- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 25, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan Once it selected kings and made national law. This latest edition will decide Afghanistan's fate as a nation.

Called the grand council, or loya jirga, the gathering of tribal elders, ethnic leaders, militia commanders and political figures is scheduled to meet June 10-16 in Kabul to choose a new government that will take power by June 22. That government will have a life span of no more than two years, after which democratic elections are planned to choose a new government.

The lengthy and complex process for selecting the loya jirga members 1,501, about triple the size of the U.S. Congress already has begun. The selection is filled with pitfalls because rival factions are vying to influence the process and, thus, the decisions of the council.

Those who don't get their way are expected to try to make sure others don't get their way, either.

"There are some guns out there," said Anders Fange, a U.N. official who is helping to plan the council meeting. "Some people don't like the loya jirga. There will be efforts to intimidate people and to disturb the loya jirga."

The need for unity is so great that Mohammed Zahir Shah, 87, Afghanistan's former king who was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1973, has returned from exile to convene the council. He is viewed by many Afghans, but not all, as a grandfatherly symbol of the nation around whom people of different ethnic groups will rally, if only to prevent another civil war.

But the risks are great.

As the June 10 opening draws nearer, officials fear that powerful interests will turn to violence to scuttle the U.N.'s plan for organizing the country's future. Since the Taliban was overthrown late last year by U.S. and Afghan-allied forces, the country has been controlled by former warlords, who rule their tribal regions under shaky alliances with the weak and fledgling interim administration in Kabul, headed by Hamid Karzai.

International observers are monitoring the selection process, which began this month and ended early this week.

Most members of the grand council will be chosen from 381 districts throughout the country. Each district will select at least one member, and additional members from the larger districts will be chosen according to unreliable population estimates.

Another 450 members of the loya jirga will be chosen from educational and cultural institutions, special-interest groups and the government.

Women will be allotted 160 seats, almost 11 percent, of the total membership, probably their largest percentage in the history of the traditional gatherings. [However, the Associated Press reports that of nearly 4,700 delegates appointed by mid-May to pick the members of the loya jirga, only 42 are women.]

Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik who has been sidelined since Mr. Karzai's interim government took power, recently disparaged the planned loya jirga. Mr. Rabbani predicted it would be a showpiece that would not represent all the people.

The ex-king and Mr. Karzai are members of the Pashtun tribe, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. The potential for Pashtuns to dominate the new government frightens other ethnic groups, such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Nuristanis.

An agreement struck in Bonn last December by the United States, the United Nations and Afghan tribal factions established Mr. Karzai's interim government and calls for the loya jirga. At the time, the Bonn group specifically praised Mr. Rabbani for readily agreeing to transfer power to Mr. Karzai.

But international aid officials in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif say that Mr. Rabbani, who was president during the disastrous years of civil war from 1992 until the Taliban took control in 1996, is now calling for a holy war against foreigners in the country.

There hasn't been a fully representative loyal jirga in more than 25 years. In the turbulent years of civil war and Taliban rule, councils were small with narrow agendas and were manipulated by the ethnic leaders who called them.

It has been decades, at least, since Afghanistan had a reputable census, which makes it difficult to assign fair representation to the loya jirga. The war-ravaged population is such a mystery that some international officials put the figure at anywhere from 15 million to 25 million.

Already complaints are being voiced about the size of local councils that will select members of the loya jirga. Special local assemblies numbering from 400 to 1,000 members will choose from 20 to 60 people to serve on a district council in each of Afghanistan's 381 districts. Members of the district councils will be chosen by reputation and consensus, said Mr. Fange of the United Nations.

Competing interests are demanding a greater voice in the preliminary selection process, and those who believe their voices are not heard are expected to try to scuttle the remainder of the process and the June meeting itself.

Overseeing the process is a 21-member loya jirga commission, which also was created by the Bonn agreement. The loya jirga commission can veto anyone selected to the grand council on grounds of an unsuitable personal history if there is evidence of violating human rights, dealing in drugs or committing war crimes.

Because of the possibility that some factions could resort to violence to try to destabilize the process, the commission and U.N. officials are considering bringing in armed guards.

The Bonn agreement also calls for a constitutional commission to be established by Aug. 22, and for another special loya jirga to be called by December 2003 to adopt a new constitution for the country.

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