By Shoaib Safi in Kabul (ARR No. 43, 10-Jan-03)
Afghan leader Hamed Karzai marked his first anniversary in power last week by hailing progress in social and economic reconstruction while admitting shortcomings, particularly continuing lawlessness and corruption in the provinces.
Karzai, who took over a year ago as the head of an interim administration after the collapse of the Taleban, said the government, and the country, had to start from scratch.
"All the civil and military offices had ceased functioning across the country," Karzai told a large gathering at the foreign ministry on December 24. "The economy of the country was at a standstill. There was no money in the banks.
"In spite of all these problems, a sense of cooperation became alive among Afghans inside and outside the country. Their support gave me more power and made me ready to serve the people of my country."
Karzai, who took over from former president Burhanuddin Rabbani as chairman of an interim administration, was elected head of state and leader of an 18-month transitional government in last June's Loya Jirga assembly.
"The greatest achievement under the new government was the return of some two million of our refugees to their own country," Karzai said. "The former sovereign Zaheer Shah returned, and former fighters came back. Afghanistan became home to all Afghans."
The Afghan leader said that with the end of the country's isolation under the Taleban, Afghanistan had returned to the international stage, with 60 diplomatic missions opening or reopening in the country and the national flag once again fluttering across the world.
Among the significant advances over the past year, Karzai picked out the creation of the core of a 100,000-strong national army, drawn from all of Afghanistan's 32 provinces and numerous ethnic groups with a long history of rivalry and armed conflict between them.
The president said that four battalions had already been trained by experts from the United States, Turkey and France, while the national police force was being trained by Germany.
Western governments have made it clear they consider the creation of a strong, multi-ethnic and non-political national army essential for Afghanistan's future stability and security, particularly in enabling the central government to reassert its control over powerful, heavily armed warlords whose word is law in their provincial fiefdoms.
The need for a properly trained police force was highlighted by Karzai when he recalled that a number of students at Kabul University were killed and several injured last month when police opened fire on a demonstration over conditions in their hostels. The incident was "due to lack of professional police officers", Karzai told the assembly.
The government continues to insist that two students died and five were injured. Hospital sources said at least five died and human rights group said more than 40 were injured.
Despite last month's incident, the president hailed education as one of the success stories of his administration, particularly in reopening schools to girls after they were banned from the classroom during the student militia's five-year rule. He said three million children were attending school, while 26,000 students were at universities and 850 literacy courses had been launched in a country with an estimated illiteracy rate of 65 per cent.
However, despite extra funding from domestic and foreign sources, Afghanistan's five universities are struggling to cope with demand. With entrance exams due to begin within the next few days, some 40,000 young hopefuls are competing for only 11,500 places.
Other areas of progress cited by Karzai were the establishment of a new press law, which has sparked the creation of 150 independent publications - though journalists note that the law has yet to be anchored in the new constitution currently being drafted - and a national commission on human rights.
He said a new law on foreign investment had been passed aimed at encouraging companies to come in and help rebuild the devastated economy. So far, 1,600 companies had applied to invest, and 1,000 applications had been approved, he added.
But there was also gloom from Karzai as he complained that outbreaks of fighting between rival warlords in the regions were causing the government concern.
He complained that the process of disarming the population - always likely to be difficult after so many years of fighting and deep-seated traditions of bearing arms among some ethnic groups - was painfully slow.
Despite improvements in security, particularly with the deployment of 4,000 troops in the multinational International Stability force for Afghanistan, he said murders and robberies were still at a high level, and corruption was widespread, particularly embezzlement of taxes and duties by provincial officials, " Some influential people have forcibly expropriated the property of others, particularly in the provinces."
Last month, Karzai fired 28 officials in 11 provinces on a wide variety of charges including smuggling drugs and ancient artefacts, embezzlement and ignoring government orders, after reading the reports of special investigation teams he sent to outlying regions to check on complaints of corruption and abuse of power.
After admitting at the time that he had not done enough to fight corruption, and taking full responsibility for this omission, he warned local governors and other officials to clean up their act or face a similar fate.
The strongest warning at the anniversary ceremony to regional warlords and commanders to start listening to Kabul came from Rabbani, the man Karzai replaced a year ago.
"The central government should be made even stronger," he said. "Under past regimes every province had its president and every person created an independent presidency for himself. Today nobody should disobey the central government."
Shoaib Safi is an independent journalist in Kabul.