Two days after the former king of Afghanistan began a grand legislative council with an appeal for national unity, hopes seem to be ebbing that the council, known as an emergency Loya Jirga, will give rise to a stable transitional government. "Most of us are really angry and confused," someone close to the former king told me. "We had been sitting at the Loya Jirga, then a few ministers came to us and said 'don't worry about voting, His majesty has endorsed Mr. Karzai,' it would be announced today." As some delegates boycotted the proceedings on June 12, discontent with perceived foreign interference rose. Interim authority chairman Hamid Karzai, the favorite to win the presidency, may face a battle to prove his legitimacy when the Loya Jirga ends.
"The King has confirmed Karzai's job and his own responsibilities, but he never said they can ignore our vote," said the same person. When former king Mohammed Zahir Shah announced his refusal to head a new government and endorsed Karzai for the two-year transitional presidency, he initially seemed to have quelled brewing dissention from ethnic Pashtuns who mistrust Karzai's Tajik allies. (The ethnic Tajiks who dominate Karzai's cabinet led the Northern Alliance, which ousted the Taliban militia with help from the US-led antiterrorism coalition last fall.) Instead, the endorsement has provoked suspicions that foreign governments have been interfering in the Loya Jirga process. At Kabul University and a journalists' club, people expressed suspicions that something secret is continuing behind the scenes. "I feel the United States and United Kingdom rigged our vote," said Maliha Sadri, a student at Kabul University. "I feel Karzai is dishonest and he is dealing with foreigners because he loves power. I loved him before but now I am confused."
Confusion marked the Loya Jirga's second day. German troops in Kabul clashed with armed men in the retinue of Wali Massoud, Afghanistan's ambassador to Britain and brother of slain anti-Taliban leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Some have speculated that Wali Massoud seeks a political post, possibly prime minister, in the current proceedings. After his bodyguards parted from the Germans, members of the International Security Assistance Force fired on a television broadcast van. These tense conditions mirrored a spreading mistrust of foreign influence in the Afghan council.
Many observers perceived something ominous in the fact that American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad announced Zahir Shah's endorsement of Karzai before the former king himself made a statement. "Khalilzad had the most important role in this agreement between the King and Karzai. He has forced everyone into accepting this deal," said an official diplomat in Kabul. Khalilzad appeared at Zahir Shah's June 10 press conference, with Karzai and cabinet officials. US Secretary of State Colin Powell has strenuously denied that Americans interfered with the Loya Jirga.
In fact, Zahir Shah's position has been consistent. "The king never, ever said that he wants to revive royalty or take any official position," his spokesman, Hamid Sadiq , told EurasiaNet. "It was a rumor. He never had plans to challenge Karzai." Some reports have suggested that the calls to draft Zahir Shah, which prompted the June 10 press conference, came from politicians who wanted to assume the presidency after the 87-year-old former monarch dies.
One of these, observers say, was former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had promised to run against Karzai but withdrew on June 11. "The Pashtun ethnic group divided into two groups, pro-king and pro-Karzai," an observer who asked for anonymity said. "The difference between the two camps could be used for Rabbani as a source of maneuvering." Rabbani reportedly found out about Zahir Shah's deal to support Karzai at 2 p.m. and called a press conference shortly before the Loya Jirga began, though he said his withdrawal had nothing to do with foreign pressure.
Even if Zahir Shah had never planned to oppose Karzai, members of his entourage say they are not getting the chance to conduct their affairs as they see fit. "Shah hadn't planned to accept any position at the Loya Jirga," a source close to the former king told me. "But we disagreed about issuing a statement about the king's opinion. We were under US pressure." The source described Zahir Shah, who returned from Rome in April to open the Loya Jirga, as "upset."
EurasiaNet visited the former king's Kabul palace. Most of his relatives were at the Loya Jirga, and Zahir Shah was resting after a long sitting at the opening day. But Sardar Vali, Zahir Shah's son-in-law, supported claims of American meddling. "We didn't know about the press conference here. I was in my room and heard a bunch of people yelling," Vali said. "I looked out and some one said they were journalists and they have questions for the king, and we invited them to the garden." The same day, Khalilzad told reporters to go over to Zahir Shah's house at 6 o'clock for a press conference. EurasiaNet arrived in the first press pool for this press conference, after Khalilzad had promised that Zahir Shah would endorse Karzai. We reporters surprised the former king's eldest son, who was in short sleeves and protested that he hadn't gotten the opportunity to change clothes.
Like many others, Sardar Vali tried to downplay the idea that Khalilzad was carrying out American fiats. He denied anything sinister about Americans' presence at the former king's impromptu press conference. "The Americans were our guests at home and it's part of our culture to ask guests to take seats." Others insist that American officials mistrusted Afghans so intensely that they tried to install Karzai before the Loya Jirga had fairly begun. "They have to give that right to our people to at least make their opinion known," said a source close to the king, "if they believe in democracy."
Political jockeying, whatever its source, continued on June 12. Before the delegates reconvened, Minister of Frontier and Tribal Affairs Amanoullah Zadran had announced that he would boycott the Loya Jirga. The remaining delegates spent the day talking about who could head the council; they hope to broach the issue of who can head the government on June 13. According to reliable sources, leaders want to create a body called the National Security Council and appoint Northern Alliance leader Yunus Qanooni, who resigned as Interior Minister on June 11, to run it. "He's a very sharp and disciplined man," someone with international contacts said of Qanooni. "He's a modern person and sure to have a big future in Afghanistan."
Afghans who worry about backroom power brokering apparently have fresh cause for concern. Haji Qadir, the Pashtun governor of Jalalabad, is reportedly a strong candidate to replace Qanooni at Interior. Some see undue foreign influence in Qanooni's status. Qanooni resigned his post with a cryptic statement about sacrifice on June 11. "I heard Qanooni's speech, too. It was painful," said Sadri, the university student. "He mentioned sacrifices. What does it mean? Why didn't he tell us?" Qadir, like Karzai, is a Pashtun who sided with Qanooni and the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. If the current rumors prove correct, whispers about American orchestration will continue to mark Afghanistan's transition.
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a journalist who specializes in Afghan and Iranian affairs. She is currently in Afghanistan reporting for EurasiaNet.