The Warlords Win in Kabul
June 21, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan On the final night of the loya jirga, more than 1,500 delegates gathered for the unveiling of the new cabinet. 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?"

Interim government ministers with civilian rather than military credentials were dismissed. Mr. Karzai did not announce the minister for women's affairs, prompting speculation that Sima Samar, the popular current minister in that post, will be removed once international attention shifts elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the key ministries of defense and foreign affairs remain in the hands of Gen. Muhammad Qasim Fahim and Abdullah, both from the dominant Northern Alliance faction based in the Panjshir Valley. Yunus Qanooni, of the same faction, was switched from the interior ministry to education, though he is reportedly resisting the move. Three powerful Northern Alliance commanders Mr. Fahim, Haji Abdul Qadir and Kharim Khalili have been made vice presidents, surrounding Mr. Karzai. These are the very forces responsible for countless brutalities under the former mujahedeen government.

There are a few glimmers of hope in the appointments of professionals like Ashraf Ghani as finance minister and Juma Mohammed Mohammadi as minister of mines. But will they be able to accomplish anything within a government of warlords?

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 didn't. While the Bonn agreement and the rules of the loya jirga entitled us to choose the next government freely, we delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process. A small group of Northern Alliance chieftains led by the Panjshiris decided everything behind closed doors and then dispatched Mr. Karzai to give us the bad news.

This is not what we had expected when we first gathered in Kabul to participate in one of the most extraordinary events in Afghan history. Delegates from all backgrounds Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks; urban and rural; Sunni and Shiite sat 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 women's 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 hatreds, that we are a backward people not ready for democracy and equality.

Within a day we had developed a common wish list focused on national unity, peace and security. We also emphasized access to food, education and health services in neglected rural areas. But the one issue that united the delegates above all others was the urgency of reducing the power of warlords and establishing a truly representative government.

This sentiment quickly grew into a grass-roots movement supporting the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, 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. But our democratic effort to nominate Zahir Shah did not please the powers that be. As a result, the entire loya jirga was postponed for almost two days while the former king was strong-armed into renouncing any meaningful role in the government.

After that announcement, the atmosphere at 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 so that supporters of the interim government dominated the proceedings. Fundamentalist leaders branded critics of the warlords as traitors to Islam and circulated a petition denouncing Women's Affairs Minister Samar as "Afghanistan's Salman Rushdie."

Aware that in our country political intimidation can turn quickly into violence, many delegates lost the will to demand their democratic rights. A leading activist for women's rights, who prefers to remain anonymous due to these threats, explained: "Today we are loya jirga delegates, but tomorrow we go home as individuals. Who will protect us if we continue to express our views and fight for our rights?"

Of course we are discouraged that our experiment in grass-roots democracy was suppressed. We are disappointed that our leaders are not willing to recognize women's rightful participation. Above all, we regret that they and the international community abandoned any commitment to democratic rights as soon as we sought to exercise those rights.

Yet we still believe that this is the beginning and not the end, that the seeds of democracy planted by the loya jirga will take root and flourish. We saw at the opening of the loya jirga that it is possible to forge new friendships and alliances across regional, ethnic and gender lines.

Even without modern communications, word travels fast in Afghanistan. As loya jirga delegates return home, every town and village will gather to discuss and debate what happened. The initial experience of democracy we had in Kabul can be replicated and developed into new forms of political expression and organization.

The course of the loya jirga demonstrated that powerful forces inside and outside the country remain categorically opposed to democratic accountability. The dangers of challenging the power of the gun, especially in the absence of genuine international support for the rule of law, are substantial. But the reactions we saw on the streets of Kabul showed that the popular will of Afghans will not tolerate a retreat into the past.

Omar Zakhilwal, an economics professor at Ottawa University, and Adeena Niazi, president of the Afghan Women's Association of Ontario, Canada, were delegates to the loya jirga in Afghanistan. Mr. Zakhilwal co-wrote a recent human rights report on Afghanistan for the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

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