HINDO KUSH HEADACHE


The Financial Times

Of the various elections held around the world at the weekend, the votes for Afghanistan's national and provincial assemblies were the most obviously fraught with danger.

Hamid Karzai, the US-backed Afghan president, called yesterday's electionsa historic day of self-determination for his people after 30 years of wars and misery, echoing the judgment of Ronald Neumann, US ambassador, that the poll was a "historic milestone".

It has fallen to Emma Bonino, who heads the European Union's observer mission, to add some unpleasant truths to this rhetoric: the elections will fail to produce the sustainable democracy Afghanistan needs because of flawsin the voting system, the continuing influence of warlords, the exclusion of political parties by Mr Karzai and a civil war that kept poll observers away from five of the country's34 provinces.

Although Mrs Bonino said she was not totally negative about the election, she has every right to be outspoken. The EU is paying for 40 per cent of the $159m (£87m) cost of the election. She also happens to be right.

More than 1,000 people have already died in Afghanistan this year in battles and bombings, including 49 US soldiers and several candidates and election workers. Human Rights Watch, a US-based pressure group, said there was "an underlying climate of fear among voters and candidates". Yesterday,militants from the Taliban extremist group ousted in 2001 launched a dozen attacks on election targets.

One cannot lightly dismiss the enthusiasm of Afghan voters taking part in their first parliamentary election since 1969 but the political process is so riddled with inadequacies and confusion that it risks discrediting democracy altogether. The population of Afghanistan is unknown - probably between 22m and 29m - and the registration of voters has been thoroughly unreliable. As for the provincial councils for which Afghans voted yesterday, no one seems to have any idea of their purpose or their powers.

The US and the European members of Nato, meanwhile, cannot even agree on how best to impose order in the Afghan provinces with the 30,000 soldiers they have between them. Washington is reported to want to reduce its own troop numbers but Nato, with peacekeepers in the north and west, does not want to be sucked into the separate anti-insurgency war led by the US in the south and east.

They ought to agree on one thing, however, and that is to stay the course in Afghanistan in spite of the flawsin yesterday's vote. As International Crisis Group, the think-tank, has said, the election is only at the start of a long political process, and the inter national community would be wrong to see its completion as part of an "exit strategy". With Iraq in such chaos, the world can ill afford to have Afghanistan go the same way.