Afghan political parties prepare for parliamentary elections

Kabul, December 6, 2004 - Afghanistan's political parties are discussing general elections scheduled for April with the United Nations, as Hamid Karzai prepares to be inaugurated as president tomorrow after his victory in October's presidential poll.

"We'll be working together with the Afghan Electoral Commission,'' Manoel de Almeida e Silva, the UN spokesman in Afghanistan, told a news conference in Kabul yesterday, according to the UN Web site. ``We will continue to support the process and it will be very firm support.''

Political parties have to consider the challenges ahead of the April elections, including defining constituency boundaries and creating voter lists, Filippo Grandi, UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, told a meeting of party members that began yesterday in Kabul, according to the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan completed the first stage of introducing democracy after two decades of civil war by holding its presidential election Oct. 9. H.E. President Karzai, 46, must deal with fighters from the ousted Taliban militia, warlords who control many areas of the country and a drugs trade that makes Afghanistan the world's biggest opium producer.

H.E. President Karzai won 55.4 percent of the vote in the country's first direct presidential poll. The election went off peacefully even as fighters from the ousted Taliban militia threatened to attack voters. More than 8 million Afghans, or 70 percent of eligible voters, took part, the UN said.

Afghanistan needs international support to complete its progress toward democracy with the general and local elections scheduled for April, the UN said last month. The spread of the Afghan population within the country still has to be considered to decide the allocation seats in the National Assembly, Grandi said.

U.S. Forces - U.S. forces in Afghanistan are beginning a new operation this month aimed at preventing Taliban fighters staging an offensive to disrupt the parliamentary elections, the Associated Press reported last week, citing Major General Eric Olson, the operational commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The entire 18,000-member U.S. force will be involved in finding Taliban fighters in their winter sanctuaries, AP cited, Olson as saying yesterday.

Afghanistan's government and the UN are carrying out a program to disarm the more than 100,000 militiamen in the country.

Opium Trade - Opium poppy cultivation, Afghanistan's main engine of economic growth, increased 64 percent in 2004, the UN said in a report last month. Afghan opium exports are worth $2.8 billion, said the report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna.

Opium cultivation grew to 131,000 hectares (324,000 acres) from 80,000 hectares in 2003, it said. Opium, which is used to make heroin, saw its export value rise 22 percent from a year earlier. Profit for Afghan drug traffickers jumped 69 percent to $2.2 billion.

The current spot price of $92 for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of opium is a little more than a quarter of the price that dealers paid when the Taliban was in power. The Taliban regime enforced a ban on cultivating the opium poppy from July 2000, driving prices up to $350 a kilo, until it was ousted in December 2001 in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.