RAY SUAREZ: The setting: The former royal palace in Kabul, restored to some of its pre-war splendor. Afghan President Hamid Karzai arrived to a standing ovation before he was sworn in as the first popularly elected leader of this ancient country.
The crowd of 600 included more than 150 foreign dignitaries, among them Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special adviser.
(Choir singing) A children's choir sang the Afghan national anthem, and then Karzai placed his right hand on a copy of the Koran, repeating an oath of allegiance read by Afghanistan's chief justice.
Karzai then addressed the audience, saying a new chapter had been opened for Afghanistan. He also acknowledged the many challenges facing a country that endured 20 years of occupation and civil war.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI (Translated): The relationship between terrorism and narcotics, however, and the continued threat of extremism in the region and the world at large are a source of continued concern.
RAY SUAREZ: Half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, $2 billion, comes from the opium trade, and many of the poppy fields are controlled by warlords.
And deadly attacks from the Taliban continue, especially in the South and East, on both American and Afghan soldiers. After the ceremony, Vice President Cheney and President Karzai held a joint news conference.
VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Now, the tyranny has gone, the terrorist enemy is scattered and the people of Afghanistan are free.
RAY SUAREZ: And Karzai thanked the United States for ousting the Taliban in 2001.
PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: Without that help, Afghanistan would be in the hands of terrorists, destroyed, poverty-stricken and without its children going to school or getting an education.
RAY SUAREZ: The day of celebration ended with a dinner hosted by the Afghan foreign ministry.
RAY SUAREZ: For more on the situation in Afghanistan and the challenges it faces, we get two views: Assem Akram was born in Afghanistan and was active in the resistance against the Soviet Union. He held various positions in the Afghan foreign ministry during the early 1990s and has written extensively about that country.
Dennis Kux had a 39-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service where he focused on South Asia. He's now a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
And, Ambassador Kux, how significant is it that Afghanistan has sworn in a freely-elected president?
DENNIS KUX: I think it's very significant. Afghanistan is on a long march, and this is an important step on that march. They've had to overcome a whole series of obstacles since the defeat of the Taliban, and each time they have been able to do it.
First it was to get a transitional government, then it was to get a constitution, then it was to hold presidential elections. And these are very difficult. In the beginning it didn't look like it was going to happen effectively because of trouble, because of unrest, because of militia, the Taliban and so forth.
And they got through this very remarkably, very peacefully. Eight million people voted, and they have, for the first time, an elected president. So it's a big step. But there are still many more steps, many obstacles ahead of them.
RAY SUAREZ: Assem Akram, do you see it the same way?
ASSEM AKRAM: No, because what I see is that three years have passed by and we do not have any security in Afghanistan; the Taliban are still existing; Mullah Omar has not been caught and the different steps that the ambassador was referring to were set up at the time of the Bonn agreement in December 2001.
And yes, it has been implemented step by step, every time later than expected or later than scheduled and always on the cheap. Let's just take as an example the last presidential elections. There is only one month of campaigning, but there was no real campaigning because out of the 17 candidates, 16 or 15 of them had absolutely no means to travel outside Kabul to campaign.
The media was in the hands mainly of the government. So, in a sense, Karzai was the only one to be a recognizable figure outside Kabul in the provinces and yes people did vote; there was some sense of security during that time. But we cannot say it was very, very... would I say very democratic.
DENNIS KUX: I would have to disagree with that. If you look at the vote, it wasn't Karzai getting 98 percent of the vote or 90 percent of the vote and a few other people getting some crumgs. You had people on an ethnic basis basically as the politics of Afghanistan is, campaigning fairly vigorously and getting a lot of votes.
You had Qanooni getting I believe 16 percent of the vote mainly in the Tajik area; Dostum 10 percent in the Uzbek area. Mohaqiq in the Hazara area; and you had Karzai getting 55 percent of the vote, mainly in the Pashtun areas, but interestingly enough, also in some of the mixed areas and in the urban areas. So I don't think it is fair and I don't think it is correct to say that this was, you know, a non-democratic old style election.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me ask Assem Akram. Are you suggesting that President Karzai after this election was still less than legitimate?
ASSEM AKRAM: He doesn't have all the legitimacy that he should have because there was no real campaigning. There was no parliament elected. The parliamentary elections have been postponed for April, supposedly for technical reasons because they were not able to organize both at the same time. So you have Karzai being elected as president up to April without any parliament so he is going to rule by himself, which is kind of exceptional in a country.
And at the same time what the ambassador said is that yes, people did vote on an ethnic background, but didn't know anything about the programs of any of the candidates because there was no real campaign. And that doesn't make it a very democratic and interesting. Yes there was elections but the result is not exactly what one would expect about... to happen.
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Kux -
DENNIS KUX: On the parliamentary elections, I think it was wise that they moved ahead and separated the parliamentary from the presidential elections because what you want to have happen in Afghanistan is something that seems to be fair, and with all respect, I think these elections and they were accepted by the losers as being fair and so they're going to have the parliamentary elections.
They're very complicated. They're more complicated than the presidential because it's not just the parliamentary elections. You've also got provincial councils and you've got district councils and you've got to decide on what the boundaries of the constituencies are and the organization is very difficult.
RAY SUAREZ: But Assem Akram was suggesting that the new president can rule almost by decree. He still hasn't declared a cabinet. There has been no legislature elected. Does the president need to make sure these things are in place very quickly in order to ensure he is not ruling by decree?
