For Afghanistan, a Season of Promise and Peril
Factors Including Intensified U.S. Effort and Upcoming Election Converge to Create Conflicting Pressures

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 30, 2009

KABUL, March 29 -- Like the roadside nurserymen selling rosebushes and plum saplings here under dark, still-wintry skies, Afghans are pinning improbable hopes for deliverance on spring. But the season could instead yield more insurgent violence, deeper divisions among Afghan leaders and sharper tensions with Western military forces.

The convergence of three factors -- a major new thrust of U.S. military and political involvement, an expected answering surge in attacks by Islamist fighters, and tensions over an upcoming presidential election in August -- is raising concerns that the country's fragile equilibrium could collapse under so many contradictory pressures.

In interviews and opinion surveys, Afghans say they are yearning for relief after years of political drift and economic decline, and are hoping the election will provide it. Yet their more immediate future is clouded by fear of terrorist violence and anxiety over whether a meaningful election can be held in the current atmosphere of intimidation and intrigue.

"Every morning before I leave home, my mother says a prayer from the Koran that I will return at night," said Marzia Anwari, 22, a science student at Kabul University. "My friends and I want to vote so we can elect educated and honest leaders, but most of all we need security. We need to stop these suicide bombings before we can think about politics. We cannot wash blood with blood."

Although there is much enthusiastic talk these days of negotiating peace with Taliban leaders, and the Obama administration has just signed on to the idea after years of U.S. policy aimed at defeating the insurgents in battle, both Afghan and U.S. officials warn that the fighting will get much heavier as the weather warms and thousands of fresh American troops spread across the country.

Despite a flurry of feelers from Kabul and various foreign intermediaries, and despite reports of early Taliban attempts to influence the vote in their southern ethnic Pashtun heartland, top insurgent leaders are on record as intending to violently disrupt the election, drive out Western forces and reestablish the Islamic emirate they ruled from 1996 to 2001.

Meanwhile, the nation has been holding its breath for weeks as political leaders wrangled over who will govern Afghanistan between May, when President Hamid Karzai's term expires, and the late summer election. Afghans vividly remember the chaos that erupted in 1992 when their government collapsed in factional fighting, and they feared that a void at the top could unleash similar demons.

On Sunday, the Supreme Court put some of those fears to rest, ruling that Karzai must remain in office to ensure "continuation" of governance during the election season. But the decision opens the door to further protests by opponents, who say the privileges of presidential authority would give Karzai an unfair advantage if, as expected, he runs for reelection.

To date, no major figure, including Karzai, has publicly declared a presidential bid. But, privately, the capital is in a frenzy of drawing-room negotiations that one participant called Afghanistan's "invisible primaries." Others called them a poisonous throwback to an undemocratic past in which leaders bartered their presumed popularity and future patronage for support from ethnic and regional rivals.

"The frustrating thing about Afghan politics is that everyone thinks they are best suited to be president, so everyone is calculating and bargaining and waiting until the last minute," said Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and one of a dozen serious pre-candidates. "But this time, we can't do it the old way. This election is make or break for Afghanistan, and we have a limited window of opportunity. I only hope some sense of realism prevails."

Other frequently mentioned possible candidates are Ashraf Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister and World Bank official; Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister and Voice of America official; Gul Agha Shirzai, the governor of Nangahar province; Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born former U.S. envoy to Kabul, Baghdad and the United Nations; and Anwar al-Ahady, a former Afghan central bank president and U.S.-based academic.

With most opposition figures busy trying to forge teams of rivals that they hope can defeat Karzai, there has been virtually no discussion of issues that concern the public, especially security and jobs. Many Afghans are disillusioned with the Karzai government's inept performance and tolerance for corruption, yet unsure who can do better. Others say they are less concerned about who wins than whether Afghanistan can manage to pull off a credible election.

"The elite still thinks this is a game of 50 people, but there is a new generation of Afghans, a rising phenomenon of mass media and civil society, that demands something more," Ghani said. "People are angry and frustrated, and they want to see major change. They want better institutions and a true national dialogue, not another fight among ethnic factions and a one-man show."

The other factor at work is the rapidly expanding, widely mistrusted role of the U.S. government here. Many Afghans are waiting for Washington to anoint the country's next leader, yet they deeply resent what they see as U.S. interference. They are desperate for protection from terrorism and insurgency, yet they fear that the major military expansion planned by the Obama administration will invite further violence and civilian casualties.

For Karzai, who spent months loudly condemning alleged U.S. military abuses but this week warmly welcomed President Obama's new strategy for Afghanistan, the deepening U.S. involvement could be a double-edged sword. For his opponents, many of whom are tainted by long periods of exile in the United States, it could be difficult proving patriotic credentials to voters who have suffered through years of want and war.

"People are tired, and they don't trust either the government or the foreigners anymore," said Mohammed Ehsanullah, 28, a jobless agronomist who sells mobile-phone cards on the streets of Kabul. "We don't need more American troops to bring security, we need investment and factories. If people could earn enough to feed their families, they wouldn't become terrorists or thieves. We wouldn't care about the Taliban and we wouldn't care who becomes president because we would all be too busy."

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