Hurdles ahead of a Constitution

Print edition : December 05, 2003

King Zahir Shah, President Hamid Karzai and Defence Minister Mohammed Fahim at the ceremony to mark the promulgation of the new draft Constitution in Kabul. - WANG LEI/XINHUA/AP

With a resurgent Taliban attempting to prevent a return to normalcy and the warlords holding on to their fiefdoms, the implementation of Afghanistan's draft Constitution could prove difficult.

AS the Taliban try to stage a comeback and the influence of the warlords continues to expand, efforts are on to pave the way for the creation of a new Afghanistan after more than three decades of war and bloodletting. The draft of a new Constitution was presented formally to King Zahir Shah in Kabul in the first week of November. According to Afghan officials, the draft was prepared after wide consultations with people from all walks of life, though the writ of the Hamid Karzai government does not run beyond the limits of the capital. Also, the overwhelming majority of Afghans are illiterate, and many of them are under the sway of the Taliban or the warlords.

Western aid workers and officials have said that there was not sufficient time or in some cases the inclination to involve the people fully in the consultation process. The constitutional commission had started its work a year ago. Many emotive issues such as the role of the monarchy and the division of power between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary were subjected to intense debate within the 35-member commission. When it was alleged that the Constitution was being drafted in secrecy, the commission sent out more than 460,000 questionnaires to the public and held meetings in many parts of the country.

The proposed Constitution, if approved by the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) in early December, will turn Afghanistan into an Islamic republic. It envisages a strong President, elected directly by the people, and a bicameral legislature. There will also be a post of Vice-President. Originally, the architects of the Constitution were in favour of a post of Prime Minister. There was opposition to this suggestion from many quarters. It was argued that, given the volatility of Afghan politics and the deep ethnic cleavages, the Prime Minster's office had the potential of emerging as a rival centre of power. The idea was given up at the eleventh hour. Political parties will be allowed to function freely provided they conform to Islamic principles. This could preclude the entry of parties espousing progressive and left-wing ideologies. The 1964 Constitution had opened up the space for left-wing parties such as Khalq and Parcham, helping them to capture power jointly. The new Constitution may not allow truly secular parties into electoral politics, although the former communists are positioning themselves for a comeback.

Afghan officials have said that the new Constitution will be in conformity with the teachings of the Koran. "The draft is based on Islamic principles and recognises that no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam," a constitutional authority said in a statement. The statement also emphasised that other religions would not be discriminated against. Women will be given the right to vote and Islamic law be implemented in a humane manner. Beheading and amputation are likely to be things of the past. This is a radical step, given the realities of the Afghan situation. Earlier attempts at introducing progressive legislation were thwarted by the religious establishment and their feudal allies. The 1923 Constitution, which abolished slavery and encouraged land reforms, was sabotaged by the mullahs in alliance with the representatives of the majority Pashtuns.

Already some prominent supporters of King Zahir Shah have started saying that the new Constitution will not reflect the opinions of the dominant Pashtuns, who currently feel left out of the power structure. The monarchy will be formally phased out, with the King given the title of the "Father of the Nation". The King's supporters have said that the proposed Constitution reflects the opinion of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which currently has the biggest share of power in the government. King Zahir Shah has, however, expressed the hope that the new Constitution will be accepted by the people and that it would lead to "peace, security and democracy" in the country. The new Constitution is expected to pave the way for presidential elections by the middle of next year. Pashto and Dari will be the official languages, but the national anthem will be in Pashto. This could turn out to be a controversial move as Dari is more widely spoken and has traditionally been the court language.

The Northern Alliance and its allies are also not too happy with the new developments, which they think will favour Karzai and the group around him. The strongman of the Northern Alliance, Defence Minster Mohammed Fahim, has talked about floating a new "Jihadi" party to contest the forthcoming elections. The proposed party would have been an alliance of Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and Pashtun warlords who participated in the jehad against the Soviet-backed progressive governments of the 1970s and 1980s. According to reports appearing in the Western media, the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) top official in Kabul had a quiet chat with Fahim recently. The talk of a new party has since died down, at least for the time being. Fahim is known to be close to New Delhi, Moscow and Teheran, unlike Karzai, who is indebted only to the Bush administration. Fahim's position has become more vulnerable following stories of underhand dealings and financial shenanigans.

At the ceremony, members of the Constitution Drafting Commission.-WANG LEI/XINHUA/AP

In September, Fahim was accused, along with other top officials in the interim Afghan government, of grabbing land from the poor in Kabul. The United Nations' (U.N.) special rapporteur on housing and land rights, Miloon Kothari, in a report accused the Defence Minister of active collusion in official land-grabbing and recommended that he and other senior Afghan officials involved in the scam be dismissed from office. Fahim has strongly denied the charge and blamed the U.N. official of interference in the internal affairs of the country. The Afghan National Human Rights Association had highlighted separately the widespread problem of forcible land occupation and profiteering by "powerful warlords and strong government officials". Interestingly, the spokesman for President Karzai said that he was "extremely upset and infuriated" about the charges. His aides said that he had ordered a commission to be appointed to look into the charges against his Defence Minister.

Holding fair and free elections as scheduled will in itself be a herculean task, given the anarchic state of affairs. A resurgent Taliban is getting more brazen in its attacks against government forces and the foreign troops stationed in the country. The International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), headed by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is woefully short in manpower and are mostly confined to the capital. Only the Germans seem eager to give the 4,000-strong American force a helping hand outside the capital. The Bush administration, though not having the best of relations with Berlin these days in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco, is in no position to refuse the German offer. With the Taliban and the warlords ruling the countryside, the beleaguered Afghan security forces need all the help they can get.

THE situation in the north of the country is fast deteriorating. The militias of the warlords Rashid Dostam and Atta Mohammed are clashing regularly around Mazhar-i-Sharif, with innocent civilians being caught in the crossfire. Ishmail Khan, the Governor of Herat, continues to be a law unto himself. The Karzai government has put some of the blame for the recent spate of attacks by the Taliban on Islamabad. Afghan leaders accuse Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of helping the Taliban. Pakistan has denied these allegations.

More than 400 people, mostly Afghan civilians, have been killed in Taliban attacks since August. Most of the international humanitarian missions in Afghanistan have closed shop and left. Karzai had said in New York while attending the U.N. General Assembly session that he may have to postpone the elections scheduled for June 2004 if the violence escalated. The Bush administration has asked the U.N. to look into the possibility of holding elections only to the presidency and postponing the parliamentary elections to a later date.

OPIUM production is scaling new heights. The latest U.N. report confirms that Afghanistan continues to be the world's largest producer of opium. Opium production is projected to go up by 6 per cent this year. It has been estimated that the opium-based economy has generated more than $2.3 billion this year, about half of Afghanistan's legitimate gross domestic product. Uruzgan, Helmand and Nangahar provinces continue to remain the biggest producers of the drug. These Pashtun-dominated areas are also strongholds of the Taliban and the Hizb-i-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who are now united in their fight against the government and its foreign backers.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor