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Afghan Balancing Act


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January 6, 2004 -- WHEN Afghans hear good news, they fire their guns in the air. And this is precisely what many Afghans have been doing over the past week to celebrate the approval of a new draft constitution by the Loya Jirga, a high assembly of tribal chiefs, religious leaders and other notables that has always been called to lead the nation out of a tight spot.

The latest session of the Loya Jirga lasted 22 days, not the 10 initially planned, and produced more drama than expected. But the assembly, which ended its latest session last weekend, has done its job: It has provided the war-ravaged nation with a new constitution that seems to enjoy widespread support.

Much of the credit for the Jirga's success goes to behind-the-scenes efforts of the Bush administration and its point man in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad. The United Nations and its special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, also deserve credit for efforts to neutralize attempts by some regional powers, notably Iran and Russia, to split the Loya Jirga. This shows that, provided it is not used as a forum for demagoguery, the U.N. can play a useful role in specific crisis situations.

Credit is also due to Hamid Karzai, the interim president, who (backed by the ex-king, Muhammad Zahir Shah) managed to smooth many ruffled feathers among Pushtun tribal chiefs.

The Loya Jirga resisted, and ultimately defeated, efforts by Jihadist politicians and ideologues to turn Afghanistan into an Islamic Republic based on the Shariah, the controversial canon law of Sunni Islam. The new constitution clearly shows that political power belongs to the people and will be exercised through elected representatives, on the basis of the man-made Basic Law and not any metaphysical principle. This sends a powerful signal to neighboring Iran, where a mullah (the "Supreme Guide") holds absolute power in the name of Allah.

Also defeated were efforts to keep women out of political life altogether and relegate them to a position of second-class citizenship. The future Afghan parliament is now sure to have at least some female members, to the chagrin of the mullahs who argued that women "lacked wisdom and judgment" and were thus unable to choose right from wrong without the guidance of their men folk. Again, this will send a powerful message to other Muslim countries, including semi-democracies like Kuwait, which still refuse equal political rights for women.

The Loya Jirga also resisted attempts by Pushtun tribal chiefs and muftis (religious dignitaries) to impose their language, spoken by some 38 percent of the population, as the sole official language. Under the new constitution, Afghanistan will have two national official languages, Dari (Persian) and Puhstu, and at least two regional official languages, Uzbek and Turkmen. In that sense, too, Afghanistan is sending a message to several Muslim states where linguistic diversity is regarded as a threat to national unity.

The 502-member Loya Jirga did something even more important, at least in immediate political terms: It rejected a draft under which Afghanistan would have had a highly centralized government, based on a powerful executive headed by a directly elected president.

The draft, inspired by a superficial understanding of the U.S. system of government, ignored the federal structure of the United States and provided for a president answerable only to the electorate.

The final text, however, provides for a president who, though elected by universal adult suffrage, is equally answerable to the parliament. There will be two vice presidents, with the understanding that they be chosen from ethnic communities other than that of the president.

Karzai, who hopes to win the presidency in next June's election, fought hard to impose the original draft. His opponents, meanwhile, pressed for a parliamentary system that, while allowing for greater power-sharing in a multi-ethnic nation, would have weakened the central authority. In the end, both sides had to give in. The future president will not have all the powers Karzai wanted - nor be the mere figurehead that his opponents had urged.

Yet a week of good news does not mean that Afghanistan, a nation torn by a quarter-century of war, is out of the woods. Several forces are still at work to destroy the fragile peace imposed by the United States and its allies after the fall of the Taliban two years ago:

* The Pushtuns, like the Sunnis in Iraq, find it hard to abandon their almost exclusive hold on political power. And, like Iraq's Sunnis, who draw support from sister communities in nearby Arab countries, the Afghan Pushtuns look for support to their kith and kin in Pakistan.

* An estimated half a million armed men are divided into dozens of private armies, some of which are linked to local and international drug barons. Despite repeated promises by Washington, recently relayed by NATO, the disarming of these dangerous groups has not even begun.

* A third threat comes from neighboring states, especially Iran, Pakistan and Russia (which, though not a neighbor, exerts influence through its military presence in Tajikistan). Afghanistan was created in the 18th century as a buffer state to separate Tsarist, Persian and British Empires. Attempts at undermining Afghanistan's neutrality always led to war, and could do so again in the future.

Afghanistan's most aggrieved neighbor at present is Pakistan - which, having backed the Taliban to the bitter end, finds itself with no friends or clients in Kabul. The new Afghan government must find some means of reassuring Islamabad and thus ensure genuine Pakistani support for the destruction of what is left of the Taliban, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in south-eastern Afghanistan's wild frontier lands. Pakistan's government is now less than enthusiastic in helping end the terrorists' low-intensity war against the Karzai regime and its U.S. sponsors.

Since there are more Pushtuns in Pakistan (where they are known as Pathans), any attempt at solving Afghanistan's Pushtun problem would have to enlist Islamabad's support. In fact, many experts believe that a majority of the Pushtuns engaged in current attacks in southeast Afghanistan are Pakistani Pathans, including many "volunteers for martyrdom" trained in Islamist centers in such Pakistani cities as Peshawar and Quetta.

* Perhaps the most important threat to future peace and stability in Afghanistan comes from the slow pace of reconstruction. Much has been promised in the past two years, but little has been done. The standard excuse is lack of security. But in the case of Afghanistan, the egg and the chicken come together: Reconstruction breeds security, and vice versa.

* A final threat comes from the uncertainty of the American commitment to long-term support for Afghanistan. Almost all the politicians seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination have hinted, or openly promised, a quick end to Washington's involvement in Afghanistan. And that sends jitters down many spines in Kabul.E-mail:


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