Afghanistan's constitutional albatross

Karzai's fury at the suggestion of democracy does not bode well for either Afghanistan or the wider region.

    President Karzai was reportedly furious upon hearing of a US delegation advocating democratic reform [GALLO/GETTY]

    Washington, DC - Afghan President Hamid Karzai, we are told, was "incredibly angry". And so, rather than being able to focus his late January discussions with Afghan officials in the way he had intended, US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman was forced to engage instead in damage control. At a January 21 press conference in Kabul, Ambassador Grossman attempted to mollify the Afghan head of state by reiterating that a peace deal could only be negotiated by Afghans, and would not be hijacked by US officials, despite current appearances to the contrary.

    Apparently the US envoy's ministrations were only sufficient to bank the fires of Mr Karzai's anger, which must have burst again into flames after his departure, judging from the theatricality of a subsequent statement by US Ambassador to Kabul Ryan Crocker. Crocker attacked head-on the rumours of US support for a partition of Afghanistan - which had so unhinged Afghanistan's volatile president - characterising such stories as "lies that dishonour the sacrifice of more than 1,800 US service members who have died in the cause of a unified Afghanistan". A unified Afghanistan? The families of those fallen service members might be understandably concerned if they actually believed their loved ones to have died in service to an oxymoron.

     Karzai 'accepts' Taliban office in Qatar

    The cause of these histrionics was a joint statement issued some days before in Berlin, following a meeting of a four-person US congressional delegation led by Congressman Dana Rohrbacher with the multi-ethnic leaders of the opposition National Front for Afghanistan. Together, they had signed a document advocating major changes in the Afghan constitution, designed to create a federal system which would devolve power from the centre to the provinces. Of the existing governmental arrangements in Afghanstan they had the following to say:

    "The current system has fatally concentrated decision-making to whoever is president of the country. The Afghan president appoints the governors of each province and district, the mayor of every town, every provincial chief of police, one third of the entire Senate, and even every judge in Afghanistan.

    "This centralised power has led to massive corruption, disenfranchisement of a large segment of the Afghan people, obstacles to economic development, massive abuses of power, increasing political instability, poor governance, and a vast undermining of law and order."

    This is, if anything, an understatement. In place of the travesty which is the current Afghan constitution, the signers mildly suggested "decentralising the political system, making it more compatible with the diverse political, social and cultural nature of Afghanistan". And in addition to some perfectly reasonable and consistent suggestions regarding substitution of the current presidential/monarchical system with a parliamentary one built on proportional representation, the authors end with the following radical ideas:

    "We also support the election of governors and empowerment of provincial councils. Such elected governors and provincial councils should also have authority for such things as creating budgets and generating revenue, overseeing police and healthcare, as well as establishing educational authority, if they so desire."

    These arguments in favour of genuine democracy in Afghanistan were enough to set the diminutive Karzai, himself the chief beneficiary of foreign interference in Afghanistan, caterwauling about US-backed plots to partition the country, and complaining to the national parliament about foreigners who use the country "to do their political experiments".

    "These arguments in favour of genuine democracy in Afghanistan were enough to set the diminutive Karzai, himself the chief beneficiary of foreign interference in Afghanistan, caterwauling about US-backed plots to partition the country."

    The current political experiment in Afghanistan, embodied in a constitution which is largely a product of meddling foreigners trying to save themselves from Afghanistan by making it less Afghan, is an abysmal failure. Nonetheless, US officials have been at pains to distance themselves from the latest suggestion that the Afghan constitution should be revised, whatever views Afghans themselves may have on the subject, lest the Afghan president's pique interfere in their efforts to establish a Taliban office in Qatar and to begin political talks. The great irony in all of this is that, without a completely redrawn Afghan constitution, there will be no means of reaching a political accommodation with the Taliban even marginally acceptable to most Afghans - or to US officials themselves, for that matter.

    Thus far, US efforts at peace making with the Taliban have been consonant with US efforts at war making with the Taliban: Both, they believe, are too important to be left to the Afghans. US officials generously allow that actual negotiations toward Afghan national reconciliation eventually will have to include the Afghan government, but their attitude and their actions do much to undermine whatever authority and credibility the Kabul regime might otherwise command. The Taliban, for its part, is happy to speak with the US, so long as they do not have to deal with a government which they consider a foreign invention. In fact, they have half a point, and the US, in apparent agreement, is willing to accommodate them. But as the final element in a political approach which could not be less viable if it were intentionally designed to fail, the US has at the same time established "red lines" for a final outcome which amount, in effect, to the moral equivalent of a Taliban surrender, including acceptance of the current Afghan constitution.

    Solutions to a quagmire

     US shifts strategy on Taliban

    If an Afghan reconciliation process is to have any chance of success, it will have to directly involve all the major Afghan political players, and sooner, rather than later. This will have to include leaders, such as those represented in the National Front for Afghanistan - often disparaged as "warlords" - who, unlike an Afghan president whose power relies largely on foreign troops and money, have authentic political weight. Moreover, any viable attempt at national reconciliation by the leading Afghan power blocs, to include those elements represented by the Taliban, will necessarily involve major changes to current political arrangements designed, among other things, to provide opportunities for the Taliban to participate in governance, while limiting their geographic reach to those areas where they can command genuine local support. Those who brand such arrangements a de-facto "partition" of the country are those most likely to benefit from Kabul's currently monopoly on power. The one thing that all Afghans seem to share is a common sense of Afghan identity.

    The Taliban, for its part, does not seek political-sharing arrangements now, as they have deluded themselves into believing that they can conquer and run a centralised state on their own. In this, they are as captive to wishful thinking as Karzai and the US government. They will eventually be disabused of such ideas.

    In the meantime, the US would be well advised to adopt a long-range view of what an achievable political outcome in Afghanistan might look like, and encourage the reforms, constitutional and otherwise, which would facilitate it - rather than focusing on short-term expedients and the ephemeral tantrums of a putative national leader whose current pretentions, if encouraged further, will ensure disaster for his country and its benefactors alike.

    Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA's Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA's Counter-Terrorism Centre from 2004 to 2006.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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