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The United States and the Afghan Loya Jirga
A victory for the puppet masters
The June 2002 loya jirga, or grand council, is considered to be the start of a new era in Afghanistan, if only because the country is finally engaging in a political process that the United States accepts. Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, the U.S. government is rather particular about which outcome it considers acceptable. This is why important decisions were not left to the 1,500 delegates.
Through no fault of the delegates, the sessions did little more than confirm Hamid Karzai, head of the interim government, as president of Afghanistan. This result can hardly be called a decision, however. According to United Press International, democracy nearly broke out in Afghanistan on Monday [10 June], but was blocked by backroom dealing to prevent former King Mohammed Zahir Shah from emerging as a challenger to Hamid Karzai. Instead of beginning at 8:00 AM on June 10, as scheduled, the loya jirga was postponed, supposedly until 10:00 AM, but at 3:00 PM it was announced that the meeting would not convene at all until the following day. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, told the press that the organizing commission decided to postpone the opening of the Loya Jirga to ascertain the true intentions of the former King. Before Zahir Shah could make his own announcement, Khalilzad gave the answer: The former king is not a candidate for a position in the transitional authority. He endorses Chairperson Karzai. At a 6:00 PM press conference, the former king, looking grim, was flanked by Khalilzad and Karzai. He said nothing, but his chief of political affairs read a statement. As I have always mentioned, I have no intention of restoring the monarchy and am not a candidate for any position in the emergency loya jirga.
Khalilzad explained, statements that were issued yesterday [June 9 ] that the former King might be, or is, a candidate for the post of President of the Transitional Authority...were inconsistent with earlier statements by the former King, which had caused consternation and confusion among the Loya Jirga delegates. The statements issued were actually the former kings response to a BBC interviewers questions. When asked if he would accept the job of head of state, he answered, I will accept the decision of the Loya Jirga... What the majority decides about the future of Afghanistan, and my role, Ill accept that. Contrary to Khalilzads assertion, this was consistent with at least one earlier statement in which he said, I will accept the responsibility of head of state if that is what the loya jirga demands of me (AFP, May 28, 2002). Clearly, many delegates took these remarks to mean that the former king would stand for office if nominated.
According to UPI, the U.S. special envoy had apparently brokered a deal with the former king to withdraw his candidacy. So it was only natural that, Some delegates...were angered by what they perceived to be a U.S. effort to front load the loya jirga to ensure that Karzai was reappointed. One delegate, Omar Zakhilwal, wrote in the Washington Post, Rather than address the issue democratically, almost two days of the six-day loya jirga were wasted while a parade of high-level officials from the interim government, the United Nations, and the United States visited Zahir Shah and eventually persuaded him to publicly renounce his political ambitions. It is well known that, if given the chance, Shah probably would have obtained a significant number of votes. UPI said, many delegates felt the highly popular ex-king would probably have had the votes to be chosen for a role in the transitional government, but had been prevented from declaring his candidacy. According to the New York Times, Amanullah Zadran, the tribal affairs minister, promised that he would take 700 delegates from the loya jirga to the former kings house on Tuesday to show the strength of support for his candidacy.
The powerful ones, namely the U.S. government and its allies, have made sure that the leader of Afghanistan was not someone who could challenge their power. Zahir Shah would present a minor challenge to U.S. dominance in Afghanistan, but a challenge nonetheless. Unlike Hamid Karzai, Shah is well known, with a 40-year history as king of Afghanistan. A state department poll released in June 2001 found that nearly half of the 5,000 Afghans questioned regarded the former king as the leader most likely to address the countrys problems. The next most likely choice (20 percent) was Dont know. Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was ranked third with less than 10 percent choosing him. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a political and humanitarian organization that is outspoken in its denunciation of fundamentalists like the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, declared that they are not a monarchist organization. Nevertheless, in the absence of democratic alternatives, RAWA admits that only...Zahir Shah could unite the people and take the country out of prevailing chaos.
Shahs Experiment with Democracy
Zahir Shah is associated with a relatively happy period in Afghanistans history. There was little bloodshed during his reign from 1933 to 1973. He established a constitutional monarchy in 1964, and the period 1964 to 1973 (when he was overthrown by his cousin Daud) is probably the most democratic in the countrys history. Writing in 1973, U.S. Ambassador Neumann told the State Department, Afghans have become acutely conscious, and indeed jealous, of the personal freedoms guaranteed them under the 1964 Constitution. This consciousness has manifested itself in hitherto undreamed-of criticism of the government by members of parliament, students, and the free press.... Many educated Afghans carry the Constitution in their pockets and quote from it extensively. During Shahs reign there were growing student and womens movements, including eight well-organized nationwide parties (true political parties were outlawed) that Ambassador Neumann considered left-of-center.
