KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai, seen until now as a weak leader dominated by tribal warlords, has emerged during 10 days of debate on a new Afghan constitution as a skillful operator talented in using the power of incumbency, lobbying and backroom deals.
Since the nation’s loya jirga, or grand assembly, opened on Dec. 14, Mr. Karzai has succeeded in splitting the mujahideen forces — especially the ethnic Tajiks of the Northern Alliance — by accommodating some who want jobs or international legitimacy, such as Defense Minister Muhammad Qasim Fahim, and sidelining others, such as Education Minister Younus Qanooni, an Islamist who favors a parliamentary system.
The result, almost all observers agree, is that the assembly will end up by solidly endorsing Mr. Karzai’s insistence on a strong presidential system, rejecting calls from the warlords and Islamists for a parliamentary system that would give them greater power.
“I think it’s a kind of turning point in the history of Afghanistan,” said Husain Ramoz, an analyst at the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. “Guns couldn’t win a majority in this loya jirga.”
Mr. Karzai demonstrated his mastery on just the second day of the debate, when the 502 delegates chose the president’s candidate for chairman of the convention by a margin of more than 100 votes over fundamentalist political leader Abdul Hafiz Mansoor.
“I’ll tell you how they beat me,” fumed Mr. Mansoor, who had hoped to cash in on the fact that a majority of delegates represent fundamentalist parties and their mujahideen sponsors. “They did it through jobs, money, persuasion and threats.”
Western observers worry that Mr. Karzai may be perpetuating a culture of corruption and impunity by making deals with fundamentalist warlords at the expense of some Islamic moderates and progressives.
“This is a short-term strategy,” said Vikram Parekh of the International Crisis Group, an independent think tank. “It doesn’t give him long-term political support, and it doesn’t build a representative political system. …
“He may have calculated that relying on liberal forces would not sustain him at the loya jirga and that this was the course he had to take,” Mr. Parekh said.
The constitutional loya jirga is a pillar of Afghanistan’s reconstruction plan, an attempt to create a durable system of governance amid competing religious, ethnic and regional agendas.
Mr. Karzai, a suave and conservative Pashtun clan leader, was installed in the presidential palace after U.S.-led forces ejected the hard-line Taliban regime in 2001. He was named interim president at an emergency loya jirga last year, and plans to run for a full term next year.
Mr. Karzai has argued for “a system that will ring with one centrality, not with many centers of power,” which in theory would limit the influence of regional warlords.
In the summer, many were questioning whether Mr. Karzai was the right person to lead his nearly Texas-size nation from 30 years of war and repression.
Local governors were withholding funds meant for the central treasury; private militias were accused of murder, rape and robbery; and neo-Taliban attackers were gaining strength in the south and west.
Slowly, Mr. Karzai began to stir, replacing governors and transferring police and military officials. In September, he fired Kabul’s police chief for evicting people from their homes in a land grab connected to Mr. Fahim, the defense minister, who wasn’t disciplined.
The run-up to the loya jirga largely was a battle over who could better manipulate the process. What has surprised many is how well Mr. Karzai played the game.
When 19,000 community leaders voted for delegates to the constitutional convention, the warlords, flush with guns and cash, took the majority.
For example, 10 of 14 seats from Kabul, where religious attitudes are softer than in the countryside, went to the party of Abdul Rab Rasool Sayaaf, a warlord with views similar to the Taliban’s.
But the irregularities weren’t limited to the mujahideen. In Mr. Karzai’s hometown of Kandahar, the president’s brother, Qayyum, was a top vote-getter despite strong traditional support for the monarchist National Unity Movement.
Mr. Karzai’s final hedge was a group of 52 delegates, whom he directly appointed to the loya jirga.
The appointments were meant to add lawyers and other experts to the field of delegates. Instead, Mr. Karzai’s list is dominated by members of powerful mujahideen factions and political supporters.
By the weekend, Mr. Mansoor and other backers of a parliamentary system were fighting a rearguard action in the working committees, with little prospect of success.
“Karzai will fail,” Mr. Mansoor maintained this week, but he didn’t sound convinced.