After twenty-one tension-filled days of raucous speeches, poetry readings, threats, bribery and walkouts, Afghanistan’s loya jirga, held to endorse a new Constitution for Afghanistan after twenty-six years of war, concluded on January 4. The powerful presidential system demanded by President Hamid Karzai and the Pashtun population was watered down–after strident demands by the country’s ethnic minorities–to include greater powers to an elected Parliament and minority language rights.
Not surprisingly, the eventual compromises were pushed through from behind the scenes in marathon all-night sessions by the US ambassador and President Bush’s special representative to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the UN Secretary General’s special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi.
Two years after the defeat of the Taliban, the loya jirga demonstrated the fact that Afghanistan’s acute ethnic divisions–the underlying cause of the 1992-2001 civil war–are still rampant and that a bloc of neo-Taliban Islamic fundamentalists, who helped US forces defeat the Taliban in December 2001, can still exercise enormous influence.
On the positive side, there has been a reassertion of the Pashtuns, who make up 40 percent of the country’s population but have been alienated and humiliated since 2001 because the Taliban drew their support from them. The Pashtuns supported a strong presidential system because they saw a strong center as being in their self-interest. Karzai, himself a Pashtun, must now insure that the Pashtuns do not antagonize the minorities and instead help create a truly multiethnic nation-state rather than dominate the minorities, as they have done for hundreds of years. Despite apprehensions, Afghan women fared well. The delegates doubled the number of seats guaranteed to women in the new Parliament to 25 percent of the total, and women’s rights were specifically mentioned in the Constitution despite efforts by the fundamentalists to have the item scratched.
The underlying reason ethnic tensions still exist two years on is the utter and irresponsible failure of the international community to live up to the promises made at Bonn in December 2001, which set out the road map for Afghanistan’s future. Security in the countryside is abysmal, Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar are still at large, and the 11,500 US-led coalition forces in the country are too few to stop the resurgence of the Taliban, who have killed some 400 Afghan soldiers, policemen, civilians and Western and Afghan aid workers and contractors since July.
The 5,500 NATO-led international peacekeeping troops still cannot deploy outside Kabul, because European countries have failed to find the troops to accompany them. (The Europeans were willing to provide more troops immediately after the defeat of the Taliban, but Washington blocked the move then, fearing that more peacekeepers would interfere with the hunt for bin Laden.) Nor has the international community disbursed adequate funds for the reconstruction of this blighted country.
The United States is insisting that elections be held by June, as set out by Bonn, or September at the latest. This is primarily because President Bush wants a success story to show to American voters for the US elections in November, given that the good news out of Iraq is likely to be sparse. On the other hand, the UN, many European and NATO states, Western and Afghan NGOs, and many prominent Afghans, including at least half the Afghan Cabinet, say elections should be postponed for at least a year.