- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2003

In Afghanistan it’s like deja vu all over again. Mujahideen groups battle for control of land, drug revenues and smuggling routes. The Taliban are regrouping across the south and the east, recruiting people who have nothing to lose by signing up for a group that at least imposed some semblance of order. Afghanistan’s chief justice, a hard-line cleric, has tried to ban cable TV and limit girls’ access to education. Across the country, people live in fear of marauding men with AK-47s who are often warlords, police or army chiefs and political bosses rolled into one. It’s often hard to know where government ends and banditry begins. Is this what the world meant when it promised that it wouldn’t let Afghanistan down again?

Eighteen months have passed since Kabul fell to coalition forces. They liberated Afghans from the medieval diktat of the Taliban and offered them a future. Most important was the promise, after decades of war, of a new way of running things — a system of government in which Afghans could rise above ethnic, religious and factional prejudice. A government, in other words, where all groups have a voice and disputes can be settled through negotiation and the rule of law, rather than guns.

Now, that seems unlikely to happen. In the midst of a dispiriting atmosphere of bombings and rising violence, the international community and the Afghan transitional administration are trying to draft a new constitution. Afghanistan has already had many constitutions — more than half a dozen since 1923. There are some common flaws that might have been detected by now. Sadly they are being repeated, creating a real risk of yet more conflict down the line.

The process of drafting the constitution has so far failed even the most minimal tests of public involvement and openness. A drafting committee has worked in secret and then refused to share the draft. Two women, token appointments, were reduced to little more than secretarial roles. A commission that is to conduct public debate has been stacked with extremists, including some little different from the Taliban in their attitudes.

The chief United Nations official in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, has often stressed the need to broaden the political base of the peace process, saying too many Afghans feel excluded. But the United Nations has actively resisted attempts to discuss the constitution with more people. It has devoted a paltry amount of time and money listening to Afghans. More consultations would be too dangerous, too difficult and too time- consuming, U.N. staff say. Some have even claimed that people in rural Afghanistan, aren’t able to understand the issues.

In my recent travels across Afghanistan, the same theme was echoed among political leaders, village elders, women, journalists, lawyers and even mujahideen commanders: people are desperate for a government that belongs to all the people, and for leaders capable of transcending partisan concerns. They yearn for something new — a representative, accountable government. Very few want to see the return of extremism of any shade. They need and deserve a constitution that will set the rules for a fair government in which they have a say.

It’s time to drop this secretive and unrepresentative constitutional process and give Afghans a voice. Use elections next year to select a National Assembly that can debate and refine the constitution in an open, accountable manner. Devote time and money to consulting Afghans and explaining what options are out there. Do more to create secure conditions in which moderate Afghans will no longer be fearful of expressing their opinions. Only through an open and democratic process can peace return to Afghanistan.

Aziz Huq is a lawyer and analyst for the International Crisis Group. ICG’s new report, “Afghanistan’s Flawed Constitutional Process,” is available at www.crisisweb.org.

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