Afghan council faces southern challenge

Leaders from seven of Afghanistan's provinces are petitioning to stop a national council of elders scheduled for mid-June.

A group of influential tribal leaders from seven of Afghanistan's 33 provinces say they're so dismayed at the process by which the loya jirga, or national assembly, is being formed that they will boycott the all-important gathering this June. The leaders are also demanding that the meeting, which will select a 111-person Afghan parliament, be postponed for 18 months.

The emergence of the movement represents the first organized opposition to the convening of the jirga, which was agreed upon in the Bonn agreement as the ideal hybrid of democracy and Afghanistan's traditional decision-making institutions.

But the leaders of the boycott, representing primarily Pashtun provinces in south and eastern Afghanistan, say that the selection process for the jirga has failed to keep out warlords and others who have committed atrocities. They also claim that the formula for the creation of the jirga is undemocratic: Approximately 500 of the 1,500 delegates to the week-long convention will be selected by 21 loya jirga commissioners, rather than being elected.

In a petition to the United Nations and to the loya jirga commission – and made available to the Monitor – the group says the meeting is being convened without heed to traditional guidelines. The leaders claim that it ignores the stipulations in last December's Bonn agreements that an "emergency loya jirga" be based on the country's 1964 constitution.

The document called for 216 electoral districts, a number that has climbed to 362 for the upcoming jirga – a shift that has come at the expense of southern Afghanistan, say the petitioners.

'Not following the real traditions'

"It is not just us, but also Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others around the country who believe there can be no loya jirga now," says Engineer Mohammed Shah Zadran, the head of the union of Pashtun tribal chiefs, surrounded by a crowd of some 50 other tribal elders who gathered around him, nodding in agreement.

"They are not following the real traditions of the loya jirga at all. They are just making it up according to their will. The current administration should stay in power for another 18 months until we can have a real loya jirga."

The threat could present a stumbling block on the path to a peaceful, governable Afghanistan – one of the international community's primary goals in toppling the Taliban regime after Sept. 11. The petitioners announced this weekend that they will go province to province around the country to persuade others to boycott the jirga.

Mr. Zadran says they are also demanding that Mohammed Zahir Shah, the country's recently returned king, be recognized as the nation's leader with interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai below him.

Royalists are restless

One root of the dispute may be the radically different expectations Afghans have over how closely this loya jirga should resemble those of years past. Indeed, the last time one was held in accordance with tradition under the king's aegis, in 1964, he could veto the participation of anyone he chose.

"Just as the passage of time changes everything, that loya jirga was really very different from the loya jirga of today," says Suraya Parlika, one of the commissioners and a well-known activist for women's rights. "Now there isn't any one person who can oppose someone's participation."

It may be difficult to quell complaints, particularly among Pashtuns – an ethnic group that makes up close to half the country's population. Some Pashtun leaders say their strength is being underestimated in the loya jirga process. Each province is awarded seats according to population. But Pashtuns in restive Khost, for example, say that mainly Tajik provinces of the same size are being awarded twice the seats.

War criminals hard to identify

Moreover, some of the jirga's goals could prove lofty. The guidelines bar anyone who has committed war crimes, but pinning down exactly who falls into that category, in the absence of any form of prosecution for alleged culprits, is next to impossible.

"We can ask about the warlords in question in any district because the people there can judge better," says Ms. Parlika. "If the local civilians support someone, we have to support them."

Equally controversial are the 500 members who are chosen – not elected – by the 21 commissioners. These include women, refugees, writers and scholars, religious leaders – and 20 seats for "influential personalities" of Afghanistan.

"Who is 'influential?' Which part of the country are they from, and who will select them?" asks the petition.

The Pashtun tribal leaders are angry that these and many other categories of delegates will be hand-picked by a few commissioners.

The guidelines say there will be six religious scholars on the Jirga. "Who, by whom, and from where?" the leaders ask in the petition.

There are also 25 seats on the jirga dedicated to nomads. "The nomads of which province?" the organizers demanded to know. "What kind of refugee has the right [to participate]?"

The Pashtun tribal leaders also object to the 21 members of the commission participating and voting in the loya jirga, a fact confirmed yesterday at the commission headquarters.

"We strongly request the UN to postpone the loya jirga until it is designed and organized according to the 1964 constitution," concludes the four-page letter – signed by several dozen prominent tribal leaders. "Otherwise this loya jirga will bring disaster to the country instead of peace and stability."

The UN, which is assisting in the loya jirga, says it has heard several complaints about the selection process, but that the petition had not yet reached their office in Kabul.

Most of the commissioners, says Manoel de Almeida e Silva, spokesman for UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi, are now in far-flung districts in Afghanistan reviewing the selection process.

"The complaints we have are regarding seats per district. Some of that comes from the southern region. There was a feeling that they did not have as many seats as they feel they should have," says Mr. de Almeida e Silva. "For some, there is a situation of feeling disenfranchised, which plays a role in this as well."

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