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Globalization - Countries - Afghanistan

by Ahmed Rashid 6/10/02   http://www.eurasianet.org

The one-day postponement of the opening of the Loya Jirga is reinforcing a sense of uncertainty over whether the grand council can surmount factional infighting to select a stable transitional government for Afghanistan.

When 500 more delegates than the expected 1,500 showed up on June 10, Organizing Commission members decided to postpone the Loya Jirga for a day. The Loya Jirga's main task will be to select a transitional government for a two-year period, as well as a head of state. Interim government leader Hamid Karzai is a leading candidate for selection as head of state. The Loya Jirga's composition should stand at 1,500 delegates, of whom 1,000 were elected from the country's 32 provinces, and 500 were selected by the Loya Jirga Commission.

Substantial divisions are apparent among the four major groups in the Loya Jirga. These groups are the Pashtun tribal leaders from the south and east, the Tajiks from the Panjshir valley, the modernizers around Hamid Karzai and the jihadis, mainly supporters of Soviet-occupation-era warlords.

The rapidly growing popularity of former King Mohammed Zahir Shah among Pashtuns has introduced a large element of unpredictability into the Loya Jirga's proceedings. Pashtuns, who comprise more than 300 of the 1,000 elected delegates of the Loya Jirga, share a common desire to elect the King as an executive President and Head of State. This is contrary to a deal that was presented to Zahir Shah three weeks ago by Karzai and the powerful Panjshiri Tajik faction within the cabinet, along with the international community. Under that deal, the King would have assumed the largely ceremonial role of 'Father of the Nation.' The king was also asked to endorse Hamid Karzai as head of state.

The king hesitated to accept this role, as members of his family and his Rome entourage urged him to become head of state and instead endorse Karzai as his prime minister. Soon Pashtun tribal chiefs were urging him to do the same and they were joined by many from the minority ethnic groups, who have felt stifled or harassed at the hands of the Panjshiri Tajiks, who control the army, the police, the intelligence service and the state run media.

Non-Pashtun groups were also throwing their support behind Zahir Shah. Jumbish, the party of Uzbek General Rashid Dostum which commands around 100 elected delegates in the Loya Jirga, was backing Zahir Shah, as are strong numbers of elected delegates from Herat in western Afghanistan, along with Hazaras in central Afghanistan. The growing support for Zahir Shah among these ethnic groups was rooted in part in an intense dislike of the Panjshiri Tajiks, who are seen as wielding an inordinate amount of power in Karzai's interim administration. Some also believe that Zahir Shah would enhance the political rights of ethnic minority groups in Afghanistan.

Zahir Shah issued a statement June 10 in which he announced he would not be a candidate for head of state, and he endorsed Karzai to continue on as government leader.

Some political observers worried that Zahir Shah is too old to be an effective executive. They also worried that members of the king's entourage would compete with the prime minister and cabinet for policy-making influence, thus undermining the chances for effective governance. Others saw Zahir Shah as a polarizing figure, as he is highly unpopular among Panjshiri Tajiks and jihadis.

The international community would prefer that the Loya Jirga establish a strong executive - preferably Karzai, who would act both as head of state and as an executive president - rather than create two centers of power, one under a president the other under a prime minister.

Zahir Shah's June 10 announcement clarified an important leadership question hanging over the Loya Jirga. However, another potential obstacle facing Loya Jirga delegates is the increasing reluctance of the Panjshiri Tajiks to relinquish any of the key posts that they currently hold - specifically control over the ministries of defense, foreign affairs, interior and intelligence. The most prominent Panjshiri Tajik leaders are Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim and Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni.

Three weeks ago the Panjshiri Tajiks appeared willing to concede the posts of interior and foreign affairs, but hold onto defense as they have the largest and most effective army in the country. But as Panjshiri Tajiks have come under increasing pressure from other groups, their willingness to give up their positions of influence has diminished.

On June 8, Fahim said the Loya Jirga should endorse the present cabinet without making any major changes - a statement that angered non-Tajiks and called attention to the growing Panjshiri reluctance to make concessions. Fahim is presently the main target of Pashtuns and other non-Tajik groups, who charge that the interim defense chief is more interested in enhancing the power of his Tajik military force than with ending warlordism or creating a truly national army.

In early June, under intense US and UN pressure, Fahim agreed to the creation of a National Defense Council, which would deal with such difficult issues as disarming the population and integrating the warlord armies into the new national army. The proposal for the Council was part of the Bonn agreement last December, and until now Fahim had refused to accept it. But even this concession has been too little, too late to satisfy the opponents of the Panjshiri Tajiks.

Panjshiri Tajiks can explore several political options as they attempt to retain power during the Loya Jirga.  For example, they could try to cut a deal with many of the warlords guaranteeing them continued autonomy in their regions, thus further lessening the possibilities of a united Afghanistan in the future. They could also attempt to secure jihadi support by advocating the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, a few experts suggest that the Panjshiri Tajiks' seemingly hard-line stance on giving up control over the power ministries could be a negotiating ploy, designed to ensure their on-going control over the country's defense apparatus.

Karzai has also become a target of criticism by many Loya Jirga delegates, who accuse him of ineffectual leadership. The interim government leader is blamed specifically for failing to curb the influence of Panjshiri Tajiks. Many additionally criticize Karzai for not doing enough to promote stability outside of Kabul. People outside Kabul see no change in their lives while warlordism remains rampant.

Despite the mounting opposition, Karzai remains well positioned to build political alliances with any of the four major blocs at the Loya Jirga. Some experts still believe that Karzai will emerge from the Loya Jirga in a leadership role, but his election, which was once considered automatic, is now no longer expected to be a walkover.

Another element of unpredictability at the Loya Jirga is connected with the jihadis, a group made up of the warlords who fought against the Soviets, and who are now advocating an end to the US presence in Afghanistan. The jihadis favor strong links between government and Islam, the removal of Western-trained Afghans from power and a weak central government. Leading jihadi figures include former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Wahabbi leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Ismail Khan, the warlord of western Afghanistan. The jihadis control up to 100 elected Loya Jirga delegates, including Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan who are either former Taliban or linked to the fundamentalist Hizb-i-Islami party of Gulbuddin Hikmetyar. They have no real vision for a united modern Afghanistan.

These jihadis, who in the past vehemently opposed Zahir Shah are now prepared to accept him as president - as long as he agrees to nominate one of their own as prime minister. Although such a development is highly unlikely, the emerging deadlock in the Loya Jirga has enhanced jihadi influence. Their votes could play a deciding factor in the selection of the country's next leader, some observers believe.

The minority ethnic groups are as yet largely undecided - particularly the 100 seats held by the Uzbek Jumbish party and the estimated 60 Shi'ia Hazara delegates, who are largely controlled by Karim Khalili's faction of the Hizb-i-Wahadat. What is clear is that they dislike the Panjshiri Tajiks. Such is the extent of their dislike of the Panjshiri Tajiks that these minority ethnic groups who have always been fearful of Pashtun domination are now prepared to align themselves with Pashtuns under the right circumstances.


Editor's Note: Ahmed Rashid is a journalist and the author of two books, "Jihad:
The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia" and "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and
Fundamentalism in Central Asia."


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