Whose Priority

With Karzai’s position secured as the president and his cabinet selected, the nation looks forward to action. Karzai had promised action on the basis of recognized priorities. But the first priority he chose was a jihad against opium.

The Afghan nation has a multitude of needs and thus requires its government to deal with priorities that relieve its acute pains and sufferings and lay out the grounds for its further progress and improvement of its lot. While drugs make one of the priorities indeed, the nation’s priority at present seems to be different. There are people who understand the urgency of the fight against illicit drugs from the perspective of the Western powers that support president Karzai’s government. But the same people name life saving health and educational programs that would reduce the highest infant mortality rate in the country, save deaths among pregnant women whose lives are in serious danger because of lack of health and medical facilities, prevent communicable diseases among children and the elderly, prevent deaths caused by malnutrition all over the country and especially in poorer regions, prevent child and women abuse, boost agricultural production and develop small industries. Priorities, such as extension and improvement of roads, settlement programs for the refugees as they return home from years of internal and external displacement and exile, improvement of the lot of government employees and creating jobs seem more urgent. Security, fighting of widespread corruption and working on a system of a secure civil life plus wiping out of the unjust and inhuman influence of warlords are other demands by the nation.

In the area of politics, preparation for just and proper parliamentary elections is another priority. The parliamentary election entails also elections for the provincial and district councils. These, in addition to electing of members of the Wolusi Jirga, the Lower House, include 34 provincial councils and 400 district councils who would then help choose two third of the Mishrano Jirga or members of the Upper House of Parliament.

The government enjoys support of all the optimistic citizens, yet it would need to prove its worth by doing something about the nation’s priorities first. A close look at what goes on in the country shows that the government so far has done little to organize its priorities or to take issue with the problems that are facing the nation. Yet it has taken up the priority it shares with Great Britain and the United States, namely the issue of drugs.

While fighting production of opium and its illicit trafficking is very important the government has not started considering in earnest a solution that would not hurt the farmers in the country. It has not considered any solid plan for transition by the farmers from opium centered farming to growing of other cash crop that would meet the need of the farmers for cash. It has failed to experiment or explore in detail a variety of solutions that are available in this regard. One example that was talked about was the possibility of growing saffron instead. There are other plants, such as fiber, that can be experimented with also. Yet the government seems to consider the more drastic action of burning the poppy fields, irrespective of its affect on the farmers, as suggested by the British and the US. More recently, the Germans have come up with a solution that include education and plant replacement program claiming that their program would not alienate the people from the popular government of Karzai. They fear that drastic measures may lead to a loss of confidence in the popularly elected person of the president of Afghanistan.

Regarding the elections, Mr. Karzai officially states that it would be appropriate to hold parliamentary elections as scheduled. President Karzai personally feels no urgency in bringing forth a parliament which would limit his powers and which take all his skill to deal with. Yet, the Afghan Constitution calls for an elected parliament so that democracy would be thoroughly launched in the country.

Karzai has failed to decide on district boundaries that need to be marked by the government 120 days prior to elections. It has still to conclude an acceptable census of the country so that the number of candidates per district could be determined and it has failed to make its final decision regarding whether there is a possibility for party based elections. This last point seems to be controversial, as based on the bitter experience of the country with parties, a party based parliamentary election may deprive the general public in electing the people they want as their representatives rather than representatives named for them by parties.

On top of all of these failures, there is the issue of the need for $ 130 million to hold parliamentary elections. This is money the government does not have and would like to receive as aid from the international community. Besides this, the government has not been able to receive the aid money in full promised it by the international community for general reconstruction work. A considerable part of the money it has received so far has been spent on salaries of the government employees. As no government should indefinitely depend on aid money to pay the salaries of its workers, there should be economic planning to boost the country’s income so it would gain its economic freedom from aid giving international community. Reconstruction does not mean running of an old bureaucratic administration at the cost of development programming.

But there have been a number of positive achievements by the government of Afghanistan in political and even military fields. Credit must be given to the government of President Karzai for seeing that the nation got its new constitution, convened two Loya Jirgas and elected its first president through general elections. The country is now put on the course of democracy.

Conditions are ripe for steering the country out of its past turbulent course, provided the navigators have a good map and are experts in understanding the directions toward progress and prosperity fully aware of the dangers of rocks and reef. The government of Mr. Karzai should take advantage of the favorable winds if he is to lead his ship out of the dangerous waters. 2/20/05