The declassified record from the period gives a glimpse into the U.S. government perspective on Shahs experiment with democracy, and foreshadows the disaster that was to follow. A 1970 analysis by Neumann discussed clerical unrest and demonstrations by religious leaders against atheistic communism, but concluded, mullahs [religious leaders] probably did little to change the views of the segments of the society at which the communist appeal is aimed. Interestingly, the report also finds, Religious conservatism, for the first time in many years, vividly demonstrated that it remains a force with which the government must contend. Nevertheless, the existence of a reasonably strong army, the absence of outside assistance, and a basically conciliatory government policy, has so far prevented the situation from getting out of hand...[T]he demonstrations may ultimately come to be regarded as proof of the mettle of the society and the democratic experiment. Neumanns mention of the absence of outside assistance to the mullahs is ominous in hindsight, given that billions of dollars of U.S. assistance to religious fundamentalists in the 1980s is responsible for the condition of Afghanistan today.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., Zahir Shah, in exile in Rome, began meeting with members of the Northern Alliance opposition to the Taliban. In late September Shah had asked for political support and economic and humanitarian help from the United States, but not for an invasion. His grandson Mustapha said, We believe that Afghans can do the job (of fighting terrorism) but they probably would need some of the tools to do the job. Clearly, the former king would not be a pliable leader. According to the Canadian magazine Macleans, the Bush administration gave a lukewarm response to attempts to focus national reconciliation around Zahir Shah prior to the U.S. bombing. Meetings in Italy with 11 U.S. Congressional delegates led Representative Curt Weldon to assert naively, We think perhaps he is the person that can rally those [who are] against the Taliban most effectively. The next day a White House spokesperson contradicted this, saying, the United States is not backing any specific replacement for the Taliban.
A U.S.-Backed Dissident Emerges
Just after the bombing began, reports began surfacing of a dissident Afghan exile named Hamid Karzai who has emerged as the Bush administrations main hope for forging a southern alliance against the Taliban. The word emerged is appropriate. A National Newspaper Index search for Karzais name in the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal yielded 273 instances, the earliest of which is a Los Angeles Times article from October 12, 2001 (the database extends back to 1977). The New York Times first referred to Karzai on October 18, calling him an influential Pashtun chief who was starting a quiet rebellion against the Taliban with U.S. support. This gave the impression that Karzai must have had plenty of popular support among the Pashtun ethnic group, over 40 percent of the population, even though he was not well known internationally. But in February 2002, two months after he was established as interim chair of the Afghan government, the Times asserted that a better description of Karzais standing would be the exact opposite: Mr. Karzai is a less formidable player at home than foreigners perceive him to be. Mohammed Fahim Dashty, editor of the Kabul Weekly newspaper said, I can understand why people in the U.S. were intrigued by Karzai, but people in Afghanistan are not impressed.
Karzai was picked by the U.S. because of his longstanding connections to the U.S. intelligence establishment: the Americans...knew Mr. Karzai, who had served as a funnel for covert American aid to the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s. He had no power base of his own, and could make very few decisions of his own, making him indebted to his foreign benefactors, and to his military colleagues within Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the anti-Taliban movement in the south led by Mr. Karzai and other Pashtun leaders would never have succeededor even come together without the United States (NYT, December 15, 2001).
The first step to legitimize the U.S. choice of Karzai, and to deligitimize the former king, was the Bonn Conference of early December. A Western diplomat explained that delegates in Bonn had chosen a different leader, Abdul Sattar Sirat, to head the interim government [but] pressure from American and United Nations officials resulted in the naming of Mr. Karzai. Initially, Karzai received no votes, but all the delegates understood that the Americans wanted Mr. Karzai...So on Dec. 5, they finally chose him. Sirat, who was supported overwhelmingly by Zahir Shahs delegation, did not even make it into the interim government as a cabinet minister. Haji Attaullah, a Pashtun delegate said, The Bonn conference was only for show. The decisions had been made before. Meanwhile, James F. Dobbins the senior U.S. envoy there called the Conference, an outstanding success (NYT, December, 6,15,16 2001).
The loya jirga was the second step in foisting the U.S.-designed order on the Afghan people. According to delegates Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi (NYT, June 21, 2002), the meetings began optimistically: Delegates from all backgroundsPashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks; urban and rural, Sunni and Shiitesat together under one roof as if we belonged to a single village. Men and women mingled openly and comfortably. In tolerant and lively exchanges, we discussed the compatibility of womens rights with our Islamic traditions. Women played a leading role at these meetings. We were living proof against the stereotypes that Afghans are divided by ethnic hatred, that we are a backward people not ready for democracy and equality.
