Guerrilla chiefs to undercut Karzai
Afghanistan's Soviet-era guerrillas will control a majority at the constitutional loya jirga, scheduled to open this weekend.
Afghanistan's constitutional convention, scheduled to start Saturday, was supposed to be a break from the feuds of the past, a made-for-TV demonstration that the war-torn country had united around a blueprint for democracy.Skip to next paragraph
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Now a coalition of powerful guerrilla commanders is poised to wrest control of the proceedings and redraft the new Afghan constitution according to their own wishes.
Led by a broad array of religious parties from Afghanistan's many Islamic sects and ethnic groups, these mujahideen or "holy warriors" have set their sights on diluting the sweeping powers of President Hamid Karzai by pursuing a parliamentary system. It would be a setback for American officials who consider Mr. Karzai to be the best leader for the next Afghan government.
Karzai raised the stakes Wednesday saying he would not seek reelection if the guerrilla's gambit succeeds.
"If there is a parliamentary system, I will not be a candidate," he said. "If the loya jirga decides to bring a prime minister, let them do it."
To the dismay of the American government, the mujahideen have the numbers on their side. Of the 500 delegates selected during the past few weeks for Saturday's constitutional loya jirga, or grand council, more than 70 percent are associated with mujahideen parties, according to a survey by Agence France Presse. Among the remaining 30 percent, some are aligned with Karzai, while others are monarchists, who favor some official role for the elderly king.
"If [Karzai] doesn't follow the loya jirga, then there could be turmoil, political fighting. Karzai will only be making more opposition against his government," says Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, a senior official in the Jamiat Islami, an Islamist party that fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the 1980s.
While the Karzai government says it welcomes a full and frank discussion on the future constitution - and US diplomats say they anticipated opposition all along - this is clearly not the loya jirga that they wanted. Far from a 10-day rubber stamp of the present constitution draft, which gives sweeping powers to the presidency and makes few provisions for checks and balances on his power, the loya jirga could well turn into a heated affair that sets faction against faction and leaves the US-backed Afghan leader weaker than when he started. In addition, some insiders now predict that the process could drag out for many weeks, and even months.
The actual drafting of the constitution appears to have been a rather quiet affair. The constitutional commission, representing members of all ethnic groups, sects, and regional groups, spent the last nine months cobbling together a document largely based on the constitution of 1964.
When the draft was released a month ago, international reaction was warm and positive. Human rights groups hailed its protection for the rights of women and ethnic and religious minorities. Religious conservatives supported the provisions that declare Afghanistan an Islamic state.
The constitution draft has some other 21st-century touches. While guaranteeing the primacy of Islam, the draft constitution also protects freedom of religious practice. And the draft also would make school compulsory, both for boys and girls.
But underneath this shower of praise, there was an undercurrent of discontent. Former guerrilla commanders, now under pressure to disarm, worried that they would be shut out of the power game forever. And the seven religious parties that once struggled among themselves for control of Kabul - killing an estimated 50,000 people from 1992 to 1996 - now appear to be reuniting in order to remain a political force.