Optimism grows as meeting site rises

Friday, May 17, 2002

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The setting: an enormous tent flown in from Germany, where it once housed exuberant Oktoberfest parties. The participants: hand-picked men from across the land and, by mandate, some women, too. The topic: the future of Afghanistan, still painfully uncertain.

On a dusty soccer field in a western Kabul valley, a huge temporary arena is rising -- and with it, hopes for a more cohesive nation. But as the site of the upcoming loya jirga, or grand council, is prepared for next month's meeting to choose a new Afghan government, old factional hatreds and serious security concerns are threatening to get in the way.

While international peacekeepers train the first battalion of the Afghan national guard to protect delegates, everyone from the interim government to the United Nations is scrambling to figure out what could go wrong -- and prevent it.

"After all this war, to have a democratic gathering of people to make a decision about the future of the country, these are very big and tough questions. There will definitely be tension," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, the spokesman of the Special Independent Commission for the Emergency Loya Jirga.

"We fear bombs. That's the main thing," he said Thursday. "Everybody feels that al-Qaida and Taliban will try to do something."

But stray al-Qaida and Taliban elements are hardly the only threats -- or even the most likely.

Interim leader Hamid Karzai's administration, hammered out late last year as a supposed multiethnic compromise, is heavy on supporters of the former northern alliance of opposition groups.

Ethnic politics

More specifically, it is crammed with friends of the slain Tajik rebel leader Ahmed Shah Massood, many of whom come from within a few miles of each other in Massood's Panjshir Valley. In Kabul, Massood's picture is everywhere.

Thus other ethnic and political groups -- particularly southern Pashtuns, who complain of being unfairly grouped with the heavily Pashtun Taliban and politically marginalized -- worry the loya jirga could leave them behind.

And in Afghanistan, political unease has a way of abruptly turning ugly.

"You have a government right now that's the government of Kabul, not the government of Afghanistan. The trick is to turn it into a national government," said Alexander Thier, the Kabul representative of the International Crisis Group, a peace advocacy organization.

"But there's very little chance that these factions are going to turn their soldiers and weapons over to a national military if they're not satisfied with how things are being done," he said. "This will not go forward unless there is some redistribution of power from the Panjshiris."

As of Thursday, the United Nations said, 181 district jirgas of an estimated 380 had convened, and 8,201 delegates had been selected for phase two of the three-part process -- the part where they will choose about 1,500 representatives to attend the grand council in Kabul.

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