New Afghan leader faces a rogues gallery government

After days of deliberation, delegates to the loya jirga left Kabul Thursday.

Afghanistan's loya jirga (grand assembly) ushered in a new government this week after nine days of sometimes fearsome deliberation. But the country's newly elected leader, Hamid Karzai, remains encircled by an array of religious extremists and warlords who pose a threat to his efforts to create a more open and stable society, say political analysts and human rights activists.

Mr. Karzai, seen here as a wily political player with devoted Western friends, is also increasingly viewed as an Afghan loner surrounded on all sides by sharks ready to shred his efforts to create a stable state.

"I feel for Karzai because he has almost no personal support base and, by all indications, the US is not ready to challenge the powerful military and religious groups who hold sway in his government," says Sam Zia-Zarifi, an Iranian-American analyst with the office of Human Rights Watch in Kabul. "The US government could have helped Karzai deal with these dangerous forces ... but they have left him – for the most part – on his own."

Alex Thier, the Kabul representative of the International Crisis Group, calls this week's grand assembly, which closed Wednesday, an "enormous missed opportunity" to break the grip of Afghan warlords.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, along with several leading UN figures in Kabul, however, have praised the proceedings as the first step along Afghanistan's long road to democracy.

Nevertheless, most foreign observers believe Karzai will be hard-pressed to create a moderate Afghan state out of the new cabinet lineup. The appointments were rushed through the loya jirga this week with a quick show of hands in support.

Indeed, if the behavior at the loya jirga of some of the northerners in the Afghan president's new Cabinet is any gauge of what is to come, Karzai may have a problem creating a moderate-minded state, says Mr. Zia-Zarifi.

The country's reappointed defense minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Fahim,who has also become a deputy president, directly threatened a Kabul University professor whose wife challenged Karzai for the presidency. "Fahim really ripped into Prof. Masood Jalal," says Zia-Zarifi, who added that the threat was surprising, since she never posed a serious threat to Karzai's chances.

"He called him a dog and said, 'You are not a man, that is why you put your wife up to this. How dare you oppose the program!' " Several other witnesses reported the same conversation.

Western observers say that Mr. Fahim has continued to consolidate the power he seized when his forces entered Kabul last year beneath the wings of US and allied bombers. He has used his own secret intelligence officers who, they insist, have an appalling record of intimidation. "So much in the new government now depends on Fahim, and I wouldn't want to gamble that he is going to become more moderate," says Zia-Zarifi.

Fahim, a powerful Tajik who leads the Northern Alliance, is close to Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose fundamentalist political party, Jamiat Islami, implemented harsh Islamic laws between 1992 and 1996 and continues to devalue the role of women in Afghan society.

A close ally of both Fahim and Rabbani, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a powerful adherent of Saudi-style Wahabbi Islam, pushed through a new name for Afghanistan's government this week, adding the word "Islamic" in front of the Transitional Government of Afghanistan. When another delegate to the assembly gave a speech defending women's rights, Mr. Sayyaf's confidants threatened to put the man on trial and he was not allowed to return to the large white tent that housed the gathering, says Zia-Zarifi. "The night after his speech, armed fundamentalists paid a visit to his home and threatened him," he adds.

Another strict Islamist, Kamal Shinwari, was returned to his post by Karzai as the chief justice of Afghanistan. Judge Shinwari called in January for the full implementation of sharia, Islamic law. Among other things, the legal code calls for cutting off thieves' hands and stoning adulterers. Western diplomats say they are watching closely to see how far the chief justice can implement his plans, particularly in rural areas where Western pressures for moderation are few, and Taliban-style fundamentalism is still popular.

The judge is an ethnic Pashtun, as is the country's new interior minister, Taj Mohammed Wardak. These appointments are likely to go some way toward appeasing Pashtun nationalists, embittered at what they had felt was an imbalance in the government headed by Karzai during the first six months of his transitional rule.

But Taj Mohammed Wardak, who returned to Afghanistan last year after spending the war against Soviet aggression living in California, is seen as an unlikely challenger to the powerful and well-armed Islamists in the Karzai government.

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