An Afghan transition

Print edition : July 06, 2002

Newly elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressing the Loya Jirga in Kabul.-BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP

The Bush administration's candidate, Hamid Karzai, is the head of the Afghan government. But it has been no cake-walk.


AS expected, the much advertised "emergency Loya Jirga" (the assembly of elders or consultative council), which met in Kabul in the middle of June, concluded with the reappointment of Hamid Karzai as head of the government. The Loya Jirga, a three-century old Afghan tradition, is usually convened to bring about a consensus in politics. However, the chaotic conditions that have prevailed in the country in the last couple of decades have not been conducive for the holding of a truly representative Loya Jirga.

The last such event was held during the rule of President Najibullah, in the late 1980s. That consultative council was not a representative one either. The Afghan Mujahideen groups, pumped up with American money and sensing victory, had refused to attend. The present one, which was attended by 1,656 delegates, also excluded important sections of Afghan society. Before the convening of the grand council, there were many complaints that most of the delegates were handpicked by the warlords and were therefore not true representatives of the people. It is no secret that the authority of the present government of Afghanistan does not extend far beyond the capital city of Kabul.


Much of the authority of the central government flows from the presence of the American military in the country and from the money that is being doled out by the Bush administration. The Bush administration prefers to put its faith in the warlords who provide the fighters in the hunt against the Al Qaeda and the remnants of the Taliban. The help from the international community has so far been far from satisfactory. Re-construction aid worth $4.5 billion that was promised to Kabul at the Bonn and Tokyo meetings shows little sign of materialising. The government in Kabul is managing on the strength of small handouts from international agencies and Washington. Before the Loya Jirga met, the Bush administration announced that it was planning to spend $1 billion on reconstruction over a period of four years. This was done in order to strengthen Karzai's hands when the grand council was in session.

The task of keeping Karzai at the helm of the new "transitional" government was finally accomplished, albeit with a few political hiccups. Before the Loya Jirga assembled, it was obvious that a significant number of the delegates, especially those hailing from the Pashtun-speaking areas, wanted the newly returned King to be appointed as the nominal head of the transitional government that was to replace the interim government. This was anathema to many of the warlords and those representing the Northern Alliance.

King Zahir Shah, though now in his late eighties, seemed willing to take the job and his supporters began mobilising support among those who had come to attend the grand council. It was obvious that the Pashtun delegates were overwhelmingly in favour of the King assuming the leadership role in the new government. Their kinsmen have been unhappy with the composition of the present government which they perceive as being dominated by the "Panjsheris", as the Tajiks occupying leadership positions in the present government are known. Before the Loya Jirga, three Tajiks - General Mohammed Fahim, Yunus Qanuni and Abdullah Abdullah - held the important Defence, Interior and Foreign Affairs portfolios. All of them belong to the Northern Alliance and come from the Panjsher Valley, the stronghold of the late Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Masood.

King Zahir Shah. Although the Pashtun delegates wanted him to head the new government and he indicated his willingness, he was pressured instead to forswear formally any political role.-ANSA MAURIZIO BRAMBATTI/REUTER

The interim government in Kabul and its American handlers had got wind of brewing resentment among the delegates who had assembled for the Loya Jirga. In a bid to stage-manage the show and curb open discourse, its opening was postponed by two days. Security men and agents of the warlords were in the huge tent where the Loya Jirga was being held, to keep a watch on the proceedings and on occasion use strong-arm methods to influence them.

Zahir Shah, who had initially indicated his willingness to play a key role in a new government, was pressured instead to forswear formally any political role. During the Loya Jirga, there were open complaints that security agents were making its free functioning difficult and that the American embassy in Kabul was trying to script decisions.

From the outset it was made clear to the delegates that the Bush administration wanted their man, Karzai, at the helm along with the core group of senior Ministers belonging to the Northern Alliance. During the war against the Taliban, American helicopters had to be rushed into Afghanistan to rescue Karzai, as he was on the verge of being captured by the Taliban. When the Loya Jirga was in session, the American envoy to Afghanistan called a press conference to announce that the King was not a candidate for the top job, thus making the assembly look like a rubber stamp.

However, some of the delegates attending the Loya Jirga refused to be railroaded into endorsing Karzai for the Presidency, as desired by the Americans and the warlords. Their insistence on a vote was acceded to at the eleventh hour and with great reluctance by those stage-managing the proceedings. Karzai was overwhelmingly elected by 1,295 out of 1,575 delegates who cast their votes. Among the two candidates who contested against Karzai was a woman - Dr. Massoud Jalal.

