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Afghanistan: Kabul Readies For Politically Charged Loya Jirga Assembly (Part 1)

Preparations for Afghanistan's emergency Loya Jirga are in their final phases, with organizers saying they expect all elections of delegates to the assembly to be finished by the middle of next week. That will set the stage for the Loya Jirga to begin on schedule on 10 June. But as RFE/RL reports in the first of a two-part series from Kabul, some of the Loya Jirga's key functions -- and how long it finally runs -- will only be decided once the convention gets under way.

Kabul, 31 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With Afghanistan's emergency Loya Jirga set to begin in less than two weeks, organizers are busy putting the final touches on the site in a western section of the Afghan capital, Kabul, where the delegates will meet.

One-half of the sprawling campus of the Afghan Polytechnic Institute has been sealed off with a chain-link fence, and the narrow driveway into the area has been flanked with heavy containers to shield against bomb blasts.

The institute's dormitory has been cleared of students to provide the delegates with housing and the giant tent where they will meet is being readied. The tent, which comes from Germany and usually shelters Oktoberfest revelers, is intended to shade the delegates from the hot summer sun.

As the site is readied, the local elections to name the majority of the delegates are also in their last stages. Organizers of the assembly say that about 60 percent of the elections have now been completed and that all the names of the elected delegates should be decided by the middle of next week.

Ahmad Nader Nadery, the spokesperson for the United Nations-assisted Special Independent Commission for Convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga, says the last of the local elections will take place on 4 or 5 June in the western city of Herat. "We will have the final election in Herat on 4 and 5 June and then we will have completed our entire election process and we will have the total number of elected [delegates], as well as those who will come from civil-society groups and [as representatives of] the refugees outside the country," Nadery said.

That will bring to an end a selection process that began in mid-April with the first of hundreds of local elections across the country.

In the polls, voters in some 380 districts have chosen electors who then decided -- in a second poll -- who will travel to Kabul as their districts' delegates. These 1,051 delegates are to be joined at the Loya Jirga by more representatives selected by key interest groups, including religious leaders, women, refugees, and overseas Afghans. When the Jirga convenes 10 June, the total number of participants will number 1,501.

With the process of choosing the delegates almost over, organizers say they are confident the assembly will begin on time. But how long it will run may largely depend on the progress of the Loya Jirga proceedings themselves.

Nadery said the planned end date is 16 June but that the assembly could well run beyond that date. He said the only fixed deadline for wrapping up the proceedings is 22 June, when Afghanistan is due to inaugurate its new transitional government.

"We have time until 22 [of June, which is the date of transferring power to the transitional government]. But we are very optimistic that all the work that the Loya Jirga has [will be done] and on 16 June we will celebrate the closing ceremony," Nadery said.

The date of 22 June for inaugurating the transitional government was fixed under the UN-brokered Bonn accord last year. The accord established the emergency Loya Jirga to help choose the transitional authority that is to lead the country to general elections in 18 months.

But working out just how the emergency Loya Jirga will help choose the transitional government could now be one of the biggest challenges facing the assembly. The Bonn accord set the convention two clear tasks: to select a head of state for the transitional authority and to approve proposals for the authority's various structures, such as a legislature. Yet it also gave the assembly the much vaguer, and likely volatile, task of approving the authority's key personnel.

Nadery said the delegates now will have to decide among themselves how to define exactly what "key personnel" means, including whether it goes beyond the top positions of head of state and government to encompass cabinet members and other key posts.

Political observers say the definition process could become highly divisive because it offers delegates the potential means for directly influencing the balance of power in the new government.

Many here expect current interim-administration leader Hamid Karzai to be the likeliest candidate for the next head of government, largely due to his strong support from the international community. But few can say whether those groups -- such as the ethnic Pashtuns -- that now feel underrepresented in Kabul would entrust the new distribution of cabinet posts to Karzai alone. Instead, they may prefer their Loya Jirga delegates to have as much a voice as possible.

Over the past six months, the interim administration created by the Bonn process has sought to balance power by having Karzai, a Pashtun, as its head, while giving the key ministries of Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs to the most powerful faction of the minority-based former Northern Alliance. That powerful faction is mostly composed of former ethnic Tajik fighters from the Panjshir Valley.

However, this current balance in Kabul has led to considerable resentment among Pashtuns and others, who say that the Panjshiri faction holds too much power. Now, how ready the Panjshiri faction is to relinquish some of its top positions voluntarily -- and how much the Pashtun delegates to the Loya Jirga will try to wrest them away -- could well comprise the central drama of the coming assembly.

(The second part of this two-part series looks at how fair the local elections for Loya Jirga delegates have been.)