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Afghanistan: Islamist Leaders Claim Loya Jirga Process Is Unfair

Elections for the Loya Jirga that will appoint Afghanistan's next government are moving forward this week with indirect ballots due to take place in several districts. But some Islamist political leaders complain that the internationally backed process is neither fair nor transparent, and that it is being manipulated in a way that denies them a voice.

Prague, 23 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The organizers of the Loya Jirga that will appoint Afghanistan's next government launched a campaign this week to raise awareness about how the grand national council is being formed.

The publicity campaign follows complaints from some Islamist political leaders about how the 1,500 members of the Loya Jirga are being selected.

The most critical remarks were made last weekend by former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the founder of the political party that now has the largest share of power in Afghanistan's current interim administration.

Rabbani says the indirect elections for the Loya Jirga are flawed. He says the process is unfair and biased against his Jamiat-i-Islami party, which is comprised mostly of ethnic Tajiks from the northern Panjshir Valley. In particular, Rabbani alleges that his associates are being blacklisted from the process of determining the membership of the Loya Jirga.

Jamiat-i-Islami now controls the interim ministries of Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs. It also has one of the best-equipped Afghan military forces -- with troops and heavy weapons deployed throughout Kabul and the areas surrounding the Afghan capital, as well as in the north and east of the country.

Indeed, Rabbani's party is the interim government faction with the most to lose from Afghanistan's internationally backed process of political transition.

Analysts say the party is unlikely to gain control of additional ministries in the next government because its share of power in the interim administration already is disproportionate to its popular support across the country.

Some analysts say that if the Loya Jirga asks former Afghan King Zahir Shah to head the 18-month transitional authority that takes power on 22 June, Jamiat-i-Islami would likely lose some of the ministry portfolios that it now controls.

Relations between Rabbani's faction and its main rivals within the interim administration -- the so-called "Rome Group" -- have been tense as each side seeks to maximize its power in the future transitional authority. The Rome Group is comprised mostly of ethnic Pashtuns who support the former king.

Zahir Shah returned to Kabul last week after 29 years of exile in Rome. He is due to inaugurate the Loya Jirga on 10 June. Under both Afghan law and the Bonn accords, Zahir Shah is eligible to serve as the head of the next government if the Loya Jirga calls upon him to do so.

Most Afghan officials say publicly that they have confidence in the Loya Jirga process. But they admit they are concerned about attempts to thwart the process by regional warlords and Islamist militants.

Afghan interim Reconstruction Minister Amin Farhang told RFE/RL recently: "In accordance with the Bonn agreement, the Loya Jirga is to be a nonpartisan entity that will not be controlled by the factional politics of the interim administration or vice versa. This transition to democracy is a long process. We are taking the necessary steps and making every effort to achieve democracy. But we cannot do this alone. All of these steps toward democracy depend upon the collective effort of all Afghans. If we do not all work together, something terrible could happen. And as we all know, there are antidemocratic elements in Afghanistan, too."

Bamiyan Province Governor Mohammed Rahim Alliyar told RFE/RL that it is, indeed, a difficult task to create a Loya Jirga that accurately reflects the wishes of all Afghans.

"It is not difficult to find what the Afghan people want. The problem is to convince those in power to allow the people to voice their opinion. I hope that in the upcoming Loya Jirga, this will be possible."

But Alliyar, like many other Afghan officials, says the Loya Jirga is the best hope for democracy that Afghanistan has had in decades.

"We have very high hopes that the Loya Jirga will be successful and fulfill the people's wish for peace, justice, unity and the restoration of democracy and freedom, and to start a new chapter in the lives of people in Afghanistan so that they can all live in fraternity and participate in reconstruction of their nation. We are all hopeful that the Loya Jirga will succeed."

The indirect election process for the Loya Jirga was created by a 21-member committee of Afghan legal experts who were named by the United Nations. They have outlined a three-phase process that calls for special electors to vote for most of the 1,051 actual Loya Jirga members that will represent 381 different districts across the country.

Some 450 members of the Loya Jirga will be appointed from and by institutions or other groups determined by the UN-named commission. There are 160 seats reserved for women.

The 381 district elections are being monitored by independent observers. But the first phase of the process -- determining the special electors who will vote for the Loya Jirga delegates -- is receiving less international scrutiny.

In the first phase of the process, Afghan citizens are supposed to communicate their ideas and preferences to their local shuras. These all-male councils of tribal elders are then supposed to draw upon this public input to determine who the special electors are who will vote for the Loya Jirga delegates.

But there is no independent system for monitoring the first phase of the process to ensure that the wishes of the Afghan people are accurately reflected in the choices made by the tribal elders.

In a worrying sign, the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said earlier this month that Pashtuns in the north of the country are being targeted by gunmen from the Jamiat-i-Islami faction as part of a campaign to intimidate them from taking part in the first phase of the Loya Jirga process.

There also are concerns that corruption and bribery could play a factor in the Loya Jirga process.

Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL that Afghan factions that are not part of the interim administration probably are also responsible for violence in other parts of Afghanistan that appears to be aimed at derailing the Loya Jirga process.

Ottaway believes it is no accident that an assassination attempt against the defense minister, an alleged coup attempt against interim leader Hamid Karzai, and several alleged assassination plots against Zahir Shah have all surfaced at the same time that electors are being chosen to vote on the composition of the Loya Jirga.

"From the point of view of these groups [that have been marginalized by the Bonn agreement], the time to assert their presence -- and assert the fact that they cannot be left out and cannot be disregarded -- is now. Because this is the time when the deals are being made [on the composition of the Loya Jirga]."

Ottaway also believes the international community is trying to create a coalition of support for the future transitional authority that includes Afghanistan's more moderate factions. She said that external pressure partly explains why more militant factions are being left out of the process.

Meanwhile, authorities in Kabul say the latest threat to the Bonn process is being caused by imposters who are masquerading as members of the UN-appointed committee to form the Loya Jirga. They say the imposters have approached shura leaders in at least three districts of Kabul to ask for support in the upcoming Loya Jirga votes there.