A day before Afghanistan convenes the Loya Jirga, or grand council, debate is still flaring over the consitution's basic elements. Many delegates favor a parliamentary system, but others, including several current authorities in the transitional government, are negotiating to develop a strong presidency in which one elected official serves as chief military commander.
A parliamentary system would create a prime minister and exercise strong checks on executive authority. Some argue that this system would keep power from concentrating among western-educated elites, of whom current president Hamid Karzai is an obvious example. Ismail Khan, a powerful western warlord, has long favored a parliamentary system. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive].
Others, loyal to their province rather than to the capital, may agree. "Most delegates are mujaheddin [freedom fighters], coming from many provinces, and they strongly defend the parliamentary system," said Fouad, one of many Afghans working as Loya Jirga organizers under the United Nations' auspices. "This new constitution does not belong to a small group or elites. It belongs to all the people." [For background, see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Surprisingly, the structural question does not divide members on clear ethnic lines. The former Northern Alliance, an association of ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir valley, controls most of the cabinet and acted essentially as a bloc in 2002's Emergency Loya Jirga. Today, Defense Minister Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim has reportedly aligned with Karzai and wants the president to be commander in chief. Yunus Qanooni, Education Minister and former Interior Minister, opposes Karzai and his alliance. An official from Qanooni's office, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet that if the Loya Jirga creates a bicameral legislature with a strong presidency, the minister would quit his job. [For background on Qanooni, see EurasiaNet's special report on the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga].
Among the ethnic Pashtuns who dominate Afghanistan's south, there is similar discord. Karzai has declared himself a candidate, telling a television reporter on December 5: "If the Loya Jirga approves the constitution with the presidential system, I will nominate myself for the next election, and wait to see whether the people will determine this right for me." But former king Mohammed Zahir Shah, who was given the title "father of the nation" in the last Loya Jirga and is widely expected to keep that title, reportedly supports a parliamentary setup as a curb on presidential power.
The division of power is not the only constitutional issue likely to turn emotional in the coming days. The country's name, designated as the "Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" in the draft constitution, is another point of contention. Some technocrats say that "Islamic" and "republic" are not compatible, and point to their neighbor Iran as proof that the two concepts do not work together. But many traditionalist delegates want religion sown into the state's charter.
These issues will play out under tight security. American envoy Zalmay Khalilzad warned on December 9 that Taliban and al Qaeda loyalists would try to disturb the proceedings, as more than 500 delegates gather in Kabul. Women, the most isolated members, chant together and stand apart from the men. Many women had great difficulty securing a nomination for the Loya Jirga, and wire services report that women organizing to attend the council often faced threats at gunpoint. The United Nations has negotiated to secure a set-aside number of seats for female delegates.
Many men believe that women know nothing about the government or the Loya Jirga, which is exacerbated by the fact that several women say they never got the chance to read a copy of the draft. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. When EurasiaNet asked Haji Hazrat Ali, head of Jalalabad's military, about two women who were threatened at gunpoint, he laughed and praised the men who did it. "Women should be in the home," he said. But then he corrected himself and insisted, "I am joking. I haven't heard of that happening in Jalalabad."
Religious issues beyond the country's name. "We are not Taliban [extremists] but we believe in the Islamic Sharia, and we want Islamic democracy," delegate Haji Ghol told EurasiaNet. "Based on the Koran, we should punish criminals [according to the principle of an eye for an eye]. But this draft of the constitution prohibits [some forms of retribution]! This is a joke and should be changed," he said.
Along with misgivings about the constitution's basis, members may witness struggles for power. Wali Massoud, younger brother of slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, returned from an ambassadorial assignment in the United Kingdom to join the political battle. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Few expect the Massouds to support Karzai; some say Wali would like to run a political party. Supporters of Ahmed Shah Massoud are asking that the constitution designate him a "national hero" in the same spirit that it decrees Mohammed Zahir Shah the "father of the nation."
Clashes between the "proper" thing to say and the deeply held beliefs of many delegates are likely to dominate the constitutional council. Delegates are whispering to each other that the draft document, which uses Afghanistan's 1964 constitution as a basis, strongly resembles the United States constitution.
One member cast a cold eye on the presence of women. "We accept them because the world is now working to reconstruct our country and those forces want women to be present in the public sphere," said one delegate who refused to share his name. "This is not our desire. Women never had a seat in the traditional Loya Jirga. We don't take them seriously. They are included now just to make the United States happy. Nothing else."
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard is a freelance journalist covering Afghanistan and Iran. She reported for EurasiaNet from Kabul during the Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002.