, and we have not been very successful in that."

No matter who wins the election, the next president can at least count on international help in dealing with Afghanistan's monumental problems. Donor countries have all pledged to continue their support after the election.

But even with aid money, the new president will struggle to meet the demands of different ethnic and interest groups, and still address the security and economic issues that threaten the country's future.

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