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Taking the Next Step

Will a New Parliament spur Afghanistan's reconstruction?

By Carlotta Gall in Kabul



Despite weeks of insurgent attacks and threats of violence, millions of Afghans lined up at the polls on September 18, risking their lives to vote in the country's first free legislative elections in 35 years. It was the last formal step toward Afghanistan's transition to a democratic government, following the American-led military ouster of the Taliban — a brutally strict and repressive Islamic group that ruled the country — in the months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Results of the elections, in which 5,800 candidates vied for 249 parliamentary seats and other offices, are expected in time for Parliament to convene in December. Around 75 candidates under 30 ran for Parliament in a country where half the population falls into that age group.

Slow progress

The newly elected legislators will face enormous challenges: insurgent violence, warlords, a re-emerging Taliban, and rampant drug trafficking. There is widespread frustration over the lack of security and the slow pace of rebuilding after more than two decades of war. While progress has been made in the capital city of Kabul, many Afghans are still living without paved roads, electricity, or clean water.

Forbidden by the Taliban to attend school, girls are now back in classrooms, at least in some areas. The Constitution recognizes women as equal citizens, and guarantees them 25 percent of the seats in Parliament. At the same time, 80 percent of Afghan women cannot read, and in some regions, women are still compelled to wear head-to-toe cloaks called burkas when they venture outside their homes.

As Afghanistan takes small steps toward democracy, the country remains one of the world's poorest, with most Afghans still living on less than a dollar a day. According to President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan is not yet capable of standing on its own. "We have just begun the foundations," he says. "Institutionally, we are very weak."

Many of Afghanistan's troubles stem from the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union, which led to a 10-year war between the Soviets and Afghan guerrillas called mujahedeen. The U.S. saw the mujahedeen as allies in the Cold War with the Soviets and backed them with $2 billion in weapons, supplies, and cash. But when the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the U.S. cut its involvement with Afghanistan, and the already war-ravaged country descended into civil war.

The Taliban seized control in 1996, ruling Afghanistan for five years and providing a base of operations for terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and its leader, Osama Bin Laden. In retaliation for the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. launched air strikes and ground attacks against Al Qaeda camps in Afghan- istan in October 2001. Within a month, the Taliban regime had fallen and Karzai soon became interim President.

The U.S. and its allies promised to help Afghanistan rebuild and establish a democratic government. In October 2004, Afghanistan held its first presidential election and Karzai was officially voted into office.

Insurgent violence

Remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda escaped into the mountains along the 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, where bin Laden is also believed to be hiding. Insurgents with suspected ties to the Taliban and Al Qaeda have mounted violent attacks on Afghan civilians as well as on military personnel.

Some 20,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, not only to fight insurgents but also to train Afghan soldiers. This year has been the deadliest since 2001 for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, with more than 65 killed so far.

President Karzai says the fact that so many Afghans voted despite threats and violence proves that Al Qaeda has been defeated in Afghanistan. But voter turnout was far lower than expected: 50 percent, compared with around 70 percent for last year's presidential elections. Some voters have pinned their hopes on the new Parliament to bring their communities more reconstruction assistance.

"I'm hoping for security first, then roads, then education," says Muhammad Tahir, 45, a shopkeeper in Kandahar.

For a 19-year-old student in Kabul named Hedayat, education is the top priority. "The young generation wants to be equal with the youth of other countries," he says. "We have people who are engineers in Afghanistan but they don't even know how to use computers. We want to be the same as other countries."