STEVE INSKEEP, host:
American troops in Afghanistan are protecting a fragile democracy, a democracy so unpopular that some Afghans ask if it's worth protecting. They complain that the government they've elected is corrupt. They say it does a poor job of providing basic services, let alone law and order. And they accused the West of caring more about backing President Hamid Karzai than addressing his government's problems.
Some Afghans are so frustrated that they've taken matters into their own hands. So this morning we conclude a weeklong series on Afghanistan with a look at the government that frustrates some Afghans.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: One by one, the elders of the Mohammadzai tribe arrive for their weekly meeting in the southern city of Kandahar. They sit cross-legged on the floor in front of cups of steaming green tea.
This gathering, or shura, is a tradition the elders resurrected 18 months ago to address people's economic and security needs. They say they did so because they no longer trust their government to take care of them.
(Soundbite of men speaking foreign language)
NELSON: The elders debate a new plan by their tribe and 26 others in Kandahar Province to form a council that would in effect take over the duties of the existing provincial government. Members of the new council say they plan to tackle the Taliban, drug traffickers, unemployment - even girls' education.
One of the key proponents is Mohammad Issa Durazai, a former Kandahari attorney general whose son was killed in a suicide bombing here last summer.
Durazai says he'd like to see the home-bred council duplicated in other provinces. And he's convinced it can accomplish more in a few months than the government of fellow Kandahari Hamid Karzai has in years.
Mr. MOHAMMAD ISSA DURAZAI (Former Kandahar Attorney General): (Through translator) The West kicked out the powerful Taliban regime and replaced it with a government people don't like and a person who cannot be a strong leader.
NELSON: Such criticism of Karzai and his government is common in Afghanistan these days. So far only Kandahari elders are trying to replace it. But Afghan and Western experts warn there'll be more trouble if things don't change
While Karzai's government is widely viewed here as ineffective, experts note he still controls the levers of power. It's the president who appoints the cabinet ministers and provincial governors. That means government officials answer to the president and his advisers, rather than to the people they are supposed to serve. Even parliament is unable to force the president to fire ministers. The legislators impeached the Afghan foreign minister last year, but he's still in office.
Mr. MAHMOUD SAIKAL (Former Deputy Foreign Minister): There are signs that if we are not careful we might be moving towards a dictatorship.
NELSON: That's Mahmoud Saikal, a former deputy foreign minister who also served as ambassador to Australia. He's helping establish an internationally mandated development strategy for his country. And he has plenty of concerns.
Mr. SAIKAL: I've seen lately some documents emerging from the States and also from Europe referring constantly to supporting the government of President Karzai, you know. I'm sure the president himself and a lot of us are quite happy to call it supporting the Afghan government.
If we are looking for a durable and sustainable solution to the problems of Afghanistan, we have got no other choice but to support the state institutions and make sure that they are working, make sure that they are transparent, and make sure that they can deliver the goods to the people of Afghanistan.
NELSON: Joanna Nathan, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, says that can't happen in the current climate.
Ms. JOANNA NATHAN (International Crisis Group): Far too much has been hung on individuals, and I think the system chosen here was a wrong one - a very centralized presidency, a sort of winner-takes-all system - when you actually have a country that has wide divisions that it would actually be far more appropriate here to take a very regional approach.
NELSON: That would mean empowering village and district councils that operate by popular consent to deliver services. Nathan also says more should be done to ensure ministries are running effectively, as well as developing political parties with platforms that address people's needs. And beefing up law enforcement and the judiciary so that corruption is held in check.
Mahmoud Saikal agrees on the need for decentralization.
Mr. SAIKAL: Two or three years ago, I could see the merit of having a strong presidential system because we still, we were going through the recovery phase. But perhaps now the time has come that we revise that system, and see if we could move somehow toward a strong parliamentary system where ministers of the government could come from the people.
NELSON: But instead of reform, the only change seems to be the growing number of Afghan politicians looking to take charge. Some are openly flouting the law.
In a case that's making headlines here, a former warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, has refused to appear in court on charges he and his men brutally assaulted a rival and his relatives last month. The only punishment for his defiance so far has been his suspension from a largely ceremonial post.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.
INSKEEP: You can hear all the stories in our series on the challenges of Afghanistan at npr.org.
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