Private talks between President Hamid Karzai and rival Islamic militia leaders have raised fears of a power-sharing deal that could undermine internationally backed elections scheduled for September.
The negotiations with members of the Northern Alliance coalition have angered leaders of Karzai's Pashtun ethnic group and alarmed foreign diplomats and election observers, who said a deal with religious strongmen will send the wrong signal to a nation preparing to embark on its first democratic vote.
The Northern Alliance is dominated by ethnic Tajik militia leaders who were given key roles in a coalition government set up by the United Nations in 2001. In the recent meetings, participants said, Karzai's representatives have sought their support for his candidacy in return for posts in a future administration and partially appointed parliament. Some sources said a partial deal had been struck in a meeting Tuesday.
"This is like saying that the only ticket to the palace is having weapons behind you," said one European diplomat. "These elections are costing $200 million, and if that can't produce a credible and legitimate process, then all the money will have gone down a black hole. It's not only a lost opportunity, it's a regression to the past."
Aides to Karzai said his aim in holding such talks is to ensure a trouble-free election, not to sabotage it. They denied reports that he had promised Northern Alliance leaders important government roles but said he was seeking to bring them into the fold so they would not be tempted to thwart the country's progress to democracy.
"These are not negotiations. They are talks about building an understanding based on certain principles," said a presidential aide. "The president believes that although elections are a step forward, they will not remedy all the ills of Afghanistan. To strengthen the peace process, he believes, it is important to move cautiously and neutralize forces that might want to destabilize it, and they can, especially if they think they are going to lose."
The Northern Alliance is a coalition of Islamic militias that fought occupying Soviet troops in the 1980s and were later allied with U.S. forces against the Taliban, which was toppled in late 2001. Many Afghans are wary of these groups because they held power during a chaotic and destructive period of civil conflict in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, the United Nations gave several Northern Alliance leaders a prominent role in the temporary post-Taliban government, which they are determined not to lose through elections.
In the past week, concern and speculation about a possible deal between Karzai and the alliance have overshadowed news of progress toward holding elections for president and the lower house of parliament. On Wednesday, officials announced an electoral law that had been delayed more than two months.
Voter registration has continued a slow climb, reaching 2.6 million of 9.5 million eligible voters, and nearly 600 rural registration sites are now open. The number of political parties officially registered rose to more than a dozen, although party leaders complained of bureaucratic delays, cumbersome requirements and political bias against some groups.
Meanwhile, several public debates have been held among political leaders and likely candidates. At one government-sponsored forum, impassioned, testy exchanges illustrated the fragility of Afghanistan's political fabric, the tension between ethnic groups and the tendency to assign blame for Afghanistan's quarter-century of conflict.
"There were a lot of philosophical speeches, but some people didn't want to hear criticism, and they seemed afraid of having a democratic discussion," said Noor ul-Haq Ulemi, a former Afghan army general who heads the newly formed National Unity Party. "Our country was destroyed by a struggle for power. We need to put that behind us, stop calling each other names and work for unity."
Karzai, who was chosen interim president by delegates to a national council in 2002, declared his intention to run for election several months ago. But he has made few public appearances, formed no political party and remains largely confined to his palace under heavy security. Instead of seeking support from voters, he has spent time forging alliances and seeking agreements with groups likely to cause trouble for his candidacy or the elections.
One such initiative, strongly backed by the U.S. Embassy, has involved efforts to persuade more than 80 militia commanders nationwide to surrender their weapons and demobilize about 40,000 fighters before the elections. In return, they are being offered job training, economic aid, slots in a possible new regional security force and pledges of an honorable status in the country's future.
But the political talks taking place in the capital are a broader effort that includes former political and military officials from the Northern Alliance, including former president Berhanuddin Rabbani, conservative Islamic scholar Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, Gov. Ismael Khan of Herat province and Education Minister Yonus Qanooni.
According to several individuals who have attended some of the meetings, the Northern Alliance leaders have demanded key posts in a future Karzai government or leadership roles in parliament in exchange for endorsing Karzai's candidacy. The participants said Fahim and Sayyaf have been acting as Karzai's representatives and will be given senior posts if he is elected.
"Fahim and Sayyaf are trying to persuade the commanders to nominate Karzai, and some of their demands have already been agreed to," said a participant from a major Northern Alliance group. "It's fine to have talks and to get support from well-known figures, but any prior deals cannot be good for democracy and will surely create an outcry among the people."
One source said that at a pivotal meeting Tuesday, the militia leaders demanded that Karzai get rid of a half-dozen technocratic ministers, mostly Pashtuns who returned from the West to help his government. The source said Karzai was highly unlikely to agree to this demand.
Aides to Karzai described the meetings differently, saying the Northern Alliance leaders had sought out the president after being unable to agree on an alternative candidate. They said the leaders seemed eager to become part of the political process and were willing to endorse the economic and security reforms that are the top priority of Karzai's U.S.-backed government.
"The president has no obstacle to engaging with them because his definition has always been inclusive," Jawad Luddin, Karzai's chief spokesman, said Friday. "He has no ethnic or regional or personal agenda. His agenda is for Afghanistan, and whoever thinks they can play a role in a constructive manner can be a partner."
Some Pashtun leaders, however, are said to regard Karzai's outreach to ethnic rivals as a further betrayal of their interests after more than two years in which Northern Alliance figures have held many key posts in the transitional government. Sources said two senior Pashtuns in the Karzai administration, including Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, are seriously considering challenging him or backing alternative candidates.
Even some Pashtun figures who said they would support Karzai's candidacy expressed disappointment in his leadership, saying he has been unwilling to stand up to regional bosses despite enjoying strong international support -- and is now snubbing his tribal constituents while courting perennial adversaries.
"People were lukewarm before, but now that has turned to bitterness," said a Pashtun tribal leader. "Without the Pashtun vote, Karzai is nothing. We are his natural allies and supporters, but he is ignoring us. It is a huge mistake for him to make deals with people like Rabbani unless he has fortified himself and made sure we are there guarding his back."
Some international observers expressed broader worries, saying the president's deal-making suggests that despite his worldly demeanor and constant invocation of democratic ideals, he is more comfortable with backroom power-brokering and more concerned about winning the election than about bolstering the democratic process.
"Are we here to get one man elected or to help establish a democratic process?" asked a Western election consultant. "Why is Karzai making deals with extremists instead of moderates? His world has always been about making deals among tribes and militias. This election is a new process for Afghanistan. The people seem enthusiastic, but maybe the president isn't ready for it."