Los Angeles Times
December 14, 2003
Echoes of the Bad Old Days
A return to central rule in proposed constitution
slights minorities.

By Atiq Sarwari and Robert Crews

Atiq Sarwari is a program associate at the Kennan
Institute of the
Woodrow Wilson International Center
for Scholars. Robert Crews is an assistant professor
of history at
Stanford University.


In Kabul this weekend, a loya jirga, or grand
assembly, is meeting to debate a draft constitution
Afghanistan. The final document approved there
will not only determine the shape of the Afghan state,
it will also represent a test of
U.S. ambitions to
help build democracies in the region.

Some have suggested that
Afghanistan's constitution
might provide a blueprint for the transition of power
to a representative Iraqi government. But the first
matter on the table is getting agreement on a
constitution for
Afghanistan. It won't be easy. The
process leading up to the loya jirga has been anything
but smooth. Public participation has been hindered by
s censorship, fighting among factions in President
Hamid Karzai's government and the resurgence of
Taliban-sponsored violence. Even if the loya jirga
agrees on a constitution, there are real questions
about whether the proposed document will outline a
proper course for the country.

Since its publication in early November, the proposed
constitution has met with criticism from conservative
and progressive forces. Skeptics in
Afghanistan and
abroad have raised questions about the draft, which
declares the country an "Islamic Republic" and
stipulates that no laws may contradict Islam. Critics
fear that such language represents a concession to
clerics who would like to reimpose a Taliban-like
theocratic regime. At the same time, many Afghans,
particularly in rural areas, have criticized the draft
constitution for not guaranteeing the implementation
of Islamic law in the country. And these are not even
the most pressing problems with the constitutional
process in

In it
s current form, the constitution seems highly
unlikely to yield a democratic model for export to
other parts of the Muslim world or even to stabilize
Afghanistan itself. Indeed, the drafting process
suggests that thi
s constitution will, like past Afghan
constitutions, promote authoritarian rule at the
expense of civil rights. Few Afghans have been
informed about the secretive deliberations of the
constitutional commission, whose members were
appointed by Karzai. Delegates were given just a few
weeks to prepare for the loya jirga, which faces
extreme pressure to ratify the document and schedule
presidential elections for June.

The most glaring flaw in the constitution stems from
its architects' insistence on rigidly centralizing
power in the hands of a
Kabul government dominated by
the president. The draft constitution grants the
president broad discretionary authority to declare a
state of emergency. Backed by a national army, he
would be equipped to impose his will beyond
Kabul. In
this scenario, the center would at last tame the
restive "warlords" and restore order to
rescuing it from the status of a failed state and
menace to the region and the world.

But such a prescription, under current conditions, is
not a formula for stability. Its implementation would
instead mean the resumption of fighting throughout
Afghanistan and the further destabilization of the
region. Relying on its authoritarian predecessor of
1964, the draft constitution seeks to roll back the
clock to the period preceding the Marxist coup and
Soviet invasion. But it ignores the fact that since
then there has been a near-complete breakdown of
central state authority as regional power structures
have arisen.

Far from
Kabul, local commanders led the struggle
against the Afghan communists and the Soviets. These
elites, many of them non-Pushtun, ruled large swaths
of the country until the mid-1990s, when the
Pushtun-dominated Taliban movement attempted to
reimpose centralized authority over them. The Taliban
made gains in Pushtun areas misruled by regional
commanders, but non-Pushtun populations resisted their

Regional commanders gained legitimacy through the
jihad against the Soviets, but they also drew strength
from constituencies that had long sought regional
autonomy and equal rights for
Afghanistan's many
ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. Thus, in the
northern, western and
central provinces, the jihad
brought self-rule and ethnic mobilization to
Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others. These are the
populations that now question the logic of a highly
centralized state. Students have already protested the
constitution's designation of Pashto as the exclusive
language of the national anthem and its refusal to
recognize Uzbek alongside Dari and Pashto as official

Where outsiders see only "warlords," many locals see
"veterans of the jihad" who now guard their interests
against a predatory state seeking to roll back
cultural rights and self-rule. Many Afghans outside
Kabul fear a strong state once again dominated by the
majority Pushtuns, who in their view have used their
power since the late 19th century to oppress
non-Pushtuns, often with foreign assistance. The
experience of Taliban rule only reinforced such
historical memories, as government soldiers
slaughtered thousands of Hazaras and other ethnic
minorities in the late 1990s.

The loya jirga should listen to calls for federalist
institutions that distribute power and resources more
fairly throughout the country. A more decentralized
system might reduce competition among ethnic or
regional factions for control of the national

International sponsors of Afghan reconstruction face a
choice: They can either back
Kabul's conquest of the
provinces and risk a return to civil war or seek a
more creative response to historical circumstances
through the creation of federal institutions. The
choice is between a negotiated but loose integration
of the provinces, and the forceful reconstruction of
an authoritarian state dominated by