President Hamid Karzai said on Saturday he aimed to hold the elections as planned, despite earlier saying they may be put off for several months due to logistical reasons.

"We are trying to reach the date we have set for ourselves which is the month of June or July so we should try to do that," he said.

The comments echoed US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who said last week: "I am not of the view at this point that elections cannot take place this June, or this summer."

But what is the hurry? According to the United Nations, there is little chance of presidential polls being held in June, simply because too few Afghans have registered to vote.

Just 274,000 are on the electoral rolls and less than 3% of the 10 million eligible voters.

"The current rate of registration is far below the rate necessary to complete registration for election this year," UN spokesman Manuel de Almeida e Silva said.

"It's hard to see why the US is so adamant about holding the elections to the June timeframe when no one else is but President Karzai."

Andrew Wilder, Director
Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit

"The right date remains June but it is close to impossible to meet the June date with the current security conditions which do not permit the registration to take place all over the country."

External pressures

Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), suspected that the real reason for the rush to the polls was unrelated to Afghan domestic politics.

"It's hard to see why the US is so adamant about holding the elections to the June timeframe when no one else is but President Karzai," he said.

"It's hard to not conclude that it's not something to do with domestic political reasons within the US, which is a tragic reason to hold elections in Afghanistan."

An AREU report released before the loya jirga or national assembly, which last week approved a new constitution for the country, said US enthusiasm "is a result of the Bush administration's need for a foreign policy and ''war on terror'' success ahead of the November 2004 presidential elections in the US, particularly as Iraq appears to be coming less of a success by the day".

Wilder warned that elections held too soon would exacerbate ethnic and political divides which dogged the marathon loya jirga.

US exit strategy

"Elections could serve as an exit statement for the US, for Western donors, for foreign troops," leaving very weak Afghan political institutions in their place, he said.

US President Bush could campaign
on the ''success'' of Afghanistan

International Crisis Group senior analyst Vikram Parekh said the US and Afghan governments "... want to convey the impression that the security situation now is conducive to elections because I think they know they are not going to see a demonstrable improvement in three or four months' time".

Increased insurgency in the south and southeast, Taliban threats and Afghanistan's drugs trade, combined with the nascent disarmament process and the low registration of women, continue to hamper the work of electoral officials.

Under the Bonn peace accords, concluded at the end of 2001 after the ousting of the Taliban, elections were due to be held in Afghanistan in June 2004, following the adoption of a new constitution.

Voter registration has been going on since December.

But even if elections go ahead without complete registration - with Afghans turning up at polling stations to have their fingers inked so they can only vote once - there are fears that poor civic education, particularly among women, will undermine the process.

So far 59,000 women have enrolled to vote, but according to the UN this figure is rising.

A spokeswoman for the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan said the full disarmament of the country was needed before fair elections could be held.

"In the four corners of Afghanistan even within the five or six years' time it's not possible for all women to participate in the elections," said Weeda Mansur.