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Opinion: Clear Sailing for Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has a new constitution stating that it will remain an "Islamic Republic" while at the same time establishing a functioning democracy. Can this new model work? Peter Phillip comments.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks with Loya Jirga chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi

Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks with Loya Jirga chairman Sibghatullah Mujaddedi

Forty years ago, the former king of Afghanistan laid down a constitution that, in its basic tenets, was similar to what the delegates of the Loya Jirga, or grand council, have agreed on after three weeks of sometimes tense negotiations in Kabul. We can only hope that what should have been achieved then will be achieved now: that this country so rich in tradition will be able to connect with the outside world without losing itself in the process.

Afghanistan will remain an "Islamic Republic," but with a series of modifications, so that it won't have to fear a regression back to the dark ages of the Taliban. Anyone who expected more than this misjudged the reality in Afghanistan and ignored the necessity for such a country to find a better future for itself. Its future cannot be prescribed for it by outsiders. That didn't work under the Soviet occupation, and it wouldn't work now, with the United States holding the reins of power, at least behind the scenes.

Putting theory into practice

Two years after the toppling of the Taliban regime, the delegates, with their approval of the constitution, have cleared the path for the future. But a rush to optimism is out of place. Much has been promised on paper that still must be tried and tested in Afghanistan's rough reality. Equality for women, for example, remains a fiction in broad parts of Afghan society, and it will certainly require more than a paragraph in the constitution to change this.

Progress has been made in that inequality is no longer stated policy, as was the case under the Taliban, but the transformation to full equal status is still a long way off. Who knows this better than women in the "enlightened" and free Western democracies?

A dangerous stumbling block could soon emerge in the implementation of the constitution -- it stresses the country's diversity more than its unity. In addition to Dari and Pashtu, previously the country's two main languages, other languages, such as Uzbek, have been recognized.

This has less to do with culture, and more to do with the politics of power, as it will help cement the positions of the regional rulers. And they have always been one of the main barriers on the way to a unified state with a properly functioning central government. Afghanistan may have to forgo this ideal for some time to come. Perhaps, because it was always so, but certainly also because the constitution does little to try to change this situation. And also because the country is far from being at peace, and old rulers have long since gained a foothold in some regions.

Presidential powers

A constitution alone is not enough to chase away the ghosts of the Taliban or the former Mujahedeen warlords who've been gaining in strength. What's needed is a strong central government, and that's what Afghanistan is supposed to get. But in the form of a presidential system that gives President Hamid Karzai extensive powers, and already reduces the yet to be elected parliament to the role of rubberstamping the president's decrees. A president also has to be elected, but there is no doubt that his name will be Hamid Karzai.

Is this democratic? Not in the Western sense. But it does represent progress nonetheless. Middle Eastern countries -- as a British expert on the region once said -- can't turn directly into democracies. They need a middle step of being governed by a "benevolent autocrat." With a little luck, Afghanistan may already now have reached this step.

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  • Date 05.01.2004
  • Author Peter Philipp
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  • Permalink https://p.dw.com/p/4WUI