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2004 Sees New Political Chapter for Afghanistan

The year 2004 has seen dramatic changes in Afghanistan, with the rise of that nation's first democratic government in decades and the ebbing of violence that has haunted the country for a quarter of a century. VOA's Michael Kitchen reports from Islamabad on the year's progress toward peace in Afghanistan, and some of the challenges that lie ahead.

Since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the country has seen almost continuous armed conflict, devastating the lives of its people. First came a decade-long struggle to expel the Soviets, followed by years of civil war between rival governments and their militias.

In late 2001, the United States and a group of Afghan militias waged a war to overthrow the Islamist Taleban regime that controlled most of Afghanistan.

Now, for the first time in a generation, the impoverished central Asia nation is showing signs of stabilizing.

Hamid Elmi, a spokesman for the new Afghan administration, sees the year 2004 as a milestone on the road to a better future.

"As far as I read history, yes: 2004 is the biggest year, or I can say the brightest year, of the Afghan history, or at least the last three decades," he said.

Many of the year's achievements have been political. In January, an assembly of local leaders from around the country approved a new constitution, marking the first time since the Soviet invasion that all of Afghanistan was ruled by a single body of laws.

That was followed in October by the peaceful election of transitional leader Hamid Karzai as president.

The political changes have calmed the fighting that has plagued the country for the past 25 years.

Taleban remnants continue an armed insurgency against the government, concentrating mostly on hit-and-run attacks on civilian and military targets.

But an ongoing anti-insurgency campaign by the Afghan and U.S. militaries, along with a NATO-led peacekeeping force, appears to be paying off. The Taleban vowed to disrupt October's presidential election, but on election day, they were all but invisible.

Major Mark McCann, spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, says operations over the past year have drastically rolled back the Taleban threat.

"Just one example would be comparing the [Muslim holy month] Ramadan period of 2003 with the one of this year," he said. "Last year there were many more attacks during that period than there were this year, and we attribute that to the increasing improvement in the security situation here in the country."

He says 2004 has also seen large strides in Afghanistan's effort to form a strong national army that can hold onto the hard-won peace, and he says the army will likely reach its targeted size of more than 40,000 combat troops within the next couple of years.

"They are looking to field the bulk of the Afghan National Army by 2007, ahead of schedule," said Major McCann.

But threats to the new peace still loom.

Scores of local militias remain in place throughout the country, with some of their commanders accused of acting as warlords. Militias continue to battle over territory, and some are accused of extorting money and resources from local residents.

Although the militia leaders have promised to obey the central government's order to disarm, the process is going slower than many officials had hoped. In an interview with VOA in July, President Karzai said the militias posed a threat to the government's authority.

"The progress towards disarmament has been very slow," he said. "We have not been able to remove militia forces from the country that keep harassing our people. And the Afghan people are really upset about that."

A joint Afghan-U.N. program to disarm the militias has seen some success in 2004, with a majority of forces now disbanded and their heavy weapons surrendered to the central government.

The government is preparing a major campaign against illicit opium production, which is said to fund some of the remaining militias. Since the ouster of the Taleban, Afghanistan has become the world's leading source of opium.

Another challenge is creating jobs for former militia members. Vikram Parekh, senior Afghan analyst for the International Crisis Group in Brussels, says the militias could easily re-form if their soldiers cannot find work.

"Unless you are drawn into really sustainable economic activity that outstrips the value of being in a militia, then there is always the risk that when the call-up comes, that you could still park your taxi or whatever it is you're doing, and answer the call of duty," he said.

Many former militia commanders are expected to run in Afghanistan's first post-war parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for sometime in March or April. Under the law, they must disarm in order to qualify as candidates.

Afghan and foreign officials say the next test will be whether the new national army and its foreign allies can prevent voter intimidation by the remaining militias.