Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
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An opportunity to seize

Afghanistan's new interim administration takes office in Kabul on 22 December. A spokesman for the country's former king Mohamed Zaher Shah, told Samia Nkrumah in Rome that Afghans now have a chance to solve their country's problems

"We were presented with a golden opportunity in Bonn that we could not waste," said Dr Zalmai Rassoul, spokesman for former Afghan king Mohamed Zaher Shah, talking about the outcome of the Bonn conference two weeks ago.

The conference ended with the formation with an interim government for war- torn Afghanistan. Although most observers agree the deal thrashed out at Bonn is not wholly representative of all Afghans, it amounted to a victory of sorts for Zaher Shah's Rome-based delegation. The agreement is based on a peace plan that they forwarded over a decade ago.

"We are happy with the agreement," confirmed Rassoul. "It is a purely Afghan project and imitates almost word for word the peace process initiated by the former king." He added that the new deal is a modified form of the 1964 constitution. "It incorporates social reform and human rights and combines civil law with Shari'a. It makes Afghanistan into a moderate Muslim country."

The Rome group -- as they have become known due to Zaher Shah's extended exile in Italy since 1973 -- have long campaigned for an end to Afghanistan's war, the creation of an interim government and the convening of an emergency Loya Jirga or grand assembly of elders, with elections to follow within two years. All of these elements are contained in the recent deal.

The ex-king's supporters concede that the new administration's line up is far from perfect. In this, they echo the comments of Lakhdar Brahimi, UN special envoy to Afghanistan. "Let's not forget those people who are not present here," he said after the talks.

Even so, Zalmai Rassoul is not perturbed by the fact that the Northern Alliance (NA) got the most seats -- 17 in the 30-member administration that will run the country for the next six months. The NA bagged key seats like the foreign, defence and interior ministries. Nevertheless, according to Rassoul, the fact remains that the NA have been persuaded to share power in the interim administration. The king's supporters secured nine seats and, significantly, the choice for the premiership of the new administration fell on their group.

Their first preference was Abdul-Sattar Sirat, who was justice minister under the monarchy and has been a close adviser to the ex-monarch for many years. Sirat is fluent in Arabic and a graduate of Al-Azhar. Like other veterans in the Afghan political scene, however, he was sidelined for younger blood. The post was taken instead by 46-year-old Hamid Karzai.

Sirat was not the only member of the older generation to lose out. Former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, the NA's Abdul-Rassoul Sayyef and Pashtun leader Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani all failed to secure their positions -- which went instead to Abdullah Abdullah, Younis Qanooni and Mohamed Fahim of the NA.

The idea is that the younger generation of leaders is considered to have a more moderate tone, to be less involved with the past and to have a less selfish political agenda. "Afghanistan needs new blood," agreed Zalmai Rassoul.

Despite this, Hamid Karzai, who is official head of the interim council, is no stranger to the ex-monarch. Like his own father who was assassinated a few years ago, Karzai has long supported the peace plan forwarded by the former king. After Zaher Shah renewed his call for a Loya Jirga about three years ago, it was Karzai -- a Pashtun leader -- who spread the message abroad and secured international acceptance for the idea. He has proved his abilities as an effective communicator in the past. His direct involvement in efforts to bridge gaps between the different ethnic groups prove that he is a man of action as well as words. Karzai has added appeal because, in addition to his extensive Western contacts, he has received the stamp of approval from Iran, Pakistan and Russia.

So why is the king still important? It is believed that Zaher Shah was not considered a practical choice to lead the interim administration, and he himself is said to have turned down the offer. But his supporters believe that he is still widely seen as a unifying force and symbol of national unity. "He represents not just the Pashtun majority but the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara, Turkmen, Baluch and Nooristani minorities and others," said Rassoul. He has the added advantage that, unlike the NA and the Taliban, he has not been a perpetrator of war.

The Loya Jirga is a time-honoured tradition in Afghanistan and, as the eldest of the elders, it is the ex-monarch who is expected to open it. In Afghan tradition, the interim administration will need to have confidence from the Loya Jirga before it gets legitimacy. In a sense, who occupies which post in the interim body is not of crucial importance. The body is not a cabinet and there is no head of state as such. It is simply a body that will be in charge until the Loya Jirga meets. As one analyst observed, "The Loya Jirga was the axis of the Bonn agreement."

Zaher Shah is due to return to Afghanistan in the spring of 2002 to open the Loya Jirga which will be constituted of 400 to 600 local leaders from each district of each province. These people will include mullahs, mujahedin, teachers and women -- as long as they are not members of the interim council.

On the other hand, it remains a possibility that the six-month interim administration might be extended and actually serve out two years if their performance is satisfactory. After the two years, elections will be held.

The Afghan agreement also stipulates that a UN-mandated force must maintain security in the capital and surrounding areas. Currently, there seems to be no more mention of an international Muslim force to take up this task. Instead, there is talk of a 50,000 - 60,000 strong multinational force. Britain has offered to command the force and contribute 10,000 soldiers.

Turkey, the only NATO member with a predominantly Muslim population, is also tipped to be sending forces. What is certain is that there will be no troops from Afghanistan's neighbouring states. The NA army is expected to complete the demilitarisation of Kabul and its surrounding areas before Karzai takes office.

Rassoul expressed surprise that not a single Arab country was present as an observer at the talks held in Germany. There were 17 observer states, including the US, Germany and several EU member-states as well as three Muslim states -- Turkey, Pakistan and Iran. "Ever since 11 September, we have been bombarded with offers for talks from everywhere except the Arab states," the spokesman for the Rome initiative commented ruefully.

American troops will also remain in the country for some time, at least until they complete their mission of hunting down all remaining Al-Qa'eda leaders. As a result, there will be two different kinds of foreign forces in Afghanistan: the multinational force and American-led forces.

"In a country which has been wrecked by war for the past two decades, the people are accustomed to foreign forces. Even over the past few years, Afghanistan has been an occupied country in a certain sense. The people who continue to fight with the US are not Afghans. I don't think that people will have a problem with the presence of the multilateral force," reasoned the former king's spokesman.

He warned that the military presence must be accompanied by massive humanitarian assistance, however. "Most Afghans who were fighting in Afghanistan's wars were doing it because it was a job that offered a pay. Now we have to offer economic activity to enable people to earn a living."

The new administration will not necessarily have an easy ride. It could well be threatened from inside Afghanistan by warlords of various political affiliations or ethnicities. Already, Commander Abdel-Rashid Dostum has promised to boycott the new administration because the Uzbek, his ethnic group, are not sufficiently represented in interim body.

Nevertheless, it is foreign interference that has been the single most destabilising factor in the country. Afghans have had to pay a massive price for the end of Taliban rule. According to a report released very recently by Marc Herold, professor of economics at the university of New Hampshire, 3,500 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan as a result of US bombing so far. Besides this, hundreds of thousands have been displaced. Afghanistan's fabric has been destroyed, socially and economically. Afghans simply cannot start rebuilding from scratch without international help.

The reconstruction costs will be very high indeed. It is estimated that up to $10 billion will be required over the next five years. Many donor countries are meeting in Japan shortly to discuss the cost of rebuilding Afghanistan. The US, Japan, Germany, some other EU states and Canada will be the biggest donors. Italy alone has pledged $40 million. From the Arab world, however, only Saudi Arabia is expected to contribute.

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