The delegates had put together a wish list focused on national unity, peace, and security. The list emphasized access to food, education, and health services in neglected rural areas, but above all else the delegates were united in the urgency of reducing the power of warlords and establishing a truly representative government. Zakhilwal and Niazi wrote, The sentiment quickly grew into a grassroots movement supporting the former king...as head of state. The vast majority of us viewed him as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords.
After the postponed opening of the council, followed by the announcement that Zahir Shah would have no place in the new government, the atmosphere of the loya jirga changed radically. The gathering was now teeming with intelligence agents, who openly threatened reform-minded delegates, especially women. Access to the microphone was controlled by supporters of the interim government.
One delegate told Human Rights Watch, We are hostages of the people who destroyed Afghanistan. They are trying to hold us hostage to their power. There are petitions being circulated and we are pressed to just sign them without reading them. When she complained publicly, the delegate was later threatened with the words, you either mend your ways or we will mend them for you. A June 13 Human Rights Watch press release attributed the problem to the inclusion of major U.S.-backed Northern Alliance figures in the meetings, people widely held responsible for Afghanistans devastating decade of civil war and ensuing atrocities during the 1990s. According to the rules of the Loya Jirga, war criminals were to be excluded, but Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single case in which this exclusion clause was used, despite the presence of some of Afghanistans most abusive warlords among the delegates.
A Balanced Cabinet
Karzai unveiled his new cabinet on June 19. The Christian Science Monitor called the new government a rogues gallery. HRWs Salman Zia-Zarifi said, Afghanistans warlords are stronger today than they were ten days ago before the loya jirga started. Zakhilwal and Niazi continue: Our hearts sank when we heard President Hamid Karzai pronounce one name after another. A woman activist turned to us in disbelief: This is worse than our worst expectations. The warlords have been promoted and the professionals kicked out. Who calls this democracy?.... The key ministries of defense and foreign affairs remain in the hands of Muhammad Qasim Fahim and Abdullah, both from the dominant Northern Alliance faction based in the Panjshir Valley.... Three powerful Northern Alliance commandersMr. Fahim, Haji Abdul Qadir and Kharim Khalilihave been made vice presidents...These are the very forces responsible for countless brutalities under the mujahedeen government.... As the loya jirga folded its tent, we met with frustration and anger in the streets. Why did you legitimize an illegitimate government? one Kabul resident asked us. The truth is we didnt...[W]e delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process.
It is significant that the New York Times and the Washington Post published separate accounts by Omar Zakhilwal criticizing the outcome of the loya jirga (the piece excerpted above was co-written by Adeena Niazi), but both articles were published as opinion pieces, not as news. So-called news articles instead focused on the chaos of the meetings, trivializing the controversies, yet praising the balanced outcome. The New York Times (June 23, 2002) said that Karzais cabinet showed a careful balance of factions and ethnic groups.... Despite Mr. Karzais declared intention of promoting professionals in his cabinet, his appointments clearly reflected the need to please the various regional and ethnic groups. In this context various regional and ethnic groups means warlords. For example, the son of Ismail Khan, called the strongman of Herat, was given the ministry of aviation and tourism. The newspaper rather nonchalantly noted that womens rights might get eliminated from Karzais agenda: The ministry of womens affairs was not mentioned for the new cabinet and may have been cut along with one of only two women ministers in the last government, Dr. Sima Samar.
Alex Thier, a representative of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, called the loya jirga an enormous missed opportunity to weaken the power of the warlords. The Guardian of London complained, The West is Walking Away From AfghanistanAgain. But these criticisms miss the point. By actively shaping events so that the politically weak Hamid Karzai was unchallenged by Zahir Shah, who the vast majority...viewed...as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords, the U.S. envoy was taking an opportunity. Far from walking away, the West was deliberately manipulating the politics of Afghanistan so that a weak leader who depends on foreign backing and who needs to appease the warlords was installed. The first act of intimidation was the U.S. and UN pressuring of Zahir Shah. After the floodgates were opened it was impossible to allow the delegates, many of who had a strong human rights agenda and were intent on weakening the warlords, to either vote or speak their minds freely and fairly.
Referring to the loya jirga, Salman Zia-Zarifi from Human Rights Watch said, Short term political expediency has clearly triumphed over human rights. This will continue to be the outcome in Afghanistan, so long as the United States continues supporting fundamentalist warlords and subverting popular processes within the country. Z
James Ingalls is an advisory board member of the Afghan Womens Mission. He is also a staff scientist at the California Institute of Technology.