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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 March, 2004, 15:24 GMT
Doubts grow over Afghan elections
By Andrew North
BBC Afghanistan correspondent

Members of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's US security force stand guard next to a sign encouraging Afghan women to vote
The president's guards near a sign encouraging women to vote
Afghanistan's government is considering delaying elections until September because of security problems.

This follows a meeting between President Hamid Karzai, Western ambassadors and officials from the UN, which is organising the elections.

The presidential and parliamentary elections had been planned for June.

If the September poll date is confirmed, it will be widely seen as an admission of the inevitable by the Afghan government.

Planning for the elections has been hampered by security problems and funding shortfalls.

Fewer than 15% of the country's estimated 10.5 million eligible voters have been registered, in just eight mainly urban areas.

Election officials have barely penetrated the more volatile parts of the country in the south and the east, where most of the continuing attacks on US forces and Afghan government institutions are taking place.

Three options

Yet just weeks ago, the government was insisting that the presidential election at least would happen in June, as planned under the transition process agreed in the German city of Bonn in December 2001, after the fall of the Taleban.

But a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai told the BBC three options presented by the UN were being considered:

    1: The presidential election in June, and parliamentary polls in September

    2: Both elections in September.

    3: The presidential vote in September, with the parliamentary round in spring 2005

The spokesman said the third option looked unlikely, but he denied reports that a decision had already been made.

But another Afghan official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the preferred option was "for presidential elections to take place by the autumn."

Parliamentary elections would take place at the same time "if conditions were right", the official said.

US election

Some commentators say even a delayed September poll would be too early, because of Afghanistan's security problems.

Former Northern Alliance militia hand in weapons as part of a UN disarmament programme
Around a third of Afghan provinces remain lawless

Those concerns have risen with recent fighting between pro-government forces in the western city of Herat, which had been seen as one of the more stable parts of the country.

But many analysts believe it is the demands of another election that will ensure Afghans go to the polls this year - the US presidential election in November.

It is widely thought that President George W Bush and his advisers see the prospect of Afghans voting in their first ever election as a foreign policy success story which would help him in his bid for a second term in the White House.

However, even if the Afghan presidential elections can be held in September, many have concerns about parliamentary polls.

They point out that constituency boundaries are still not clearly delineated and they fear that campaigning at a local level could spark violence between rival warlords.

The Afghan government is expected to announce its election plans at a conference in Berlin next week, where it will be seeking billions of dollars in new funding from the international community.

Officials say they need far greater support to get the country back on its feet and to compete with the fast-growing illegal drugs trade.

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