Post-Jirga politicking in Afghanistan confirms problems facing the US

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If getting agreement on Afghanistan’s new constitution at the Loya Jirga was a tortuous process, what lies ahead may well be worse. Implementing its articles, especially those on disarmament and demobilisation of the armed militias (whose survival depends not on what is written on a piece of paper but on guns), will be the most difficult task. Afghanistan has been in the grip of a war culture for more than 25 years; people are naturally not willing to part with the only weapons –” their guns –” that guarantee (or so they feel) their safety and security, for assurances on paper.

This explains why, within days of the constitution’s approval on January 4, Manuel de Almeida de Silva, the United Nations spokesman for Afghanistan, announced that elections are unlikely to take place by June, as stipulated in the Bonn accord of December 2001. The main stumbling-block is the delay in registration of voters, caused by the precarious security in the country, especially in the south and east. Lakhdar Brahimi, the outgoing UN representative for Afghanistan, agreed, saying that elections may be "well nigh impossible", because the threat from "Taliban insurgents" has made large parts of the Pashtun areas in the south and east inaccessible. The Bonn accord called for elections within six months of a constitution being approved.

"The current rate of registration is far below the rate necessary to complete registration for election this year," Almeida de Silva admitted on January 8. That also explains why Hamid Karzai, the US-appointed president, had to fly by helicopter from his palace, only a mile away, to attend the final session of the Loya Jirga: his American protectors simply could not guarantee his safety and security while he was travelling in a car. The UN spokesman also admitted that "The right date remains June but it is close to impossible to meet the June date with the current security conditions which do not permit the registration to take place all over the country."

The precariousness of the security situation was underscored by a Taliban attack on a US base at Deh Rawood, Uruzgan province, on January 18, in which three American soldiers were wounded, according to the Americans’ own admission. The next day, American helicopters attacked Sagotha village, south of Qandahar, killing 11 civilians, among them four children and three women. Killing civilians by discriminate aerial bombing has become the standard American response to Taliban attacks on US military bases and convoys, thus stoking further the Afghans’ resentment of their occupiers.

Since December only 274,000 Afghans, of the 10 million who are eligible, have been enrolled on electoral lists, and of these only 59,000 are women. Karzai himself has said that elections might be held up for two months for "logistical" reasons, but his American backers continue to fuss about the constitutional agreement, projecting it as a model for the rest of the Muslim world while ignoring the problems in Afghanistan. Their optimism is not shared by Lakhdar Brahimi. In his address to the concluding session of the Loya Jirga, as well as in interviews later, he has admitted that "the constitution is not perfect," and that it will be criticized both inside Afghanistan and outside, although he couched his own criticism in diplomatic language. However, he warned against allowing the country to slip back into turmoil. He warned Afghan leaders to stop corrupt commanders and police officers, some of whom were present in the Loya Jirga, who prey on ordinary people.

In a departure from diplomatic protocol, Brahimi then criticized the Bonn conference of December 2001, on the grounds that the Taliban had not been present there. He went further: the Taliban did not accept defeat and should be included, perhaps through another Bonn conference, if the country is to have a reasonable chance of achieving stability in the near future. He was even more scathing in his criticism of western feminist crusaders who are keen to strip Afghan women of their burqa. Women could gain a better position in Afghanistan only through education: "Instead of demonstrating against the burqa," he pointedly told advocates of women’s rights, "why not give tables and chairs to schools for girls." He went on: "No matter how long and how many demonstrations you have, it will not take one burqa off of the face of women."

This was also a veiled criticism of some constitutional provisions that call for equal rights for men and women, without stipulating how this is to be achieved. He said that his short-term objectives were to "give the country a state that is fairly well organized, and give the people a sense that they can have justice." This is virtually impossible, given that Karzai, under directions from the US, is working closely with the very warlords who are the worst violators of people’s rights. The Americans are working with many of them too, blinded by their hatred of the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. On January 18 the Uzbek warlord general Abdul Rashid Dostum said in his stronghold of Sheberghan that he expects to get a senior position in the defence ministry; the next day Karzai said that this is a "reasonable" demand and will be considered. Yet Dostum has still not released the hundred of Pashtuns who have been in his jails since 2001, nor allowed the thousands of Pashtuns driven from their homes in the northeast to return, despite repeated pleas from Karzai. Karzai has also made other concessions: during the Loya Jirga he acceded to the minorities’ demand to use their own languages –” Uzbek or Turkomen –” in their own regions. This will not only feed the majority Pashtuns’ sense of alienation but also increase their resentment at being left out of important positions that are currently occupied by Tajiks or Uzbeks. Hamidullah Tarzi, a delegate from Qandahar, reflected the Pashtuns’ mood over the language issue: "It’s as if we have taken poison, but for the unity of our country we accept it."

The constitution calls for a presidential system with a powerful parliament and equal rights for men and women. At the same time it says that civil law will be supreme, but the country has been renamed the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. In short, Afghanistan will be a mongrel state that is neither properly Islamic nor properly secular. Afghanistan’s future, however, will be determined by how the situation evolves in the south and east of the country. At the moment it is getting worse, not better. Not only are the Taliban becoming more organized, but the Americans’ heavy-handedness is also helping to recruit ordinary Afghans to their cause.

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