Afghanistan: On the Brink

Afghanistan's Uncertain Transition from Turmoil to Normalcy

a report by Barnett R. Rubin
Council on Foreign Relations, March 2006, 43 pp., $10.00


In December 2005 I spent several hours a day in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul interviewing some of the people who passed by. The hotel, perched on a hill at the edge of the city and long ago written off by the Intercontinental chain as a loss, has been through some rough times in Afghanistan’s twenty-three years of war. In 1992 I spent more than a month using the hotel as a bunker to avoid getting hit, first as the Communist regime crumbled and then as the civil war unfolded across the city below me. For much of the following decade the hotel was without regular electricity or running water and you never saw an Afghan woman there.

In 2005, sitting on a sofa in the hotel’s lobby, I found on my left a former Taliban commander with a beard down to his waist, and on my right a young and beautiful Afghan woman from Herat, whose only concession to “covering up” was a very loose and flimsy head scarf. They were both members of the new Afghan parliament that had been elected on September 18; for the past week they had been receiving instruction from UN experts on what a parliament was and how to behave in one. The two-hour lunch breaks allowed the members of parliament (MPs) to meet each other informally. As he argued with the woman, I could see that the former Taliban officer was still in a state of shock that she was there at all.

An even bigger shock must have been the seating arrangements on December 19, 2005, when the parliament was inaugurated by President Hamid Karzai in the presence of US Vice President Dick Cheney, who arrived twenty minutes late. Men and women MPs were seated next to each other in alphabetical order—and there were no complaints. That does not happen in Iran or in the Arab world; the largely rigged parliaments in most Muslim countries enforce strict segregation.

The parliament has proved that it is not a tightly controlled vehicle for Karzai or the Americans. It set about its first task in March 2006 with the kind of earnestness and professionalism one might expect from much older bodies. In Afghanistan’s presidential system of government, the country’s new constitution gives parliament the power to approve the president’s cabinet and the MPs did just that. They politely demanded that each of Karzai’s twenty-five cabinet ministers present their credentials, say what they had achieved and hoped to achieve, and then answer tough, rapid-fire questions from the MPs.

Even more remarkable was that the proceedings were, for the first time, broadcast live on TV and on radio. A large part of the population watched them. For a month work came to a standstill while mesmerized Afghans heard tribal and warlord ministers fumble for words as they sought to explain themselves. Eventually on April 20 parliament approved only twenty ministers, forcing Karzai to fire five of his nominees.

It is hard…

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