Afghanistan's grand elective assembly, the Loya Jirga, is approaching its end. Has it been the grand democratic exercise that its proponents claim? Or, as critics charge, has it been deeply flawed?
When the Loya Jirga convened on Tuesday, one day late, Afghan and foreign observers alike marveled. Under a giant tent, Afghans rose to express their views on a wide range of subjects. It was touted as evidence of Afghanistan's new, free political landscape.
But a dark side of the Loya Jirga has emerged. Delegates privately complain of threats and intimidation by warlords and provincial governors. Moreover, some charge, the flow of free speech on mundane matters has been used as a tactic to keep delegates from tackling sensitive major issues, such as who will have cabinet posts in the new interim government.
Delegate Hassan Kakar, who ran unsuccessfully to be chairman of the Loya Jirga, says the council has, on the whole, been disappointing. "Now, our expectation from this Loya Jirga was that because of the international community involvement, it will be much more democratic than Loya Jirga held in Afghanistan perhaps after [King] Amanullah's time," he said. "But for all these things we have said, and also some other factors also, the people as a whole are not very much satisfied with the Loya Jirga."
Delegate Huymayun Asefi says the Loya Jirga has become little more than a rubber stamp for decisions already made by newly elected interim president Hamid Karzai and his allies of the Northern Alliance. "Our impression is that this time, the Loya Jirga is not here to take decisions," he said. "The Loya Jirga is here to legitimize a scenario which was made behind closed doors elsewhere, and not only with Afghans."
The foreign minister in the outgoing interim government, Abdullah Abdullah, said he expected complaints. But echoing the sentiments of senior U.N. officials he says the Loya Jirga was the best that could have been hoped for, given Afghanistan's condition after 30 years of war, unrest, and civil strife. It is, he says, a step towards real democracy. "This is not the most perfect, the most ideal way of doing it," said Abdullah Abdullah. "But this is a step, it is a step forward. The irony is that those people who were shouting for Loya Jirga for so many years, since their personal interest is not preserved, they are against it, and they are criticizing it baseless claims and criticisms."
The Loya Jirga was convened under the auspices of the United Nations and under the terms of the U.N.-mediated Bonn Agreement, signed last year. The accords say the Loya Jirga is to choose an interim leader, approve "key personalities" - that is, cabinet members of the government - and elect a kind of temporary parliament.
But after six of the scheduled seven days, the Loya Jirga had only accomplished one thing: the election of Hamid Karzai as interim president.
The council was supposed to have 1,500 elected delegates. But somehow several hundred more are in attendance, apparently appointed by Mr. Karzai. Most are provincial governors - local warlords that under the Bonn Agreement, are not supposed to be in the assembly.
Delegate Omar Zakhilwal, who returned from Canada as one of the Afghan exile delegates, quotes how the governors are threatening and intimidating delegates to get their way. "'You are with me. You will do what I tell you to do. If you do not, you know we go back to our provinces, don't we?' This is a threat," he said. "So these governors are there primarily because they know the delegates of their provinces, to influence them. One of the reasons that some of the delegates of the house do not dare to get up [to speak] is because the governors are there. And they see them. So I think that the people by and large are silenced."
Mr. Zakhilwal's account of intimidation by the governors and warlords is backed up not only by other delegates interviewed, but by at least one member of the independent commission that set up the Loya Jirga. Sa'id Masood says he was at a meeting with Mr. Karzai at which the leader insisted on the presence of the governors.
With a sad smile, Mr. Masood says the United Nations did its job, but that he and other members of the Loya Jirga Commission failed in theirs. "The reason that I am really disappointed is that I had given, or we had given, a lot or promises to the people of Afghanistan," he said. "I do not know how we will be able to look at them, at their faces, from now on, and how we will be able to answer them."
The Loya Jirga is to resume Monday with debate about the composition of an interim legislature.