Kathy Gannon, a veteran foreign correspondent and currently the Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, hails the Afghan constitution approved January 4 by the loya jirga as "a tremendously positive development." The longtime Associated Press bureau chief in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Gannon was in Kabul to witness the historic grand council. Despite her optimism about its achievements, she warns that the government of President Hamid Karzai faces a stiff challenge ensuring security, which she says has worsened in the past two years since the overthrow of the Taliban.
Gannon was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 5, 2004.
You’ve been in Kabul for the loya jirga. How do you assess its work?
I think it is a tremendously positive development. It was a grand council of Afghans from around the country who came together. It was originally supposed to last less than two weeks; it went on for 21 days. There was some pretty rancorous debate, but in the end they came up with a document. There was a real debate between those wanting a strong presidential system and those wanting a strong parliamentary system. President Hamid Karzai advocated a strong presidency. That was settled upon. Having a constitution allows the Afghans to move forward toward elections [later this year].
All that being said, there were some very deep divisions, and a lot of bruising, that went on among the different ethnic groups. The debate and discussions turned quite acrimonious. There was a real debate on what should be the official language. They settled on two official languages: Dari [the Afghan dialect of Persian spoken by about a third of the Afghan population, particularly in the north and west] and Pashto [also spelled Pushto, spoken by about half the population, particularly in Kabul and Kandahar and for years the official language]. And they agreed that in an area where another group was in the majority, such as in an Uzbek area, that language would be the third official language. It was a good compromise.
But the debate certainly emphasized the ethnic divisions. President Karzai, from what a lot of the delegates said, played the Pashtun card. He is a Pashtun. It remains to be seen how much effect that has. Will it anger some within the other ethnic groups? The Pashtuns did have a very strong role in this loya jirga. Theyd been feeling quite sidelined for two years since the fall of the Taliban, because the Taliban are mostly Pashtun. So, in a way, it was a very important moment for them to regain a strong voice.
Reports from women’s groups indicate that they are pleased with the constitution.
The head of the local human rights commission, Sima Samar, said that she did not think that it went far enough, but she was pleased with what they got. What they got was a recognition in the constitution of equal rights for all citizens, and it mentioned specifically "man or woman." They got two women representatives from each of Afghanistan’s provinces in the parliament, which was a significant concession. That means women are guaranteed 64 seats in parliament, about 25 percent, which is a huge step forward. They got some very solid rights enshrined in the constitution. Sima Samar did say she would have liked to have seen the constitution say that education should be mandatory for all Afghans. It doesnt say that.
What role did the United States play behind the scenes?
I think the United States played quite a large role. In the last few days, when the debate turned particularly acrimonious and there were some really serious divisions between the Pashtuns and the minority groups, the United States envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, helped out, along with Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy. They met with delegates, talked things through, helped with the negotiations, tried to find compromises. There was certainly a very definite U.S. role in moving the process forward so that it did not collapse in failure. [Also], the United States has been very active in pushing the whole process forward, in getting the loya jirga together, in getting the constitution [process under way].
When does this constitution take effect?
Immediately. The next step is the election of the president. That is expected to be held in September. The original schedule was for June or July, but it seems clear it is not going to happen that soon. [Authorities] have to compile voting rolls. The desire is also to hold parliamentary elections at the same time, but it is not expected that they will be held until six months later.
Right now, there is no Afghan parliament, correct?
Yes. At this point, there is just a government, a Cabinet with ministers. But the president, at a previous loya jirga, was approved. He selected his Cabinet. So it is really government by selection, not government by election— except for Karzai, who was at least indirectly elected by the 2001 loya jirga.
Are there political parties as such in Afghanistan, or just ethnic groups?
Because of the lack of strong political parties, President Karzai made the case for a strong presidency. He said that right now in Afghanistan, there aren’t really political parties. There are ethnic groups, there are factions, but there aren’t political parties. And if you have a parliamentary system, you have to have strong political parties, or you risk having a lot of weak parties and coalition governments that collapse within four or six months. It is necessary to try to build up institutions and systems that don’t exist now in Afghanistan. That was [Karzai’s] argument for a strong presidency.
Are there any countries in the world with this model?
It is very similar to the U.S. system, where you have a strong presidency. There will be two houses in the parliament, like the House of Representatives and the Senate in the United States. One, called the House of the People, will have no more than 250 members, and the upper house, called the House of Elders, will have about 120.
What are the problems facing the country?
There are huge problems in translating the words into action. There are no institutions or systems that are actually functioning. The Afghans have to develop an independent judiciary, and they have to develop all sorts of governmental bodies. There is strong concern that the warlords, who were represented at this loya jirga and were criticized by several of the delegates, will not have their authority curbed, and that the security issue is not being dealt with. There is a challenge ahead. The whole idea behind [the loya jirga] was to create a strong presidency and centralized government that could impose its authority and enforce its mandate everywhere.
Its a positive step. They now have a framework. They have something they have agreed upon. One thing that was very positive in this loya jirga was that the delegates’ voices were strong. Some of the warlords tried to intimidate. In several cases, the delegates said no to the ethnic warlords who tried to influence them to vote one way or the other. At one point, they refused to vote, despite being asked by the ethnic warlords who controlled them. It was a very positive development in that the delegates took the warlords on.
But it remains to be seen if the president will move forward to enact this constitution and use the powers given him to develop a strong, centralized government that imposes its rule on the regions. If it doesn’t, there will be continuing disaffection, and this will give strength to a resurgent Taliban, to anarchy, to chaos. There is a real challenge ahead.
Will giving the Pashtuns more power in the constitution reduce Taliban influence over them?
I don’t think this will happen immediately. Since the fall of the Taliban, the Pashtuns have felt totally disaffected and marginalized. In this loya jirga, they were very vocal. This constitution may allow them to feel that they have been brought back into the fold. Everybody recognizes that the Pashtuns were so disaffected that they became fodder for the Taliban.
What about security in the country?
Security is very bad, particularly in the south and the east. Work has just been completed on a paved road from Kabul to Kandahar. It is the first real reconstruction project finished in Afghanistan in the past two years. It is a huge project. But it is very dangerous, even on this new road. People are being kidnapped. [Recently] there was another aid worker kidnapped, two Indian construction workers were kidnapped, and a Turk was kidnapped. People have been killed. In Zabo province, northeast of Kandahar, everyone says that of the 11 districts, eight of them are largely controlled by the Taliban.
There is a lot of work to be done in security. U.N. Special Representative Brahimi, in his speech at the end of the loya jirga, said, "There is fear in the hearts of practically every Afghan because there is no rule of law in Afghanistan." I think they really have to deal with security as the most critical issue.
The more insecure people feel, the more they are going to blame the government. The Taliban were certainly very repressive, but the one thing they provided was security. If you are afraid to go out at night, you start to think, well maybe it wasnt so bad under the Taliban. It is something that has to be addressed by the central government. Two years have passed and security has steadily worsened. A program to disarm the warlords and private militias has only just begun. Quyam Karzai, the president’s brother, said there can’t be free and fair elections unless Kabul is disarmed and demilitarized, and all the warlords are disarmed. That really has to be done in the next few months.
What about drugs? Any discussion of them in the loya jirga?
No. It is a very serious problem in Afghanistan. There are more drugs being grown in areas where previously they were not grown. It is a very lucrative business, and it would not thrive unless it had the support and connivance of local commanders and warlords, who are the regional governors.