Karzai Convenes New Afghan Parliament

Afghan President Hamid Karzai inaugurated a new parliament in Kabul Wednesday. The Afghan leader wanted to put off the opening in hopes of resolving a number of disputes over the outcome of last fall's legislative elections. But he ultimately agreed to go ahead with the inauguration while investigations into election fraud continue.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Afghanistan today, President Hamid Karzai inaugurated the country's parliament - finally. The swearing-in of lawmakers came after months of wrangling over complaints of fraud in last September's election. Karzai had ordered an even longer delay so that a special court - widely considered under his control - could address more complaints of fraud. Those allegations mostly came from the president's allies, who saw their share of parliament shrink.

NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul has been watching the events, and he joined us to talk about it.

Good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And, Quil, as the parliament got under way, what did the president tell the lawmakers?

LAWRENCE: Well, he arrived under high security and marched down in front of an auditorium with the 240 new parliamentarians. He gave about an hour-long speech that had something for everyone, although it also had some contradictions -took some jabs at the international community, while he was still saying that he expected a long friendship with NATO.

He was praising Iran and Pakistan as friends, even though there's a lot of consistent evidence that one or both of these countries is aiding the insurgency in Afghanistan. He mentioned his recent trip to Russia, said he wanted to expand relations with Moscow.

The MPs in the audience greeted him with mostly stony looks, actually, from the former warlord sitting in the front row, to many of the newly elected MPs. They applauded only three times during the hour-long speech. And other than that, there was not even much in the way of nodding or smiles. Even Karzai's own ministers were sort of looking from side to side during the speech.

MONTAGNE: And the international community there had been putting lots of pressure on Karzai to stick with this parliament, the one elected in September. What role did the U.S. play in all of that?

LAWRENCE: Last week, it turned into a real showdown when President Karzai said that he needed another month to adjudicate complaints, mostly from some of his parliamentary allies and fellow ethnic Pashtuns. At that point, the parliament elect said that they were actually going to take the parliament themselves, cross police lines and inaugurate it without the president. And at that point, both the United Nations and the U.S. let it be known behind the scenes that they were behind the parliament. And after extensive talks, Karzai backed down.

MONTAGNE: And after staring down the president in this standoff, is this new parliament expected to be more active and independent than the last one?

LAWRENCE: Well, the new parliament's really a big wildcard. The previous legislature rarely managed to unite and counterbalance the president. But they did give him some trouble over his Cabinet appointments.

Looking out at the 240 seats that were listening to the president's speech this morning, you saw a lot of young people. Half of Afghanistan is under the age of 20. Some of the traditional parties led by warlords did very poorly. So there are fewer of them in the audience, many MPs calling themselves independent.

But around the country, I've heard a lot more skepticism than hope about these new independents. There's fears that Afghanistan's rampant corruption might be affecting them a lot more than any idea of unifying to provide a check and a balance to President Karzai.

MONTAGNE: Well, there's another thing. Yesterday, General David Petraeus gave a more upbeat assessment of military progress there. Does the parliament's inauguration mean Afghan governance itself is on the march?

LAWRENCE: Well, I just actually got back this morning from Kandahar. And I can tell you, down there in areas that have been cleared for the time being of insurgents after the U.S. troop surge this summer, there's still little or no state presence. Certainly sitting the parliament down today is a step, much better than if the delays had continued, which many in the international community had feared they would see an indefinite delay, with President Karzai ruling by decree. So better than if they hadn't sat, but we still have to wait and see.

MONTAGNE: Quil, thanks very much.

We've been speaking with NPR's Quil Lawrence in Kabul.

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