Thursday, January 8, 2004

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan yesterday said Afghans will not be forced to practice Islam, even though the country’s new draft constitution makes numerous references to Islam’s supremacy.

“The constitution recognizes that the religion of the state of Afghanistan is Islam,” Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in response to questions from The Washington Times. “The majority of Afghans, about 98 percent or so, are Muslims.

“But there are other religions that have adherents there,” Mr. Khalilzad added. “The draft constitution that has been approved by the loya jirga now recognizes the right of people who belong to other religions to practice their religions.”

The recently concluded loya jirga — Afghanistan’s equivalent of a constitutional convention — encompassed Islamic fundamentalists and warlords, although both groups were marginalized by larger and more moderate factions.

“They were there — the warlords and fundamentalists,” said Mr. Khalilzad, who returned to Washington from Afghanistan late Wednesday. “But the majority of the Afghans, as reflected during the loya jirga, seek [a] moderate interpretation of Islam.

“They spoke forcefully and courageously in support of that and challenged extremist interpretations of Islam — and rejected it,” he added.

The resulting constitution also calls for a reduced role for warlords.

“The majority would like a stronger central government,” Mr. Khalilzad said. “They decided to go for a centralized system at this point because national institutions have been destroyed.

“They want those institutions strengthened to bring peace and stability to various regions,” he added.

The ambassador emphasized that Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, took the “unprecedented” step of recognizing minority languages during negotiations over the new constitution.

“We have talked often about negative things in Afghanistan affecting other countries,” he said. “I think this is a positive step in terms of recognition of rights of minorities which could have also positive effects with regard to other countries where they have minorities and their rights have not been adequately dealt with.”

Mr. Khalilzad predicted that presidential and parliamentary elections will be held this summer on schedule, despite assertions by the United Nations that security is insufficient. He also said Afghanistan is trying to sign up larger numbers of voters because of a “slower-than-expected registration so far.”

Mr. Khalilzad also applauded Pakistan for cracking down on al Qaeda terrorists hiding out in mountains near the Afghan border.

“For success in Afghanistan and for success in the war against terrorism, it’s important that Pakistan not be used as a sanctuary by extremists and terrorists,” he said. “I welcomed the announcement that there is a major operation under way in Waziristan against al Qaeda and terrorists and I hope it will succeed in apprehending senior members of al Qaeda and the Taliban.”

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