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New Karzai Government Faces Challenge from Afghan Warlords

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is soon to drop the word "transitional" from his title, becoming Afghanistan's first popularly elected leader in a generation. Removing regional warlords from power may be the president's toughest challenge.

While he was running for office, President Hamid Karzai and his supporters repeatedly promised to disarm local militia commanders still in power across Afghanistan.

Left over from a decade of civil war, many of the commanders are seen as warlords - ruling areas under their control as semi-autonomous states and sometimes engaging in drug trafficking and other criminal enterprises.

A joint Afghan-international program has been trying to disarm the warlords and disband their troops.

So far it has met with mixed success, and many militia commanders still control what amount to private armies.

The senior Afghanistan analyst for the non-profit International Crisis Group, Vikram Parekh, predicts the Karzai government will use parliamentary elections scheduled for April to push disarmament along.

Many of the commanders are eager to run for seats in the legislature, and as Mr. Parekh says, the election law requires them to disarm first.

But, he adds, some warlords may slip by this law.

"This thing could be politically manipulated, but it is really the only instrument of pressure that is available to the central government," Mr. Parekh says.

On Wednesday, Mr. Karzai, who has served as the country's transitional leader for nearly two yeas, was declared the winner of Afghanistan's October ninth presidential election. He has yet to name a new cabinet.

Mr. Parekh notes that many observers see some ministers from Mr. Karzai's transitional government as politically tied to the warlords.

Several of these, he says, may be too powerful to remove from the cabinet easily.

"A cabinet formed on that basis is maybe taking Karzai's electoral mandate perhaps a little too liberally," Mr. Parekh says.

He notes that while Mr. Karzai won October's election with a strong mandate from the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, other constituencies favored some of his opponents.

He says the president may need these warlord-aligned ministers to ensure his power among all of Afghanistan's many ethnic communities.