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Afghanistan's New Constitution Ready for Public Review - 2003-06-03

Almost two years after the fall of the Taleban, Afghanistan is preparing to decide on a new constitution and a new democratic government. With a draft text now ready, the Afghan constitutional commission plans to gather opinion from people across the country.

The Afghan Constitutional Commission has set up offices in eight cities to begin gathering public views on a new system of government. Similar offices have been set up in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, to get the views of Afghan refugees.

While the commission is interested in suggestions from the people, it does not plan to share information on the draft constitution. The text will remain secret until September, when the public consultation process ends.

Commission Vice Chairman Abdul-Salam Azimi has offered some details, however. Mr. Azimi told a United Nations news service [Integrated Regional Information Networks] that the new government will have both a president and prime minister, and separate executive, legislative and judicial branches.

The commission plans to amend the current draft based on suggestions from the public. The director of the commission's secretariat, Farooq Wardak, says commissioners will interview religious leaders, tribal elders, teachers and ordinary men and women for ideas.

But as the consultation begins, the United Nations and local human rights officials are reporting cases of political intimidation across the country.

U.N. spokesman Manoel de Almeida e Silva says that in many areas, Afghans who speak publicly about politics face threats, physical aggression and even detention by local militias.

Mr. de Almeida e Silva says he and others are seeking help from Afghan law enforcement agencies to safeguard the right to political expression.

"We will be paying attention, monitoring this process, denouncing those who do not contribute to this conducive environment and bringing them to the attention of the authorities for legal prosecution," he said.

Whatever form the new constitution takes, it will need to strike a balance between the provincial governors and the central government. Mr. Azimi from the constitutional commission says the draft provides for a strong central authority.

But Hong Kong scholar Terence Yeung, who has written extensively on Afghan politics, says local warlords, many of whom are provincial governors, are at the root of the problem.

He said these local leaders, as well as dangerous remnants of the old Taleban government, must be dealt with before a new system of government can take shape.

"So if they are still at large and if they are still able to launch military attacks against the provisional government, we do have to listen to them. And so, that's not the end of the story," Mr. Yeung said.

Afghan Central Bank Governor Anwarul Haq Ahadi agrees that nothing will be accomplished unless the warlords can be brought under control.

He adds, however, that transitional President Hamid Karzai is beginning to take control of the situation, in part by demanding that provincial leaders turn over customs revenue to the central government.

"I don't think that foreign investors will be very much impressed if they see the country [and] there are different warlords in different parts of the country," said Mr. Ahadi. "I think the Karzai administration has just begun to address that issue and I think receiving the revenues from the provinces by the central government, that's the first step in this direction."

After the new constitution is published, the transitional authority plans to convene a loya jirga, or tribal council, to approve it in October. Under the Bonn Agreement of 2001, which set up the transitional government, the constitution must be finalized and elections held by next June.