Parliament convenes after three decades

Members of Afghanistan's first parliament after more than three decades of conflict were sworn in on Monday, marking a major milestone towards the fledgling state's future peace and stability.

Afghanistan has had no elected parliament since 1973, when a succession of coups and a Soviet invasion plunged the country into anarchy, leaving more than 1 million people dead. Civil war raged in the early 1990s, followed by the hard line rule of the Taliban until December 2001.

Among the participants at the ceremony were US Vice-President Dick Cheney who flew in to attend the opening session, which commenced with a reading from the Holy Koran, followed by the national anthem and a folksong by schoolgirls dressed in brightly colored robes.

Members of the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga, or lower house, and the 102-member upper house, or Meshrano Jirga, placed their hands on the Quran before being sworn in by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"I thank God that today I am participating in a ceremony that is a step towards rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of fighting," former Afghan king Zahir Shah remarked.

After the delegates were sworn in, Karzai called the gathering a symbol of unity and a crucial step towards democracy in the post-conflict country, but warned the MPs that their tasks were getting heavier.

“The formation of parliament has rescued the destiny of people and the history of our country,” the Afghan leader said. “[There is still a long way to go] towards peace, stability and prosperity,” he said, adding the country still faced threats of terrorism, illegal drug smuggling and widespread corruption.

"This is an historic moment for the people of Afghanistan," observed Shukria Barakzai, one of two women among more than a dozen candidates trying to head the lower house.

Other participants, however, were less optimistic. MP Malalai Joya and women’s rights activists condemned the presence of warlords in the parliament.

"I see the future of this parliament as very dark because of the presence of warlords, drug lords and those whose hands are stained with the blood of the people," she told reporters after the ceremony. "They should be brought to justice," Joya noted.

Meanwhile, analysts maintain Karzai appears to have enough support to avoid major problems, although one of parliament's jobs will be to approve his cabinet.

Local analyst Qasim Akhgar believes the new parliament will eventually shake down into two main groups: one supporting President Karzai and the other comprised of members of the former opposition Northern Alliance (NA), which eventually overthrew the Taliban with foreign assistance in late 2001, such as Mohammad Yunus Qanooni, Hajji Mohammad Mohaqiq and Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf.

“The group supporting Karzai will be playing the leading role in parliament, given his power, authority and popularity,” Akhgar predicted, adding that technocrats, moderate parliamentarians and some former jihadi leaders would probably fall in line behind the Afghan president as the best vehicle for developing the nation.

The inauguration represents the conclusion of a UN-backed plan to bring democracy to the war-torn country after US-led forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001.

Some 20,000 US troops are deployed in the country, along with thousands of NATO peacekeepers. However, violence remains rife in the south and east, where remnants of the Taliban continue to wage an insurgency marked by near daily killings and bombings.

The country's economy also continues to rely heavily on the trade in illicit drugs — a threat NATO's top operational commander, US Gen James Jones, has suggested is more serious than the Taliban insurgency.

Opium production has boomed since the fall of the Taliban and Afghanistan and is now the world's largest source of heroin.

The 18 September election for the lower house and 34 provincial councils was a key step in Afghanistan’s transition to democracy.

Of the country's 12.5 million registered voters, some 6.8 million Afghans took part in the polls to elect a national legislature and 34 provincial councils for a five-year term.

Almost 5,800 candidates contested the poll, including over 2,700 for the 249-seat Wolesi Jirga and more than 3,000 for 420 seats in provincial councils.