Karzai Chosen as Leader, Vows to Rebuild Nation
Charismatic nobleman Hamid Karzai on Thursday became Afghanistan’s first peacefully empowered president, inheriting responsibility for one of the poorest countries and for the daunting task of reconciling ethnic rivals and rebuilding what a generation of war has destroyed.
Karzai was selected as head of state by a loya jirga, or grand assembly, Afghanistan’s chaotic traditional forum for deciding the country’s future and expressing the will of the people. He has been the nation’s interim prime minister for six months.
Although challenged by two other candidates, his victory was preordained by the controversial influence of U.S. and other foreign advisors, which could taint the credibility of his tenure. Mohammad Zaher Shah, the nation’s former king, withdrew from the political stage on the advice of President Bush’s envoy. Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s departure from the race is believed to have been arranged in return for a prestigious title to be bestowed later.
Still, Karzai’s selection--he received 1,295 of the 1,575 votes cast--clearly reflected majority sentiment among those gathered for the weeklong convocation. Even his rivals joined in the spirit of celebration over what they see as the beginning of a new age in their homeland.
“He won. That’s democracy,” said Massooda Jalal, a female physician with the World Food Program, who came in second with 171 votes. Mir Mohammed Mahfoz Nadai, a delegate who works for the government, received 89 votes. The remaining 20 votes were invalidated.
Minutes after the announcement on state-run radio and television, the Islamic faithful were called to prayer, and Koranic chants and the national anthem were broadcast across the nation.
In what might be the most encouraging sign of social improvement, at least in Kabul: There was none of the celebratory gunfire that marked the capital’s liberation in November and the end of the Ramadan fast and Karzai’s inauguration as prime minister a month later. The capital was awash in munitions then. Now, many civilians have been disarmed and an International Security Assistance Force keeps the peace alongside nascent units of the Afghan police and national guard.
“You’ve put your trust in me and, God willing, we will rebuild Afghanistan again,” Karzai told delegates after his selection.
In an address to the nation today, Karzai is expected to congratulate his fellow citizens on choreographing a peaceful transition of power in a country more prone to take up arms than engage in civil discourse.
The 44-year-old ethnic Pushtun leader of the noble Popolzai clan must renegotiate the delicate power-sharing agreement he has had for the last six months with former commanders of the Northern Alliance to include broader ethnic representation.
The alliance, dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks who drove the Taliban from power, still controls the tanks and troops and will have to be appeased to keep peace in the country. Pushtuns make up the nation’s largest ethnic group.
More daunting still will be the challenge of raising up a physically and psychologically wrecked country. Karzai will be under the intense pressure of outsized expectations among people who suffer some of the world’s worst health afflictions, poverty and corruption.
One in four Afghan children dies before the age of 5, and three years of drought have exacerbated food shortages, leaving more than a third of the population dependent on humanitarian aid for sustenance.
Karzai will also have to keep the foreign allies focused on the long-term need to assist and advise his government as it undertakes a reconstruction effort unparalleled since the U.S. Marshall Plan bankrolled Germany’s revival after World War II.
And that challenge of holding the attention of U.S. and other donors who have pledged more than $4 billion in aid will coincide with the expected drift of attention as the U.S.-led war on terrorism extends from Afghanistan to other targets.
Karzai has been credited with making impressive moves toward ethnic reconciliation even in his brief term as interim prime minister. A Sunni Muslim, he visited a Shiite Muslim mosque in March and assured the religious rivals, “We are all brothers.” In his speech accepting his nomination, he even reached out to those swept up by the Taliban excesses, blaming the massacres and mistreatment of the previous five years on foreigners who manipulated Afghans.
But the Pushtuns are demanding a louder voice in the next Cabinet, the national assembly to be selected from among the loya jirga delegates and the constitutional convention to be called ahead of nationwide elections in 2004.
Pushtuns have complained bitterly of discrimination under the interim government because of its preponderance of Northern Alliance figures, including the powerful ministers for defense, the interior and foreign affairs.
Those claims of mistreatment seemed to be borne out by the staunch opposition that Tajik and Uzbek ministers raised to the possible return to power of Zaher Shah. They find Karzai, though also a Pushtun, less susceptible to manipulation by the largest ethnic group.
It was the unspoken threat of a military uprising in the event that the king is selected that is believed to have prompted Bush’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, to persuade Zaher Shah to bow out of the leadership race.
The Afghan-born U.S. envoy has been unapologetic about the counsel he gave the king, insisting that it was neither unsolicited nor strong-armed.
“It’s a great day for Afghanistan--electing a government rather than a government through coups, military intervention or violence,” Khalilzad said after Karzai’s victory.
Many lauded the first loya jirga in more than 25 years for ushering in respect for intellect and initiative over the clout of the gun.
“It’s a democratic environment. Everyone has the right to express himself,” said delegate Abdul Rehman of Kunduz as he and others cast their ballots.
Others reveled in the validation of women’s place in society after five years of abject repression under the fundamentalist Taliban regime. More than 200 female delegates--disproportionately active and outspoken in comparison with past forums over the last 1,000 years--forced the political focus on the issues of peace, security, equality and prosperity and urged the empowerment of leaders untarnished by the past bloodshed.
Jalal told the delegates in her nomination speech that Afghan women had suffered enough and “we will no longer be victims.”
It was her husband, Sayed Jalal, also a delegate, who first proposed that the traditional form of election--a show of hands--be replaced by a secret ballot so that no one had to fear intimidation.
“I agree with Mr. Jalal that it should be secret,” said Karzai, stepping up to the microphone to put an end to the discussion.
“If even one person here fears voting in the open, we must do it in secret,” he said.
Alluding to the forum’s excessive embrace of debate and ceremony that set the loya jirga two days behind schedule after only three days of meetings, interim Finance Minister Hedayat Amin Arsala insisted, “We mustn’t worry about time. The concern is democracy.”
Although the loya jirga has made strides toward hauling Afghanistan out of the social and economic Stone Age, it has fallen far short of what Westerners would regard as an exercise in democracy. Some delegates won their seats through bribery, threats or favor-trading.
The government and organizing committee added several dozen delegates to the traditional 1,500 members plus the king, apparently intent on ensuring the desired outcome.