Afghanistan's Loya Jirga was the scene of prolonged debate today, as it sought to choose a chairman to direct its weeklong session. But even as the assembly organizes itself for the days ahead, a number of delegates are expressing growing unease that it is being reduced to a mere rubber stamp for decisions being made elsewhere.
Kabul, 12 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Today's meeting of Afghanistan's Loya Jirga focused mostly on the task of choosing an assembly chairman, his two deputies, and two secretaries, a procedural matter that should have been devoid of much emotion.
But as the official debate covered such dry issues as who should head the assembly and whether he should appoint his assistants or submit them to a vote, some delegates used their turn at the microphone to express more personal sentiments.
Often, those sentiments reflected disquiet over how much power the delegates to the Loya Jirga will really have in deciding who will be the head of Afghanistan's next interim government, the Transitional Authority. That government, due to take office on 22 June, is to lead the country to national elections within two years.
The unease among the delegates has grown as a string of recent events has appeared to markedly reduce their freedom of choice when they vote to approve the key personnel and structure of the Transitional Authority.
The most dramatic of these events was the withdrawal early this week of two of the three top candidates to head the Transitional Authority. Afghanistan's deposed King Zahir Shah and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani both said they are not seeking office and endorsed the third contender, interim-administration head Hamid Karzai instead.
That leaves the Loya Jirga with just two people to consider when the assembly later this week reaches the high point of its weeklong session: the endorsement of a new head of state. One is Karzai and the other is a lesser-known female doctor, Masooda Jalal. Her candidacy is widely considered to be purely symbolic because the overwhelmingly male assembly is almost certain to give her little support.
The lack of choice led delegate Sima Samar, who is also the minister of women's affairs in the interim administration, to say yesterday that the Loya Jirga has been reduced to being a "rubber stamp." She told reporters: "This is not democracy. This is a rubber stamp. Everything has been decided by the powerful ones."
Other delegates have complained of the last-minute appointment to the Loya Jirga of some of Afghanistan's most powerful figures. Their presence has raised concerns that they may seek to control the voting of elected delegates from districts where they hold sway.
One delegate expressed his concerns over these appointed delegates by saying today that the Loya Jirga should distinguish between them and popularly elected representatives when votes are taken. "There must be a difference between an appointed and an elected delegate. The Loya Jirga Commission should take into consideration that an appointed delegate is just representing himself, while an elected delegate, who has been elected from among 25,000 up to 80,000 people, is representing all those people," the delegate said.
Another delegate told the assembly today that the presence of so many powerful men made the assembly look less like a meeting of popular representatives than a military council.
Many of the powerful figures attending the Loya Jirga are among more than 500 delegates who were selected by the Loya Jirga's organizers, the United Nations-assisted Special Independent Commission. Initially, the setting aside of Loya Jirga seats for appointees was to assure adequate representation of special-interest groups, such as the business and religious communities and women, plus top government officials.
But recent days have seen the commission, which is composed of 21 prominent Afghans, also appoint as delegates provincial governors, regional leaders, and many other power brokers who are determined to play a role in the proceedings. An additional 1,000 delegates were elected in nationwide district polls that international observers have termed largely fair.
As some delegates today saw their freedom of choice dwindling, speculation continues to grow in Kabul that the leadership of the Transitional Authority is being arranged in a secret deal that will be presented to the Loya Jirga as a fait accompli.
Much of that speculation was inspired by the sudden announcement on 10 June by Zahir Shah that he is not a candidate for any official position. The statement by the ex-king, who had returned to Kabul as a unifying figure just two months ago, astonished many of his supporters, who had hoped to see him as president or as a restored constitutional monarch.
The king's withdrawal angered royalists among Afghanistan's Pashtun majority who had counted on the king's becoming head of state to redress what they see as an imbalance of power in Kabul. Many Pashtun leaders have complained that the current administration, though headed by Karzai, a fellow Pashtun, is dominated by ethnic minorities and particularly by a single faction of ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley.
There is now widespread public suspicion in Kabul that Zahir Shah stepped aside, or was forced aside, in a secret deal assisted by Washington. That suspicion is mostly based on the fact that the ex-king's withdrawal was announced to the press by a U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, just a few hours before the former king made his public statement.
One delegate today called any interference by other countries in Afghanistan's process of choosing a new government unacceptable. Azizullah Wasifi, a delegate from Pashtun-majority eastern Afghanistan and a former agriculture minister in the 1990s, said: "I, as an independent Afghan, do appreciate the assistance of any country, and I am very much thankful to them. But I declare this frankly that any small interference in our internal affairs will not be acceptable."
Khalilzad and other top U.S. officials have rejected any role in the king's decision. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in Washington yesterday: "I don't think that's accurate.... I think we can see the Loya Jirga unfolding before our eyes. It seems to be representative of all the people of Afghanistan."
Still, several developments that have closely followed the ex-king's withdrawal have only heightened the local belief that a deal has been made. Yesterday, a key Panjshiri figure, interim Interior Minister Mohammad Yunis Qanooni, offered his resignation in an apparent signal the Panjshiris now are finally ready to share some of the next government's top positions.
The Panjshiris currently hold four of the interim administration's key ministries -- Interior, Defense, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence -- under the UN-brokered Bonn accord. That accord followed the unilateral occupation of Kabul by the minority-based former Northern Alliance in the wake of the Pashtun-dominated Taliban's collapse last year.
The Panjshiris and others in the ethnic-minority-dominated current government had expressed strong reservations over the return of the ex-king who, despite his popularity across Afghanistan's communities, is the symbol of a Pashtun dynasty that has ruled the country for most of the last 200 years. But they have developed a close working relationship with Karzai, to the point that some Pashtun leaders have accused him of overly accommodating them.
How many of those Pashtuns may still feel that way, and how many may have now found positions in a new deal, is something that will only be known in the weeks ahead.
As the Loya Jirga met today, the slow pace of the procedural issues suggested that a vote to endorse Karzai as the head of the Temporary Authority could still be days away. At the close of today's session, the delegates had yet to choose an assembly chairman and further discussion on the question is scheduled for tomorrow.