Karzai urges delay in Afghan elections

Suggestion indicates instability has slowed country's recovery

March 18, 2004|By T. Christian Miller | T. Christian Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan - President Hamid Karzai suggested yesterday that Afghan national elections might be postponed by a month or two, the latest sign of the instability that has hampered the war-torn country's recovery.

The Afghan leader's statements during a meeting here with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell are the strongest indications to date that presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June might be delayed.

Because of threats against aid workers, poor access to remote villages and difficulties enlisting the participation of Afghani women, only about 15 percent of the estimated 9.9 million eligible voters have been registered, according to U.N. officials.

"The Afghan government is keen to have elections in June, July or August," said Karzai, surrounded by security guards in the fortress-like presidential palace here in the capital. "At this point, it looks like we should be aiming for elections in midsummer 2004."

The possibility of a delay comes as the Bush administration is striving to focus on the successes of the war on terrorism that began in Afghanistan with a campaign against the ruling Taliban and al-Qaida shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

It could complicate talks scheduled to begin at the end of this month in Bonn, Germany, on future aid for Afghanistan. One of the conditions for a $5 billion aid package pledged by the United States and international donors two years ago was for "free and fair elections" by June 2004.

Powell, however, moved to shore up support for further assistance by announcing that the United States would pledge $1 billion approved by Congress late last year at the coming aid conference.

He also downplayed the significance of a delay, saying that the most important thing was for Afghanistan to continue moving toward elections. A delay has been long anticipated, since there are no declared presidential candidates, no political campaigns and few registered voters.

"Whether it's June, July or August remains to be seen," said Powell, talking with reporters at the end of his seven-hour visit. "I don't think it makes significant difference, as long as it's done well, as long as it's seen as fair and honest and objective."

Powell spent most of the day focusing on U.S. accomplishments in Afghanistan since the Taliban was swept from power in late 2001.

In the morning, he toured a school in Kabul once run by the Taliban, which denied education to girls for religious reasons. Now, the school has three shifts, educates more than 8,000 girls and boys in separate classrooms, and doubles as a voter-registration center.

"The United States will remain committed to this effort for as long as it takes to put in place a stable nation," he told a small group of women chosen to represent Afghan civil society.

Powell and Karzai celebrated the near-completion of a paved highway from Kandahar to Kabul and the signing of a constitution in January as proof that the rebuilding of Afghanistan is progressing.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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