AFGHANISTAN’S newly elected president Hamid Karzai is seen by Westerners as the symbol of Afghanistan’s future. Unfortunately he is merely the head of a rabble of warlords who are firmly rooted in the past.
Last week Karzai displayed his many political talents in gathering support in the loya jirga, or grand assembly, a quasi-democratic gathering of (male) elders, academics, warlords and women. One day, Karzai wore the grey karakul hat from the north, the next day the black and white silk turban from his Pathan homeland in the south. Karzai invited the country’s despised warlords in to the huge white tent to soothe their own power-hungry desires and managed to send some of them home with no jobs in his new government. Already he is under pressure to re-admit some into the cabinet and promote those who feel their roles are beneath them.
President Karzai remains in a precarious position, encircled by an array of religious extremists and warlords who pose a threat both to Afghan stability and his own efforts to create a more open society, say political analysts and human rights activists.
Karzai, seen here as a wily political player with devoted western friends, is also increasingly viewed as an Afghan loner surrounded by sharks on all sides ready to shred his own efforts to create a stable state.
At the same time, some foreign analysts blame Western policy, guided by overriding interests in the ongoing war on terror in Afghanistan, for indirectly empowering warlords while ignoring the daunting task of putting an end to extremism in Afghanistan.
"I feel for Karzai because he has almost no personal support base and, by all indications, the US is not ready to challenge the powerful military and religious groups who hold sway in his government," said Sam Zia-Zarifi, an Iranian-American analyst with the office of Human Rights Watch in Kabul.
Alex Thier, the Kabul representative of the International Crisis Group, called this week’s grand assembly, which closed on Wednesday, an "enormous missed opportunity" to break the grip of Afghan warlords.
The Bush administration’s special representative, Zalmay Khalilzad, along with several leading UN figures in Kabul, has praised the proceedings as the first step along the Afghans’ long road to democracy.
Nevertheless, most foreign observers believe Karzai will be hard-pressed to create a new and moderate Afghan state out of the new cabinet line-up that he rushed through the assembly meeting last week when he called for a quick show of hands in support.
Indeed, if the behaviour at the loya jirga of some of the northerners in the Afghan president’s new cabinet and their close allies is any gauge of what is to come, Karzai may have a problem creating a moderate-minded state, said Zia-Zarifi and Thier.
The country’s re-appointed defence minister, who has also become a deputy president, Field Marshal Mohammed Fahim, directly threatened a Kabul University professor whose wife dared to challenge Karzai for the presidency. "Fahim really ripped into Professor Masood Jalal," said Zia-Zarifi.
"It was surprising, since there was never any doubt that she posed a real threat to Karzai. He called him a dog and said: ‘You are not a man, that is why you put your wife up to this. How dare you oppose the programme!’"
Western observers say that Field Marshal Fahim has continued to consolidate the power he seized when his forces entered Kabul last year beneath the wings of US and allied bombers. He has used his own secret intelligence officers who, they insist, have an appalling record of intimidation.
In Kabul’s central bazaar, citizens speak openly about their distrust of the short and pudgy general, who gave himself the new title of ‘Field Marshall’ this year. "He is an ugly and defamed man, whose rule we could tolerate for six months, but not for another 18 months," said Jamal Uddin, an ethnic Uzbek.
Fahim is believed by most Afghans to have strong US backing because of his role in chasing the Taliban out of Kabul and because Washington wants to see strong continuity in the powerful defence post as it seeks to build a national army capable of defending the country after the US-led coalition withdraws.
The powerful Tajik, who leads the northern alliance, is, himself, close to Bruhanuddin Rabbani, whose fundamentalist political party, Jamiat Islami, implemented harsh Sharia laws between 1992 and 1996 and continues to devalue the role of women in Afghan society.
A close ally of both Fahim and Rabbani, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, a powerful adherent of Saudi-style Wahabbism, railroaded through a new name for Afghanistan’s government last week, adding the word "Islamic" on to the front of the Transitional Government of Afghanistan. When another delegate to the assembly gave a speech defending women’s rights, Sayyaf’s associates threatened to put the man on trial, said Zia-Zarifi. "The night after his speech, armed fundamentalists paid a visit to his home and threatened him," he added.
Another strict Islamist, Kamal Shinwari, was returned to his post by Karzai as the chief justice of Afghanistan. Judge Shinwari called in January for the full implementation of the Sharia, Islamic law, which calls for, among other things, the cutting off of hands of thieves and the stoning of adulterers.
Western diplomats say they are watching closely to see how far the chief justice can implement his plans across Afghanistan, particularly in rural areas where Western pressures for moderation are few and Taliban-style fundamentalism is still popular.