Afghans put off key decisions

The loya jirga winds down without settling how a legislature should be chosen.

As Afghanistan struggles to make a transition to democracy, it is hitting perilous bumps along the way.

Bypassing key decisions about the makeup of a new cabinet and the formation of parliament, the newly elected head of state, Hamid Karzai, moved Monday to end the first deliberations of the national grand assembly, or loya jirga, which had convened a week ago to craft a blueprint for the country's future government.

Mr. Karzai said he would like to continue to meet in the future with the delegates, suggesting that the 1,600 loya jirga members from across the nation would remain a standing body as long as there is no parliament.

Western diplomats and analysts said that Mr. Karzai's abrupt decision to skirt the most controversial issues is likely to disappoint many delegates and prolong the country's struggle toward democracy.

"Mr. Karzai's hesitancy to deal with key cabinet posts is a dangerous move," says a senior Western diplomat in Kabul. "He has left several issues on Afghanistan's future unresolved, and this risks a backlash from delegates who had great expectations about a new democratic process in Afghanistan."

In seven days of deliberation, the loya jirga managed to agree on only one thing: the election of Karzai as president.

Late yesterday, delegates on the floor – disappointed with Mr. Karzai's efforts to end the grand assembly early, shouted their insistence that the political body meet again today. The chairperson of the assembly then asked representatives to come again today to deliberate.

"I don't think we could have anticipated the democratic pressures that we have seen emerging on the floor of the assembly," says a senior Western diplomat here. "It may be difficult for one man to control."

These are among the growing pains of a nation emerging from centuries of tribalism and recent painful religious tyranny, to forge a new, more representative system, observers say. Given what they're up against, the loya jirga members are managing pretty well, say diplomats and analysts. In a country where for two decades, ethnic slaughter was the rule, Afghans have proven exceptionally civil in the loya jirga proceedings.

"The Afghans have already exceeded our expectations by creating a sovereign body of 1,600 representatives that is probably more democratic-minded than anything that has come before it," says the diplomat.

Still, some senior Western diplomats in Kabul say threats remain to the fledgling democracy, with particular danger coming from rural areas, where old-style intimidation by warlords and former Taliban members continues. In the southern half of the country, bringing a video-recorder to a market – something prohibited in the days of the Taliban – is still enough to incite a riot, as it did in the city of Kalat, where a mob, urged on by a religious leader, severely beat a man less than two weeks ago.

"Karzai is now the president of Kabul, but if he wants to be the president of Afghanistan, he has a much tougher task ahead of him," says Alex Thier, an Afghan analyst with the International Crisis Group. "What needs to be done now is bring all Afghans, including warlords, into the fold. Karzai's ability to do this appears to be limited for now. We've seen him clearly hand the floor back to commanders and warlords at this assembly on several occasions. His dilemma now is how to consolidate control without alienating the people who have supported him."

Scores of delegates, mostly ethnic Pashtuns, walked out of the loya jirga yesterday. Most of them condemned the proceedings – which are being directed by a Hazara ally of the Tajik-majority Northern Alliance, the group holding the key ministerial posts in the interim government – as less-than-democratic.

"We are pleased only with the Karzai election, but now we want a substantive change in the cabinet," said Zarif Khan, a delegate from the Pashtun province of Khost in the country's southeast. "We want an open debate and voting on each position in this cabinet, but, so far, the people running this assembly don't seem interested."

Karzai said yesterday that he wants to select the members of his cabinet, pledging that it would be one that "meets the needs of the people." He also called on the loya jirga to select from within its membership a committee that would name a commission that would in turn determine the form and membership of the country's legislature.

Afghan leaders met in Bonn, Germany, last year to lay the ground rules for the loya jirga's meeting. The rules stipulated voting for "key" positions in the new government, but did not specify which positions those would be. That confusion has raised fears among some of the delegates that their new leader will take his leadership as a mandate to rule as an autocrat. But Karzai is a savvy, pro-Western politician with visions of creating a modern state, say his admirers.

One of Karzai's hardest tasks is to strike a consensus among the country's ethnic groups. Pashtun leaders argue that powerful Tajik ministers still in control of the country's key security ministries of defense and interior are trying to steer loya jirga proceedings away from democratic voting. The Pashtuns, who fear that they will be marginalized in a new government, contend that they are a majority of the population. No formal census has been taken for years. Various surveys put the Pashtuns' numbers in a range varying from 40 to 55 percent.

"What we had been pushing for all along was to get the Tajiks, who control the current government, to back off of one of their key ministries," says a Western diplomat. "On the first day of the assembly, you saw Interior Minister Younis Qanooni deliver a speech swearing off his interest in continuing in office. This in turn opened the door for a Pashtun to oversee the Ministry of Interior, and that is what we are expecting to see take place."

On Sunday, initial attempts to resolve the legislature dilemma ended in shouting and chaos after the assembly's chairperson offered delegates a choice of ways to select it – either two representatives for each of 32 provinces, the initial idea endorsed by the loya jirga commission, or one for every 10 of the delegates. The Pashtuns want two representatives from each province as they believe they have a majority in nearly 20 provinces.

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