DENNIS KUX: Well, I think he needs to have legitimacy and to have a stable polity in Afghanistan which is the goal. Excuse me a second. These elections have to take place in a reasonable time.
My guess is they won't take place. They won't be able to organize them sufficiently by April. But my guess is that they would have them by the summer or the fall, and it's a very difficult complicated process. It is important that it happens fairly.
ASSEM AKRAM: First of all, I mean from Bonn at the time of the Bonn Agreement where something exceptional happened, the first cabinet that was set up was a coalition cabinet based on ethnic background of the members of the cabinet.
This is a very, very, I would say important mistake that was committed at the time because Afghanistan, whereas it has different ethnic groups, it has never been divided based on those ethnic lines. You had the example of what happened in Lebanon during '70s, the civil war that happened because of those ethnic partitions that were existing and the way the power was shared at the top.
That's not what we want. We want all Afghans to be able to vote. We want to take into account the different ethnic groups but not divide power based on that. Mr. Karzai take as his two running mates, Karim Khalili was an ethnic Hazara and the brother of former, I would say Afghan Massood who is a Tajik. So you have the Hazara, the Pashtun Karzai and the Tajik to appeal to these different groups. But Mr. Khalili is heading a group of party that in a sense he is a warlord, he has militiamen with him.
So when Mr. Karzai says we want to get rid of the warlords, that's not exactly what is happening, and at the same time regarding the elections, the Northern Alliance were somehow having some problems with Mr. Karzai lately because he rejected Gen. Fahim, his defense minister as his running mate. They're not going to be very happy by the fact that elections are going to be delayed because they feel that they have been somehow left on the side of the power.
RAY SUAREZ: You heard the suggestion that a country that's buying to build a national identity is also at the same time putting together an ethnic patchwork government.
DENNIS KUX: You're doing both at the same time; Afghanistan is full of contradictions in a way. And, you know, when you talk about ethnic politics in Afghanistan, look at Chicago, look at New York. You know, in democratic politics, you've got to represent the different areas.
And in Afghanistan, in parts of Afghanistan, it's Tajik. And they need to be represented and but you want to have good people. And Karzai I think is trying to do this. He does want to get rid of the warlords. They're trouble. There is instability. But it is a gradual process. And if you look over time, they have made progress.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me turn from the nitty-gritty of putting together a working government to the daily life of Afghans. Are rank and file Afghans better off today, are they safer today than they were in the summer of 2001, before the invasion?
DENNIS KUX: They're better off, yes, they are safer in a very broad sense because you don't have the terror, if you will, of a Taliban present. I mean you had a police state with an extreme religious faction. And that was --
ASSEM AKRAM: We're backing to civil war right now.
DENNIS KUX: Oh, I don't agree. We are not backing into civil war. It is so much better now than it was before after 2001.
ASSEM AKRAM: Allow me, sir. The Taliban had put in place a dictatorial government that, of course nobody can agree with. But at the same time, there was some type of security.
You could travel from one side of the country to the other side without being bothered otherwise than for religious purposes because it was autocracy with very, very I would say odd rules --
RAY SUAREZ: So you might be bothered about your beard but not killed.
ASSEM AKRAM: Exactly. Where is right and wrong -
DENNIS KUX: And you couldn't go to school.
ASSEM AKRAM: Right. Of course, of course.
DENNIS KUX: There were a lot of bad things happening.
ASSEM AKRAM: Right now -
DENNIS KUX: And if you were bin Laden, you could run around and do the awful things that he did.
ASSEM AKRAM: But right now, right now, you do have a sense of freedom. People have it. It's better than it was before from that point of view, but at the same time, if you are a woman and you are free to go to school, but you can't go to school because your own security is threatened, you are free to go to work but you can't go there because you have been threatened or somebody has thrown some leaflets in the school saying that no one can get there, and there is nobody from the government in that area. Let's not forget that the Karzai government is just in Kabul.
DENNIS KUX: No, they're outside.
RAY SUAREZ: Is he wrong about that, they're just in Kabul.
DENNIS KUX: A year or so ago that would have been right, but it is gradually changing. You are having these national institutions slowly developing.
RAY SUAREZ: Which ones?
DENNIS KUX: The army. The army, for example, the army is now 18,000. And it's growing at the rate of about 10,000 a year. Yes, it would be nice if it could grow faster but you want quality, not quantity. You want something that's functioning.
The police training; the police were sort of nowhere. They have now trained about 20,000 police. The target is some 50,000 police and then some 12,000 border guards. It all takes time. And what you have here is sort of a balancing act.
You've got the international forces there. There are now some 27,000, 18,000 American, 9,000 from NATO. And you have very important, which deals with what you're talking about, demobilization, demilitarization happening.
RAY SUAREZ: We've got to go after a quick reply.
ASSEM AKRAM: A quick reply is that he is referring to the international forces. There two are types of forces. The one that was mandated by the United Nations Security Council and they're under the eyes of the international enforcement for Afghanistan. And you have the U.S. forces that has no legal mandate in Afghanistan right now.
DENNIS KUX: I would disagree with that. But I think that the process is improving. We are moving forward. There were some 50,000 militias....
RAY SUAREZ: Progress and we are not where we need to be, but gentlemen, we'll leave it there.
DENNIS KUX: Very good. A pleasure.