The only major reshuffle was the shifting of Qanuni from the Interior Ministry to the Education Ministry. However at the same time, three powerful Northern Alliance commanders were elevated to the post of Vice President - Fahim, Haji Abdul Qadir and Kharim Khalili. These three are not too popular with many ordinary Afghans as they have been identified with the brutalities perpetrated by the warlords, in the days before the Taliban came to power. In mid-June, a senior United Nations (U.N.) spokesman had said that in northern Afghanistan, incidents of rape, pillage and murder were on the increase. He held the warlords responsible for the acts of growing lawlessness.

Many of the delegates described the grand council as an attempt to "legitimise an illegitimate government". They said that the Bonn agreement signed by the Afghan factions had promised a Loya Jirga in which the delegates could freely choose the next government of Afghanistan. What has emerged instead is more of the same. Around half of the new Cabinet comprises of representatives from the Northern Alliance, although the Interior Ministry has gone to a Pashtun politician, Taj Mohammed Wardak. But from all available indications, Qanuni will continue to play an influential role in the new government as security adviser to Karzai. He also holds the Education portfolio.

At the concluding session when Karzai was virtually pressured by the delegates to read out the names of the members of the new Cabinet, one of the few important names missing was that of the popular Minister for Women's Affairs, Sima Samar. Many of the delegates said that they were disappointed and frustrated that they were not allowed to approve or reject the candidates. After the grand council dispersed, Karzai announced that Samar was being replaced by Mahboobah Hoqooqmal, who teaches at Kabul University. The former Minister was known for her activism and strong views on issues relating to the empowerment of women. Karzai in his concluding speech insisted that all commanders and warlords must come under the authority of the Ministry of Defence. It is unlikely that many in the grand council were convinced by Karzai's assertions.

The West and the U.N. have declared the Loya Jirga a success as it has succeeded in its primary task of electing a head of state for the transitional administration. It also gave its formal approval to the transitional administration. The United Nations Under Secretary-General, Kieran Pendergast, in his briefing to the U.N. Security Council, however admitted that various cases of intimidation have been brought to the attention of the Afghan government. "For the sake of the next Loya Jirga, and to secure the foundations of democracy in Afghanistan, it is vital that Afghan authorities highlight and address, as much as possible, the instances where democratic rights have been abused by those who equate power with force and violence", said Pendergast in his briefing.

Delegates at the Loya Jirga. Though 1,656 delegates attended, there were complaints that important sections of Afghan society were excluded and that delegates were handpicked by the warlords and were therefore not truly representative of the people.-NATALIE BEHRING-CHIHOLM

On the day that the Loya Jirga ended, several rockets were fired in the centre of Kabul, highlighting the lack of security even in the capital. The U.N. has reported that a number of armed attacks and robberies have been committed against international organisations over the last several weeks, including an incident involving the gangrape of a female international aid worker. "These attacks mark a worrying departure from what has been, over the past decade, a generally hospitable attitude by Afghans towards aid workers, and from the respect for international norms which is necessary to guarantee a humanitarian space in zones of war", Pendergast said in his report.

Interestingly, the Bush administration insists that American troops will stay on in Afghanistan only if the Security Council grants them immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court. Britain, Germany, France and other European governments have also got a written assurance from the Karzai government that their nationals serving in the peace-keeping mission in Afghanistan would be immune from arrest or surrender to any international court. There have been many allegations of indiscriminate killing of innocent Afghan civilians by American peace-keepers. The commander of the American troops in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General Dan McNeil, told the American media recently that his main job was to "close with and destroy those who would destroy us".

Senior American military officials have conceded that the Taliban and the Al Qaeda retain significant support in many parts of Afghanistan, especially in areas around Kandahar and along the border with Pakistan. A senior functionary of the Al Qaeda recently announced on the Al Jazeera television channel that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, are alive and well. He said that 98 per cent of Al Qaeda's leaders escaped unhurt and were running its affairs.

Till late last year, the capture of bin Laden and Mullah Omar "dead or alive", was the prime objective of George W. Bush. These days he only talks about terrorism in general, using it as a pretext to establish a permanent American military presence in the Asian continent, three decades after the U.S. suffered a comprehensive military defeat in another part of Asia.

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