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Karzai weathers power struggle, but at a price

Strong presidency will be part of new Afghan government, but Islamists gain bargaining power.

By Dan MorrisonCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 26, 2003


Hamid Karzai is on a roll. A majority of the 502 delegates to Afghanistan's constitutional convention now favors the strong presidential system that Mr. Karzai is pushing.

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The emerging consensus is a big win for Karzai and for the United States, which installed the ethnic Pashtun clan leader in the presidential palace after the fall of the Taliban two years ago.

Potential hurdles in drafting a blueprint for the future of Afghanistan remain: the roles of Islam and human rights - particularly women's rights.

The constitutional loya jirga, or grand assembly, has turned out better than anticipated for Karzai, who withstood a challenge from warlords and royalists looking to dilute the president's power. But some observers warn that Karzai has opened the constitution to greater Islamic influence by making deals with hard-liners like Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, a warlord whose views mirror those of the Taliban.

The current draft of the constitution, which could be approved as soon as Friday, would give the president the power to rule by administrative decree and to appoint judges and governors, with little legislative oversight. Karzai plans to run for president next year - but only if the office is not weakened in the final version.

Karzai's direct appointment of 52 delegates to the loya jirga helped foil an attempt at the outset to rewrite the draft to distribute power under a parliamentary system.

Early last week, when a group of delegates, most from the Jamiat Islami party, protested the appointments, Mr. Sayyaf defended Karzai, in starkly Islamic terms, as the country's "emir." Convention chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi seconded the theme, telling the rebelling delegates that as "ululamr,'' or emir, Karzai had a right to appoint his own delegates.

Emir means prince, or commander, in Arabic. Afghanistan's ousted Taliban government called itself the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

"Certainly, it is not a large group [of delegates] that is seeking an emirate system,'' US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said last week. "I think there are very few. It is surprising that there is this type of support.''

While Karzai's draft constitution does not create the position of emir, it does grant the president wide powers with few checks and balances. Critics say this concentration of power could lead in the future to a repressive state or a theocracy.

"It is a mistake to begin a democracy using the language of an emirate, an Islamic dictatorship,'' says Husain Ramoz, an analyst at the US-funded National Democratic Institute. "It's a losing game.''

"Sayyaf is a fundamentalist,'' says a Western diplomat in Kabul. "He supports a caliphate, he wants an emir, and this system resembles that in a sense. It is inevitable - sooner or later it is going to lead to a dictatorship.''

Many who fear the power of a strong presidency were pushed to support it by an incident Dec. 17, when a 26-year-old female social worker, Malalai Joya, rose from her seat in the separate women's section of the loya jirga to denounce the country's mujahideen leaders as "criminals.'' Ms. Joya was referring to the deadly infighting - including the shelling of Kabul - between anti-Soviet rebel leaders following the withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989.