Karzai wins mandate for offensive on warlords and drugs trade

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The Independent Online

Hamid Karzai has been officially named winner of the Afghan election, becoming the country's first leader to be elected by the people and putting him in a strong position for a confrontation with the country's warlords and a promised offensive against the booming drugs trade.

Hamid Karzai has been officially named winner of the Afghan election, becoming the country's first leader to be elected by the people and putting him in a strong position for a confrontation with the country's warlords and a promised offensive against the booming drugs trade.

The result has been obvious for a couple of weeks and was widely predicted long before polling day on 9 October. It could not be confirmed until yesterday, however, when a fraud inquiry team reported that the minor electoral corruption and technical errors it found were not serious enough to sour the victory.

Mr Karzai, who has been heavily backed by the United States since he was appointed President in 2001, won decisively with 55 per cent of the vote and wide geographic and ethnic support. Tony Blair was quick to congratulate Mr Karzai, calling the elections "a tremendous achievement for the Afghan people".

However, Mr Karzai's nearest rival, the former education minister Yunus Qanooni, refused to concede defeat. Mr Qanooni, 39 points behind Mr Karzai in the poll, has, however, won little popular support for his refusal to accept the result.

Mr Karzai was in the United Arab Emirates yesterday, where his spokesman said he was "very glad to finally have the result we wanted". He added: "We are starting a new life, a new Afghanistan and we hope everyone with co-operate with its reconstruction."

Afghans voted in huge numbers despite the threat of terrorist attack, overwhelmingly because they believed that the election was a chance to end the warfare and lawlessness that has plagued them for more than two decades. Their expectations of what Mr Karzai must achieve are now sky-high.

He has promised action to tackle the burgeoning opium trade, which Western diplomats fear could turn Afghanistan into a narco-state, deal with Taliban remnants, who he has offered to bring into the mainstream of politics, and cut down the power of warlords, which he has highlighted as Afghanistan's most serious problem. Both Afghans and Mr Karzai's Western supporters will be watching carefully to see who is appointed in the President's new cabinet, which is not expected to be announced for several weeks.

Of particular interest will be whether tainted strongmen and figures who are reputed to be deeply involved in the drugs trade are appointed. Some leading members of his cabinet have dreadful human rights records dating back to the civil war in the 1990s and it has been an open secret in Kabul that some are key players in the drugs trade.

Afghans on the street and analysts were divided on whether Mr Karzai would take decisive action against strongmen whose private armies have not yet been disarmed. The President has acquired a reputation for timidity and preferring compromise to confrontation with warlords. But before the election he signalled a new willingness to get tough by dropping the defence minister and pushing a powerful warlord out of his bastion in the western city of Herat.

Mr Karzai's victory has, however, been overshadowed by Kabul's first hostage crisis. The Taliban splinter group that has threatened to kill three UN hostages it claims to be holding yesterday pushed back a deadline on which it is threatening to kill them from last night to Friday.

Jaish-al Muslimeen claims to be holding Annetta Flanigan, from Armagh in Northern Ireland, Angelito Nayan, a Filipino diplomat, and Shqipe Habibi from Kosovo. It says that it will execute them unless the UN pulls out of Afghanistan.

The government has previously negotiated the release of several foreign nationals who were kidnapped by Taliban fugitives, in return for a ransom. The three latest hostages were, however, snatched from a busy Kabul street last Thursday, sparking fears that Afghan militants were copying the tactics of insurgents in Iraq.

Neither the United Nations nor the Afghan government would comment on the hostage situation yesterday.

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