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Afghans Deliver Verdict on Karzai

President Karzai gets mixed reviews after his first year in office.

Afghanistan’s long-suffering people have delivered a mixed verdict on President Hamed Karzai’s first year in office, praising him for improvements in civil liberties and education but blaming him for a lack of progress in reunifying the country and rebuilding the economy.

Karzai was nominated to head an interim Afghan administration a year ago, replacing Burhanuddin Rabbani as president. At the Loya Jirga in June last year, he was formally elected president and leader of the transitional 18-month government, easily beating his closest rival Masouda Jalal who only notched up 171 votes against Karzai’s total of 1,295.

After accusing the international community of not coming up with promised financial aid, Karzai pledged to push ahead with the reconstruction of the country, particularly its bomb-blasted roads.

However, at a news conference following his election, he gave vague responses to several questions about how he planned to deal with powerful warlords who still hold sway in several provinces and have ignored the leader’s pleas to end internal rivalries in the name of national unity. Without a strong national army, which is in its infancy, the president is powerless to take on the regional commanders.

“Many of the regions have been turned into private fiefdoms, and there is a lack of human rights,” Zohoor Afghan, editor of the newspaper Irada, told IWPR. “Some local commanders are operating private prisons, and kidnappings and other crimes are rife. We have foreign troops to provide security in our country, but security is not guaranteed.”

For most people, however, it is bread-under-butter issues that are foremost in their minds - the faltering electricity supply, lack of jobs, shortages of qualified doctors and medicines, and high prices of essential goods. And on these issues Karzai’s government came in for some sharp criticism from ordinary people and professionals.

“Since Karzai’s government took over we have not seen any major changes in our life,” Kabul resident Mohammeduddin told IWPR. “There is no electricity in most of the houses, and prices of goods have not come down.

“The only changes that have happened are that cinemas have reopened and some women have stopped wearing the burqa. Instead of the Taleban wearing turbans we have soldiers with military or police caps.”

Suhaila, working in a government department, gave a guarded welcome to the improvements in the lives of women since the new interim government, which will rule until elections in 2004, took over, “During the Taleban regime, we could not go to school or work, but now we can. However, over this past year improvements that were expected, particularly in the economic sector, have failed to materialise.”

Khwaja Abdul Baseer has seen the profits in his Kabul stationary shop rise since Karzai took over. He welcomes the greater variety of food on his table and the return of television, banned by the Taleban. “During the Taleban regime, I was earning 50,000 afghanis (1 US dollar) a day, now I am earning 300,000. However,” Baseer says, “electricity and water problems have got worse and worse.”

Journalists welcomed the creation of an independent press under the new government - some 150 publications have appeared - but they cautioned that it was not yet anchored in the constitution or law, and barely existed in the warlord-controlled provinces.

“The government has declared freedom of the press, but there are still some groups who are preventing journalists from working independently,” An Afghan journalist working for an international radio station in Kabul, who did not want to be named, told IWPR. “The 150 publications are operating only in Kabul. Most of the journalists in the provinces are threatened daily by local commanders.”

Late last month, the editor of the Kabul-based independent weekly Farda was jailed on the orders of Defence Minister Mohammad Qaseem Fahim after his paper published a cartoon which appeared to lampoon Karzai, but was released the next day after the intervention of the president, who had been out of the country when the arrest was ordered.

Teachers welcomed improvements in education, particularly for women, hailed by Karzai as one of the major achievements of his first year. There are now three million children in school, 26,000 students in universities and 830 literacy courses in a country where an estimated 65 per cent of the population cannot read or write.

“The numbers of university students has gone up, but the problem with student hostels has not improved,” Mohammed Ajan, who teaches literature at Kabul University, told IWPR. In November, seven students were killed and dozens were injured when police and troops beat students demonstrating over conditions in their hostels and then opened fire.

“The university library has no books, nor have the students, so generally their educational level is low,” he said. “The hopes we had in the new government have not been fulfilled. Karzai has tried hard to improve things, but a lot of barriers have been put in his way, particularly by some people in high places.”

The new government has brought some improvements to the health sector, with new equipment coming in from abroad and the promotion of qualified people, according to doctors. “But doctors’ salaries are very low, and while there are many patients, there are not enough hospitals and medical staff,” Dr Najib Halim, deputy head of Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, told IWPR. “Nobody has thought of building a hospital in the provinces. Mothers are dying out there while giving birth because of the lack of facilities.”

Karzai himself, in his speech to mark his first year in office, asked for patience from his war-weary people. “We cannot ignore the last two decades of war, and should not expect miracles from the government. I ask the Afghan people to bear with us.”

Mohammed Shafiz Haqpal is an IWPR staff reporter.

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