AfghanCouncil approves constitution

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Jan 6 03:03:06 UTC 2004

New York Times, January 5, 2004

Afghan Council Gives Approval to Constitution


     KABUL, Afghanistan, Jan. 4 Delegates at a national meeting approved a
new Constitution for Afghanistan on Sunday, concluding three weeks of
often tense debate. Their decision heralded a new era of democracy after a
quarter-century of war. "There is rain coming, and flowers are growing
from my body," said the chairman of the grand council, Sebaghatullah
Mojadeddi, reciting a poem.

"I am so happy the ending is so pious and beautiful," he added, his voice
cracking as he apologized for any failings in the result. For the first
time, Afghans have set up a democratic presidential system, with a
directly elected president and a two-chamber national assembly;
elections are to be held in just six months. An independent judiciary is
also being organized.

In a carefully balanced wording, the country will be renamed the Islamic
Republic of Afghanistan, combining democracy and religion. There is to be
a system of civil law, but no law will be contrary to the beliefs and
provisions of Islam. The 502 delegates from all over Afghanistan who have
been assembled in a vast white tent in Kabul Polytechnic approved the
Constitution by acclamation. They said prayers, then rose and stood in
silent respect.

The new bedrock of the government was welcomed by Afghan human rights and
women's activists as offering the prospect of the rule of law in the
ravaged country. Diplomats and foreign experts who have been here to
observe the process also praised it for being coherent and even forward
looking for the region. In Washington, President Bush welcomed the new
Constitution, saying in a statement that it would "help ensure that terror
finds no further refuge"  in Afghanistan. The Americans hope the new
arrangements will provide a stronger government that can help Afghanistan
rebuild after the war that defeated the Taliban government that had
befriended Osama bin Laden.

The United Nations special representative here, Lakhdar Brahimi, who
helped in last-minute mediation, was the first to congratulate the
assembly. "Is the Constitution perfect? Probably not," Mr. Brahimi told
delegates. "Will it be criticized? I feel it will be, inside Afghanistan
and outside Afghanistan. But you have every reason to be proud and see
this as a new source of hope." There had been long battles in the assembly
and committee rooms over the three weeks right up to the last moment, but
delegates over all said they accepted the final draft. The grand council,
or loya jirga, added some checks and balances to the presidential powers,
giving the Parliament a veto over senior appointments and over some policy
decisions, and it gave broad language rights to the ethnic minorities in
their own regions.

In addition, women were given recognition as equal citizens, and 25
percent of the seats of the lower house of Parliament were set aside for
them. President Hamid Karzai arrived to congratulate the assembly, his
helicopter drowning out the discourse as it circled to land. Security was
so tight that the president did not drive the one mile from his office.

But his mood was elated as he talked about a future of unity, prosperity
and the rule of law, and celebrated an Afghanistan where a poor boy like
himself could grow up to be president, and where tribal and ethnic
rivalries could become a thing of the past. "It is a Constitution of all
the country," he said. "None of you is the loser; none of you is the
winner. It is a success for us all, for all the people of Afghanistan."

He praised the policy that identifies all the country's various ethnic
groups as parts of the nation, and has allowed them the freedom to use and
teach their languages in the areas where they are the majority. "That was
a great initiative,"  he said. "It's the first time in the history of
Afghanistan that we take a step for the real power of the people," Mr.
Karzai said. "In this Constitution, you gave the right for other languages
to be studied, and it's a good creation for all the people."

The American ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, called it "one
of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world." But Mr.
Brahimi acknowledged that the three weeks had been bruising. "This is a
huge success for the people of Afghanistan," he said. "But in the process
there were a lot of bruises, not just for the Pashtuns but others as well.
It is up to everyone to make sure they build on it."

Mr. Brahimi said that despite Sunday's accomplishment, the biggest
challenges lie ahead. He lamented the insecurity that ordinary Afghans
experience as a result of warlords and their armies and corrupt commanders
and the police. Delegates gave him loud applause. Many interviewed said
the most important thing now was the disarmament and demilitarization of
the country.

"On the whole it is a good Constitution," said one delegate, Abdul Latif
Amiri, from Kandahar. "It will change things if implemented, but at the
moment it is not possible to implement it as there are still arms all over
the country." The ethnic divisions that obstructed the loya jirga were
resolved with persuasion but also some strong-arm negotiations in private.

Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the leader of the Uzbeks and a warlord with a
notorious reputation, pushed hard for the language rights of the Uzbek and
Turkman people and succeeded. But Mr. Karzai announced that the government
had exacted a promise from him in return: that he allow the thousands of
Pashtuns displaced from the north in the last two years to return to their
homes, and to free the remaining hundreds of Taliban prisoners being held
in General Dostum's hometown, Shiberghan. The Pashtuns held an emotional
meeting Sunday morning as leaders urged the rank and file to accede to the
convention's decision not to designate Pashto as the sole national

It had that status in past constitutions, providing a source of pride for
the Pashtuns, the traditional rulers of Afghanistan. "We have all been
forced to accept it," Hamidullah Tarzi, a delegate from the southern city
of Kandahar, said after the meeting. "It's as if we have taken poison, but
for the unity of our country we accept it."

Mr. Karzai praised his fellow Pashtuns for dropping their language demand,
saying: "World power comes from unity, not from discord, but unity, valor
and courage. You have displayed it." He then congratulated the Uzbeks on
their new status, speaking in their language.

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