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Afghan parliament mired by standoff

By Sayed Salahuddin,

KABUL — A political dispute over the expulsion of nine lawmakers has paralyzed Afghanistan’s parliament a year after Afghans braved a torrent of attacks to elect their representatives.

The impasse has held up urgent legislative initiatives and exacerbated the sense of anxiety among Afghans about the country’s future at a time when U.S. troops are starting to draw down amid rising violence.

More than half of the 249 members of the lower house of parliament have refused or failed to attend sessions after nine lawmakers lost their seats over allegations that they were elected as a result of widespread fraud.

Members supporting the dismissed representatives say their bloc includes 160 lawmakers, a figure disputed by allies of President Hamid Karzai.

The nine members were expelled after a months-long fight during which Afghan and Western officials accused Karzai of using the courts to force the removal of opposition figures in exchange for politicians more likely to rubber-stamp his initiatives. The government has asserted it was simply seeking to probe and act on allegations of fraud.

Either way, the impact of the dispute is clear.

“Basically, nothing is being done in the parliament,” said Ramazan Bashardost, a member of parliament who said he supports neither side.

Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, said it was unfortunate that parliament has conducted no business a year after the election.

“The parliament is needed and should start to work,” he said. “We need a minimum of checks and balances, and the perception of checks and balances by the population. That helps democracy and accountability.”

Among the most pressing matters left unresolved amid the stalemate is the banking crisis sparked last year after revelations that Kabul Bank shareholders had been taking out large, unsecured loans to invest in risky ventures. Hundreds of millions of dollars from the coffers of the country’s largest bank remain unaccounted for, and the scandal has disrupted flows of international aid.

Afghan Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwal was scheduled to appear before parliament on Wednesday to brief lawmakers on the probe into the scandal. The session was canceled because few lawmakers were present.

Bashardost said Karzai’s government wants parliament to pass a supplemental budget to refinance the bank. If parliament signs off, the International Monetary Fund would be likely to reinstate its program in Afghanistan after having suspended it last year. The IMF’s move prompted important donor nations, including Britain, to freeze money earmarked for development.

Poisoned politics

The fight over the expulsions has poisoned Afghanistan’s politics when Karzai’s government is struggling with two complex initiatives.

The first involves negotiating a bilateral agreement with the United States that would spell out the role of U.S. forces in the country after 2014, when Washington hopes to formally end its combat operations here.

Karzai is also trying to establish a foundation for peace talks with the Taliban — a task made more difficult by divisions within the government.

Afghan and Western officials here say it is important that the Karzai administration be able to articulate a clear policy on both matters by December, when the president is scheduled to meet senior diplomats from around the world in Bonn, Germany, to discuss the future of Afghanistan.

The dysfunctional parliament has also prevented Karzai from getting cabinet members confirmed, which has had a paralyzing effect on a government many Afghans regard as hopelessly corrupt and ineffectual.

“If the government is incomplete, then the legitimacy of Mr. Karzai will be in question,” said Abdul Habib Andiwal, one of the dismissed lawmakers.

Vadeer Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, said the impasse could be devastating if it drags on.

“The government is clearly facing a danger,” he said. “The continuation of the situation will be quite disastrous for the government and Afghan society.”

Although the previous parliament had begun to exert a measure of oversight over the executive branch last year, Afghans have long seen their national legislature as corrupt, ineffective and removed from the reality of life in impoverished rural areas riled by violence.

One of the few major pieces of legislation parliament passed left many Afghans feeling bitter. Lawmakers voted in 2007 to give amnesty to those who committed human rights abuses during the civil war that preceded the 2001 fall of the Taliban government.

While the baseline salary for an Afghan civil servant is about $100, lawmakers take home more than $4,000 per month, a sum that includes salary and a stipend for security, Bashardost said.

“I do not have any faith in the parliament or this government,” Kabul shopkeeper Ahmad Jashid said. “I regret risking my life by voting during the election.”

© The Washington Post Company