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EU/Afghanistan: Parliament Committee Debates Country's Lingering Difficulties

The foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament today debated the situation in Afghanistan. While the country's new constitution, adopted earlier this month, won widespread praise, many speakers raised doubts about its implementation. The role of Islam, balance of power, and the equality of women were some of the central concerns -- all accentuated by a recognition that the security situation in Afghanistan must improve quickly.

Brussels, 21 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) discussing a draft report on Afghanistan today were in overwhelming agreement on one central notion: the country is at a crossroads.

The adoption of a new constitution earlier this month was also recognized as a major achievement. But views diverged as to where developments would lead from here.

Andre Brie, a German MEP and the author of the draft report, praised the constitution, saying it represents a "great improvement" over the drafts available to him late last year when he wrote the bulk of his report. Nevertheless, Brie listed a number of caveats regarding the new constitution:

"However, I would like to underline the problems [that remain] -- for example, the continued possibility of resorting to [Islamic] Shari'a [law], the large role of Islam in Article Three [forbidding any law that contradicts the Islamic faith]. And despite the recognition of the equality of women, there remain deficits in practical terms in the constitution. A further problem is the extent of presidential powers. I have no doubt that under President [Hamid] Karzai, such extremely extensively stipulated powers will not lead to a dictatorship in Afghanistan. But [with] a different political figure, given the circumstances stemming from the political and judicial culture, such a development cannot be excluded," Brie said.

There was some debate today as to how to interpret the constitution's provisions relating to the interplay between Shari'a law and political decision-making.

Former French General Philippe Morillon, who has submitted a number of amendments to the report -- to be voted on tomorrow morning -- argued for a positive view. He said that what is most important is that religious judges are no longer the supreme interpreters of Islamic law.

But Jacques Poos, an MEP representing Luxembourg, said the constitution remains ambiguous -- asserting the primacy of Islamic law, but charging the government with its implementation.

The situation of women in Afghanistan provided the backdrop for some heated interventions.

Maj Britt Theorin, a female MEP from Sweden, said that despite the adoption of the new constitution, the standing of women in Afghanistan has not advanced in practice since December 2000, when the European Parliament last discussed the country.

"Unfortunately, I will have to say that [the situation] has not really improved since [then]. I don't know if [other MEPs] have followed the events of the past couple of days, when for the first time [since the fall of the Soviet-backed secular regime in 1992], a woman appeared on Afghan TV. This led to an immediate protest from the Supreme Court, and a promise from the head of the TV station that this would not happen again. There is a long, long way to go before attaining what is written in the constitution," Theorin said.

A British female MEP, Baroness Emma Nicholson, sharply criticized the continued use by Afghan women of head-to-toe burqas -- which had been strictly enforced by the extremist Taliban militia. She said the issue must be considered kept separate from views on the application of Islamic laws:

"Can I make it very clear, for example, that I will find it difficult to vote for this excellent report unless we put something in there about the way in which the Afghanistanis force their women to wear cages across their face. It is utterly inhumane, it's come straight back again. This is a deep tribal custom, it is in fact nothing to do with Islam. By pointing out that Shari'a law and Islamic law and women's rights are all together, we are failing to isolate the Afghan's despicable behavior to women from normal, routine Shari'a law problems," Nicholson said.

Brie, the author of the report, noted that the burqa represents just the tip of the iceberg. He said women continue to suffer from the "cultural reality" prevalent in Afghanistan's regions, and emphasized the difficulties girls face in entering the educational system, especially in the south of the country.

Many MEPs expressed grave concerns today about Afghanistan's still precarious security situation.

Joost Lagendijk, a Dutch representative, said the report's emphasis on the new constitution and gender equality is commendable, but amounts to "no good" without immediate steps to station more international troops outside Kabul: "But this all does not lead us anywhere if the security situation in Afghanistan does not improve. We might have a good constitution, we have good plans, but we will not be able to implement [them]. And in that respect, I think, we should send out two messages. I agree with Mr. Brie, one of them should be 'No, we will not let you down again.' The second should be 'Yes, we will do what we said we would do' -- that is, send more troops outside of Kabul."

Lagendijk specifically demanded that the international NATO-led stabilization force in Afghanistan deploy forces in the provinces well in advance of the scheduled elections in June. He also called on the EU to contribute more troops.

The continuing increase in opium production was another key worry today. The report notes that in 2003, Afghanistan produced three-quarters of the world's illicit opium. Afghanistan's annual drug trade is valued at $2.3 million, equivalent to half of the official gross national product of the country.

The report says the majority of the proceeds goes to military commanders and regional strongmen, further undermining Afghanistan's central government.

Brie summed up his report's views by saying the international community, the European Commission, and EU member states must increase their commitment to Afghanistan if the country is to succeed.

The report, once adopted by the European Parliament, will have no direct bearing on EU decision-making. However, the parliament has considerable powers in EU budget and foreign aid decisions.