KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan marked another milestone in its march to democracy on Monday, inaugurating its first popularly elected Parliament in three decades in an emotional ceremony that brought the president to tears.
Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife looked on as the assembly opened amid tight security.
But concern remains whether the Parliament can be a constructive force. About half its 249 members are regional warlords, some are Westernized refugees and others are illiterate.
The assembly convened after a reading from the Muslim holy book, a folk song by schoolgirls dressed in brightly colored robes and the singing of the national anthem.
President Hamid Karzai acknowledged the country’s problems with poverty, corruption and terrorism, but he hailed the Parliament as a symbol of unity.
“This is an important step toward democracy,” Karzai said. He closed his speech by tearfully declaring that Afghanistan is “again standing on its feet after decades of war and occupation.”
Cheney and his wife, Lynne, sat in the front row, and the vice president signed a guest book afterward. “It’s a privilege to be present on this historic day for the people of Afghanistan,” he wrote.
Despite doubts about some of the new lawmakers, the fact that Parliament is sitting at all is a victory for a nation recovering from decades of ruinous warfare and the repressive Taliban regime.
Afghans voted for the lower house in September and also elected provincial councils that then chose two-thirds of the 102-seat upper chamber. Karzai appointed the remaining 34.
“Today was a very good day,” said Kubra Mustafawi, one of the new Parliament’s female members. Nearly one-third of the delegates are women. “After 30 years, the Afghan nation has gathered under the umbrella of peace.”
Most of the government’s power still is concentrated in the hands of the president, although Parliament will be able to pass laws and veto Cabinet selections.
The country has had no elected national assembly since 1973, when coups and a Soviet invasion plunged Afghanistan into decades of chaos that left more than 1 million people dead. The Taliban regime’s disastrous rule ended in late 2001 when it was deposed by the U.S.-led invasion for sheltering Osama bin Laden.
After Monday’s largely ceremonial opening session – it lasted only two hours – security and stability are expected to be major issues for the lawmakers in the weeks ahead.
The inauguration of the Parliament formally concludes the political transition process agreed on by Afghan factions under U.N. auspices in December 2001, though Afghanistan still is a long way from stability.
Some 20,000 U.S. troops are deployed in the country, along with thousands of NATO peacekeepers. Violence is rife in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where remnants of the Taliban are waging an insurgency marked by near daily killings and bombings.
The Afghan economy also continues to rely heavily on trade in illicit drugs – a threat that NATO’s top operational commander, U.S. Gen. James L. Jones, has suggested is more serious than the Taliban insurgency.
Opium production has boomed since the fall of the Taliban, and Afghanistan now is the source of most of the world’s heroin.
The makeup of Parliament also has been an issue.
“The international community will try to portray the opening of Parliament as a triumph,” said Sam Zia-Zarifi, Asia research director at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. “But many Afghans are worried about a Parliament dominated by human rights abusers.”