- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

Afghanistan's much-anticipated national council to select a new government will open Monday to considerable skepticism that it can ease simmering ethnic tensions or curb the power of the country's increasingly powerful regional warlords.
The six-day loya jirga, or grand national assembly, will gather an estimated 1,051 delegates from around the country and is expected to ratify a two-year term for interim leader Hamid Karzai, who took power in December after a U.S.-led force ousted the fundamentalist Taliban regime.
But the assembly faces a delicate balancing act as the country's Pashtuns, the largest single ethnic group, push for greater representation in a government dominated by ethnic Tajiks and other smaller tribes.
Robert Templer, director of the Asia program at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said the research group's interviews in cities and villages around Afghanistan found a surprisingly intense level of Pashtun resentment about the makeup of the government.
"If the loya jirga process doesn't remedy some of this and bring a greater level of Pashtun representation into the government, then there's a serious risk of a much wider split," Mr. Templer warned at a forum earlier this week at the Brookings Institution.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, said in a report this week that regional warlords such as former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Hamidullah Tokhi, governor of the Afghan province of Zabul, have tried to "undermine" the selection process for the assembly, rigging votes and intimidating rival candidates.
In one village, according to the Human Rights Watch report, the nomination process was held in an open field ringed by security forces loyal to Mr. Tokhi. All 40 of the candidates for the local assembly seats were Tokhi loyalists, according to the report.
Eight loya jirga candidates have been killed in the selection campaign in a country where the international security force has little influence beyond the capital of Kabul.
"In many ways, Afghanistan today resembles Afghanistan in the early 1990s, when regional commanders were consolidating their power before the onset of the savage civil war that followed the fall of the Soviet-sponsored communist government," the human rights groups charged.
"Many of the actors, domestic and foreign, are the same as a decade ago."
Bush administration officials say the situation is not perfect but that the loya jirga nominating process has gone relatively well and that the pessimists paint too dark a picture.
David Johnson, the State Department's Afghanistan policy coordinator, called the negative Human Rights Watch survey "long on accusation and short on fact."
"You have to bear in mind that this is a country where a war continues to go on, and there are areas in it that are certainly unstable, but there are also many areas where this process was conducted in a reasonable way," he told reporters.
But U.S. officials do say they hope next week's assembly will boost the representation of the Pashtuns in the national government.
"There has to be a balance struck," Zalmay Khalilzad, President Bush's representative in Kabul, said at a news conference in the Afghan capital Tuesday. "The outcome of this loya jirga has to be a transitional government that's broadly acceptable."


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