KABUL: A week of private talks between envoys for President Hamid Karzai and various current and former Muslim militia leaders have raised fears of a power-sharing deal that could undermine internationally backed elections scheduled for September.

The negotiations here with members of the Northern Alliance coalition have angered leaders of Mr Karzai's Pushtun ethnic group and alarmed foreign diplomats and election observers, who say a deal with religious strongmen will send the wrong signal to a nation preparing to embark on its first democratic vote.

The Northern Alliance is dominated by ethnic Tajik militia leaders who were given key roles in a coalition government set up by the United Nations in 2001. In the recent meetings, participants said, Mr Karzai's representatives have sought their support for his candidacy in return for posts in a future administration and partially appointed parliament.

"This is like saying that the only ticket to the palace is having weapons behind you," said one European diplomat. "These elections are costing $200 million, and if that can't produce a credible and legitimate process, then all the money will have gone down a black hole. It's not only a lost opportunity, it's a regression to the past."

Aides to Mr Karzai said his aim in holding such talks is to ensure a trouble-free election, not to sabotage it. They denied reports that he had promised Northern Alliance leaders important government roles, but they said he was seeking to bring them into the fold so they would not be tempted to thwart the country's progress to democracy.

"These are not negotiations. They are talks about building an understanding based on certain principles," said one presidential aide. "The president believes that although elections are a step forward, they will not remedy all the ills of Afghanistan.

To strengthen the peace process, he believes it is important to move cautiously and neutralize forces that might want to destabilize it, and they can, especially if they think they are going to lose."

The Northern Alliance is a coalition of Muslim militias that fought occupying Soviet troops in the 1980s and were later allied with US forces against the Taliban, which was toppled in late 2001.

Many Afghans are wary of these groups because they held power during a chaotic and destructive period of civil conflict in the early 1990s. Nevertheless, the United Nations gave several Northern Alliance leaders a prominent role in the temporary post- Taliban government, which they are determined not to lose through elections.

In the past week, concern and speculation about a possible deal between Mr Karzai and the alliance have overshadowed news of progress toward holding elections for president and the lower house of parliament. On Wednesday, officials announced an electoral law that had been delayed more than two months.

Voter registration has continued a slow climb, reaching 2.6 million out of some 9.5 million eligible voters, and nearly 600 rural registration sites are now open. The number of political parties officially registered rose to more than a dozen, although party leaders complained of bureaucratic delays, cumbersome requirements and political bias against some groups.

Meanwhile, several public debates have been held among political leaders and likely candidates. At one government- sponsored forum, impassioned, testy exchanges illustrated the fragility of Afghanistan's political fabric, the tension between ethnic groups and the tendency to assign blame for Afghanistan's quarter-century of conflict.

"There were a lot of philosophical speeches, but some people didn't want to hear criticism, and they seemed afraid of having a democratic discussion," said Noor ul-Haq Ulemi, a former Afghan army general who heads the newly formed National Unity Party. "Our country was destroyed by a struggle for power. We need to put that behind us, stop calling each other names and work for unity."

Mr Karzai, who was chosen interim president by delegates to a national council in 2002, declared his intention to run for election several months ago. But he has made few public appearances, formed no political party and remains largely confined to his palace under heavy security. Instead of seeking support from voters, he has spent time forging alliances and seeking agreements with groups likely to cause trouble for his candidacy or the elections.

One such initiative, strongly backed by the US Embassy, has involved efforts to persuade more than 80 militia commanders nationwide to surrender their weapons and demobilize about 40,000 fighters before the elections. In return, they are being offered job training, economic aid, slots in a possible new regional security force and pledges of an honourable status in the country's future.

But the political talks taking place in the capital are a broader effort that includes a panoply of former political and military officials from the Northern Alliance, including former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim, Governor Ismael Khan of Herat province and Education Minister Younus Qanooni. -Dawn/The LAT-WP News Service (c) The Washington Post.

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