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"Commentary Will Ballots or Bullets Rule? Afghanistan's fate hinges on the outcome of this week's loya jirga"
Comment by J. Alexander Thier in Los Angeles Times


One morning with Gen. Atiqullah Baryalai in the eastern province of Logar, a few hours south of Kabul, provides more insight into what's going on in Afghanistan than a month of meetings in the capital, with its Land Cruiser traffic jams, international military patrols and Starbucks.

"Atiq," as he is called, and those like him stand in direct contrast to the aspirations of the vast majority of Afghan people. After 23 years of conflict, Afghans are getting ready to choose a new government, one that they desperately hope will be beholden to the people, not to the favorite weapon of the warlords, the Kalashnikov.

A loya jirga, or grand assembly, is convening this week to choose a transitional government. The hopes of most Afghans and the world at large are singularly focused on the loya jirga; expectations are unreasonably high.

However, visions of a great leap forward are misplaced, and the danger of misstep is serious. At best, change will be incremental; at worst, if the outcome is rejected by key power-brokers, Afghanistan could tumble back into the factionalist conflict of the early 1990s.

Which brings us back to Atiq. He is a warlord, but not just any warlord. The uniforms, his new satellite phone--one could even say his confidence--have been provided by the U.S. military in exchange for his help in hunting Al Qaeda.

Atiq intends to go to the loya jirga. He even talks of being president of Afghanistan. If he doesn't get what he wants, will he cooperate with the new central government?

The main expectation of most Afghans and of the international community is that the loya jirga will produce a more balanced government than the one created in Bonn last December, where the United Nations coaxed the various Afghan factions into a six-month, post-Taliban provisional administration. But this outcome is far from assured.

Intense power struggles are taking place at all levels to shape and even subvert the outcome. Few results will satisfy all parties. For example, there will probably be deep discontent among Pushtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, with any result that excludes former King Mohammad Zaher Shah and keeps the security ministries (defense and interior) in the hands of the Panjshiri Tajiks who control Kabul.

Similarly, a strong role for the ex-king and a loss of key posts may be unacceptable to the Panjshiris and key former Northern Alliance constituencies. It's a potential collision course, one that will take immense diplomatic pressure and compromise to avoid.

Meanwhile, there's been almost no progress on strengthening the central government. As the U.S. and the rest of the coalition battles continue, there is little hope that local and regional commanders will reduce their forces.

Indeed, the opposite appears to be happening. Factional fighting has recently erupted in the southeast, north, center and west of the country.

Most Afghans have little recent experience with representative, let alone democratic, institutions, and the legitimacy of the loya jirga will be judged on the outcome rather than on the fairness of the process itself.

The U.S. has a critical role to play in deploying, in concert, international diplomatic and military influence to help Afghans make this crucial step forward. Intense diplomatic effort is needed to establish a dialogue among disgruntled factions and to forge a common vision of an acceptable, if not ideal, outcome for the loya jirga.

But that must be accompanied by swift, definitive security steps to nip factional fighting in the bud, lest a few small fires lead to a conflagration.

If the outcome of the loya jirga is fair, Atiq says he will accept it. If not, the warlord lifestyle seems to be treating him fairly well.

The Afghan people hope that the international community will convince Atiq to accept the outcome, whether he likes it or not.

J. Alexander Thier is a consultant for the International Crisis Grouop in Kabul and a former United Nations official in Afghanistan.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times



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