Deal Reached on New Afghan Constitution

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jan 4 14:58:43 UTC 2004

New York Times, January 4, 2004

Deal Reached on New Afghan Constitution


Filed at 7:51 a.m. ET

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghanistan's constitutional convention agreed
Sunday on a historic new charter, its chairman said, overcoming weeks of
division to hammer out a compromise meant to bind together the war-ravaged
nation's mosaic of ethnic groups. Just a day after warning the summit was
heading to humiliating failure, council chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi
told the 502-delegates meeting under a giant tent in the Afghan capital
that last-ditch diplomacy secured a comprehensive deal.

``We are very happy that all the members of the loya jirga have reached a
very successful agreement,'' Mujaddedi said. He gave no details of how an
impasse over whether to grant official status to minority languages, an
issue which brought the meeting close to collapse, had been solved. But he
said a new draft of the document would be distributed to the delegates
shortly and that U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai would arrive later
Sunday to wind up the convention.

The convention began on Dec. 14 with delegates taking up a 160-article
draft constitution presented by Karzai's government in November. The final
accord is expected to give Karzai the strong presidential system he had
been insisting on. Karzai has argued strongly for a dominant chief
executive to hold the country together as it rebuilds and reconciles after
more than two decades of war. He said he wouldn't run if he didn't get his

U.S. and U.N. officials worked tirelessly to broker a backroom agreement
to bolster a peace process begun after the ouster of the Taliban two years
ago. In three weeks of often rancorous debate, religious conservatives
forced through amendments to make the constitution more Islamic --
possibly with a ban on alcohol, according to previously announced
agreements. On the other hand, wording was changed to spell out that men
and women should be treated equally -- a key demand of human rights

In the most bruising tussle, minorities like the Uzbeks and Turkmen from
the north apparently won official status for their languages in the areas
where they are strongest, with grudging acceptance from the more numerous
Pashtuns. Karzai's rivals strengthened parliament with amendments giving
it veto power over more key appointments. His rivals are mainly from the
Northern Alliance faction that helped U.S. forces drive out the Taliban
they accused of harboring Osama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11
terror attacks. A new commission was expected to be set up to monitor
implementation of the constitution.

But with no provision for a prime minister or strong regional councils,
the wide-ranging powers sought by Karzai in his draft released in November
appeared to have survived mainly intact. The charter makes the president
commander in chief of the armed forces, charges him with determining the
nation's fundamental policies and gives him sweeping power to push through

``It's going to be a strong presidential system with a good parliament,''
said Mirwais Yasini, the deputy chairman of the jirga. ``Everything is in
balance.'' Observers said it was vital for the constitution to command
broad support, and analysts have voiced concern that Karzai's reliance on
the support of his fellow Pashtuns could make him a partisan figure in the
eyes of the country's myriad minorities.

That could make it more difficult to push ahead with other aspects of the
U.N.-sponsored peace drive, especially the disarmament of the unruly
regional factions that control much of the country. The world body has
warned that taming the factions, and persuading some of the estimated
100,000 militia fighters still roaming the country, is essential to
prevent intimidation from spoiling the presidential elections scheduled
for June.

It also has warned that the poll could be delayed until September to give
Afghan and U.S. troops more time to improve security in the south and
east, where Taliban insurgents and their allies regularly attack troops,
government staff and aid workers. Delegates at the loya jirga said
parliamentary elections would likely follow within six months.

Talks broke down several times during the jirga, most recently on Saturday
over what delegates said was a dispute over a single word -- ``official''
-- the status sought by Uzbek- and Turkmen-speaking minorities for their
language. Leaders called the breakdown shameful, and vowed that Sunday
would be the final day for talks, even if it meant failure.

U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay
Khalilzad worked into the night to help broker a compromise, according to
Hedayatullah Hedayat, a prominent Uzbek delegate. Hedayat said dozens of
delegates from different ethnic groups had agreed overnight that the
minority languages would be considered official in areas where their
minorities were strongest.

It was unclear how a spat over allowing ministers to hold dual citizenship
had been resolved. Two of Karzai's closest Cabinet allies are believed to
hold American passports.

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