Delegates to choose new government
By Fariba Nawa
June 9, 2002
The San Francisco Chronicle
Kabul — Amid the excitement of a pivotal moment in their country’s history, Afghan elders, scholars, nomads, teachers, intellectuals, civil servants and refugees — both men and women — are gathering here to choose the next government.
Beginning Monday, 1,501 elected and appointed delegates to the loya jirga, or grand council, will gather in an air-conditioned tent on the grounds of Kabul Polytechnic University to formulate the next stage in the course to democracy. Afghans weary from decades of war and the harsh rule of the Taliban hope their country is on the verge of peace.
For the United States and its allies, a peaceful transfer of power is just as critical. A stable Afghan government, in place of the chaos that once harbored the al Qaeda terrorist network, is a key objective of the U.S-led war on terrorism.
Under the terms of a five-year recovery and peace plan drawn up in Bonn, Germany, last winter, the elected delegates will choose a national leader and interim government and appoint a commission to write a new constitution. Within two years, if all goes according to schedule, national elections will be held.
The selection of delegates has had its share of successes — 11 percent of them will be women, a startling level of participation in a country where less than a year ago women had no political rights, and refugees from Pakistan, Iran and even Fremont’s Little Kabul will be represented. But eight would-be participants have been killed, according to the United Nations, while reports of intimidation, manipulation and bribery in the delegate elections process have been rampant.
“It was not a perfect process but, overall, you have something positive, and you should look at it as a transition,” said Ismael Qasimyar, head of the independent loya jirga commission.
The loya jirga is considered the next critical step in establishing a functioning central government in a country riven by more than two decades of war and sharply divided ethnic loyalties.
“The loya jirga itself is acting as a force for centrifugal movement,” a State Department official said Friday in Washington. “People are seeing this as an opportunity to see how they might exercise their power (and) working with the power in the center and participating with it.” Observers predict that many of the ministers in the 6-month-old interim administration headed by Hamid Karzai, as well as the leaders controlling the provinces, will probably keep their positions. In the absence of a trained national army, Karzai’s government exerts little power over the armed warlords who dominate much of the countryside.
“I wouldn’t expect much from a loya jirga, because historically loya jirgas have been held to legitimize those already in power,” said Abdulali Ahrary, an expert on Afghan politics who now lives in Fremont. “But I’m hopeful that the U.N. (Bonn) protocol will be executed.”
CEREMONIAL ROLE FOR KING
The council will be convened formally by former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, the 87-year-old monarch who recently returned to Kabul after 30 years in exile in Italy.
The king, who is expected to serve a ceremonial role in the new government, and Karzai, who has close ties to the United States and other nations providing aid to the impoverished country, are both Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group. Karzai officially became a candidate for the transitional leader on Thursday.
Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim said Saturday that he and other Tajik Cabinet ministers support Karzai to head the new government. Fahim is one of several powerful Tajiks who served in the interim government established by the Bonn accord.
“If Hamid Karzai is again selected to head the government, the people will have chosen a moderate who will surely serve Afghanistan better than anyone else to bring national unity, security, peace and stability in the country,” Fahim told a news conference. The U.N. mission in Afghanistan has made painstaking efforts to work out a power-sharing deal that would be widely acceptable to the different ethnic groups and factions throughout the country.
Despite that, officials admitted they were still not sure what to expect — particularly from the Tajiks. Under pressure to give up some control, the Tajiks are negotiating for a senior post, such as vice president under Karzai. The former president of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik, is expected to put himself forward as a candidate for the leadership, although he does not command the support of his party’s younger leaders. And a newcomer has arrived on the scene: Ahmed Wali Massoud, the younger brother of assassinated Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, said last week that he was also considering running for a post in the new administration.
SYMBOL OF UNITY
Since he returned from exile, Zahir Shah has become a symbol of unity for many Afghans. Hamid Seddiq, the king’s spokesman, said the monarch would accept any role the loya jirga assigns him, despite his age.
“He has said many times that he will do whatever the Afghan people bestow up on him. His presence in Kabul has given people a sense of security and unity,” Seddiq said.
Meanwhile, old Afghan rivalries die hard.
Human Rights Watch said in a report issued last week that the “loya jirga process, which was designed to sideline and minimize the rule of the warlords, may instead entrench and legitimate their hold on power.”
Warlord Rashid Dostum resigned his post as deputy defense minister and was elected as a northern delegate to the loya jirga, despite his history of brutality.
“After Dostum nominated himself as a candidate — and everyone knows his horrendous human rights record — all other commanders who had stayed away from the loya jirga went running after votes with their guns,” said one loya jirga election monitor. “There were supposed to be no persons who were drug dealers, thieves or killers, but they all ended up as candidates and we couldn’t do anything but watch.”
The monitors said that the urbane, multilingual Karzai had lost some support in the provinces for not keeping his most important promises: to disarm civilians and to form a strong national army and government during the six months since the Bonn agreement was signed. Afghans had expected Karzai and the United States to make it happen, they added.
SUPPORT FOR WARLORDS
“People believe that if they can get rid of the Taliban so fast from these areas, then why can’t they rid us of these warlords?” he asked. “The U.S. wants us to have a democracy but it is still supporting the warlords because they think the commanders are the only ones who can fight their war against al Qaeda. So how can we have a democracy when the United States is playing this double role?”
Afghans say they have no other choice but to hope that the loya jirga will reflect their views and appoint a democratic government.
As the weekend began, the loya jirga commission was still finalizing the rules and procedures. But the festivities went forward anyway, with a ceremony marked by live music, boys and girls together decorating a map of Afghanistan, and delegates joining to sing “Brothers and Sisters, Let’s Be One.”
About 200 women sat on the steps of the university dormitory where they are staying, eager to talk Saturday about their expectations. Bibi Ko, who heads an organization for teaching illiterates, is an elected delegate from Herat — where, she said, plenty of men voted for her. She said she has not settled on a new national leader, although she has approved of Karzai’s actions as interim leader.
Demonstrating her sense of democracy in a nation where bloodshed is the usual route to power, she declared, “We in Herat want a leader who can lead the entire nation.”