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Afghanistan: Pashtuns To Seek Increased Power From Loya Jirga

  • Charles Recknagel

Afghanistan's majority Pashtuns are looking forward to this month's emergency Loya Jirga as a way to redress grievances. They want a greater share of power in Kabul and a head of state who is from their community, preferably deposed King Zahir Shah.

Kabul, 3 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With the emergency Loya Jirga due to start on 10 June, communities all over Afghanistan are preparing to send their delegates to the convention.

All of the delegates will bring to the traditional assembly their communities' complaints about the present and their hopes for the future. But few of the delegates are likely to be as vocal in their demands for a new order as the Pashtuns.

That is because the Pashtuns, who make up some 40 percent of Afghanistan's population, are used to being the country's biggest and most dominant ethnic group. Their Durrani dynasty ruled Afghanistan for almost all of the past 200 years and still has a living monarch in deposed King Zahir Shah, who will inaugurate the Loya Jirga proceedings.

Many Pashtuns feel they have been shortchanged by the United Nations-brokered Bonn accord that created the present interim administration in Kabul. The accord made the head of the interim administration an ethnic Pashtun, Hamid Karzai, but gave the key ministries of Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs to a faction dominated by ethnic Tajik fighters from the northern region of Panjshir. That distribution of power came after the former Northern Alliance, mostly drawn from Afghanistan's ethnic minorities, swept into Kabul last year as the Taliban -- who were Pashtun-based -- collapsed under U.S.-led air strikes.

Today, the Taliban is marginalized and many Pashtuns bitterly resent what they regard as the unilateral seizure of the capital by former Northern Alliance forces. The Pashtuns' anger, which almost certainly will translate at the Loya Jirga into demands for a new power-sharing deal, has often been voiced in the run-up to next week's convention.

Mohamad Dawod Wafa, Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in the eastern Pashtun-majority city of Jalalabad, said people there are unhappy with seeing ethnic Tajik commanders -- whom they regard as warlords -- in charge of the security ministries. The Panjshiri commanders have yet to disarm their forces, though they have withdrawn them to barracks around Kabul, while the capital is patrolled by the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force.

Abdulrahman, a tribal leader from the Jalalabad region, recently said on a visit to Radio Free Afghanistan's Kabul bureau that many Pashtuns regard the Panjshiris' refusal to disarm as a poor omen for the Loya Jirga. "They did not obey the Bonn accord of declaring the city demilitarized and no one has been disarmed yet. So how can this Loya Jirga be held under these conditions?" Abdulrahman asked.

Afghanistan's other ethnic-based militias also have yet to disarm.

The Pashtuns' unhappiness with things in Kabul was reflected in the local elections to choose Jalalabad's delegates to the weeklong assembly. Recently, some 200 tribal leaders -- including some delegates -- gathered at Jalalabad University to protest what they see as one of the interim administration's most unforgiveable gestures, the changing of the language of the national anthem. The anthem traditionally has been in Pashto but the interim administration instituted a new anthem in Dari -- Afghanistan's other major language -- when it took office in December.

The six months that the interim administration has been in power have seen little political or economic integration between Kabul and other areas of the country that might help ease such tensions. The central government has appointed some new governors but none of the major cities -- Pashtun-majority or otherwise -- is contributing local taxes to the central budget or receiving much federal assistance in exchange.

Wafa said this sense of economic separation is strong in Jalalabad, where local authorities say they must use what revenues they have to solve local problems before they can send anything to Kabul. He reported that the Jalalabad administration's revenues -- mainly from taxes on trade with Pakistan -- remain insufficient to cover its payroll and until recently, the salaries of teachers and doctors there were six months in arrears.

Jalalabad's payroll problems eased somewhat after Kabul sent a rare aid package to clear three months of the back debt. But all other requests to the central government for assistance in education and public health have gone unanswered, and international reconstruction monies have yet to arrive.

The situation throughout southeastern Afghanistan, the Pashtun heartland, is much the same.

Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondent in Kandahar, Najibullah Asakzai, said no local revenues are being forwarded to Kabul and no federal monies are being received. Instead, the excess revenue Kandahar gets -- again mostly from taxing trade with Pakistan -- goes to poorer neighboring Pashtun provinces, which look to Kandahar as the regional leader for assistance.

The extent of relations between Kabul and Kandahar was well demonstrated two months ago when Defense Minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim visited the city to invite local forces to join the new national army.

Kandahar governor Gul Agha Shirzai, himself a legendary warlord who is reported to command some 30,000 troops, was polite in telling Fahim that: "The national army is now an all-Afghan army. It belongs to all of us."

But even as he agreed to send 100 men, and made vague promises to send many more later, he also said that: "Armies should not belong to persons. [People] should not say I am sending my army to Panjshir." That indicated he was far from ready to subordinate his forces to the interim administration.

The two men also differed over economic relations. At a breakfast meeting attended by reporters, Fahim said the Kandahar leader "has quite enough money to pay for everything and send some of it to Kabul in taxes." Shirzai retorted that "we haven't seen a single penny so far as an allocation from the central government," and then he changed the subject.

As the Pashtuns prepare to send their delegates to the Loya Jirga, it is unclear how much they are coordinating among themselves to present unified demands. Radio Free Afghanistan's correspondents in both Jalalabad and Kandahar report that there have been no known contacts between those cities' leaders to discuss strategy. But they say secret meetings may well have taken place, either directly or through messengers.

Still, if there is no unified position yet apparent, political observers say Pashtuns from different regions are almost sure to agree that their community needs to hold the positions of head of state and head of government, as well as a greater share of the ministries. Whether that will include demands that the Panjshiris give up some of the key ministries they hold is too early to know. Many observers predict the Loya Jirga may accept former King Zahir Shah as head of state for Afghanistan's next government, which is to lead the country to general elections within two years. That is partly because the ex-king, a Pashtun by birth but a Dari speaker by upbringing, bridges many ethnic divides.

But it is unclear whether the Pashtuns will request that Zahir Shah also be a constitutional monarch, something other ethnic groups would likely oppose. Individually, at least, many Pashtuns express such royalist sentiments.

Sadullah Taniwal, a high-ranking military officer from the Jalalabad region, told Radio Free Afghanistan recently that only a constitutional monarchy would put an end to the violence Afghanistan has suffered since Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973 by a cousin who declared a republic.

"The people are pro-monarchy because [they feel] that if a presidency is declared, it will again lead to coups d'etat. And if a party takes power by a coup d'etat one day, there will be another party staging a coup d'etat against it the next. If there is a constitutional monarchy, then there won't be coups d'etat," Taniwal said.

The ex-king himself has repeatedly said he is not interested in retaking his throne. He told reporters last week that, "I will accept the responsibility of head of state if that is what the Loya Jirga demands of me, but I have no intention to restore the monarchy. The period of royalty is past."

If Zahir Shah becomes Afghanistan's next head of state, he is widely expected to name Hamid Karzai as prime minister. Whether that choice would be acceptable to most Pashtun leaders -- some of whom have faulted Karzai for being overly accommodating toward the Panjshiris -- is something to be watched for at the Loya Jirga. Under the Bonn accord, the assembly has power of approval over the key personnel of the next administration, beginning with the heads of state and government.