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A NEW BEGINNING

THE PEOPLE OF Afghanistan embarked on a course they have never before charted in their history when their representatives adopted a new Constitution at a Loya Jirga. The endorsement of the Constitution was in itself an achievement since ethnic divisions and attitudinal differences among the delegates had brought the deliberations to the verge of collapse on at least a couple of occasions. These differences have not been completely resolved. However, the delegates made the commendable decision to approve the document with the hope and confidence that the residual disputes will be resolved over time. As the delegates got to their feet to adopt the Constitution by acclamation, they signified that the Afghans were preparing themselves to live by a democratic order for the first time ever. The new dispensation in Afghanistan is under pressure from within and from outside. The warlords who wield power in different parts of the country will have to continue to make compromises if the new order is to survive the threat from the remnants of the Taliban and other forces that cannot countenance the emergence of a democratic era.

That pragmatism and a willingness to accommodate the concerns of all groups are not at a premium is evident from the decisions taken at the Loya Jirga and other attendant developments. Those warlords, such as the Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who had once driven ethnic minorities away from the areas under their control have now agreed to allow these internal refugees to return. The Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country, gave up their effort to impose their language on other groups. They agreed that Dari would have the same national language status as Pashto and also that the mother tongues of the linguistic minorities would be official languages in the areas where these groups are concentrated. President Hamid Karzai, who had earlier insisted that his office should be all-powerful so as to ensure the unity of the country, softened his stance during the course of the Jirga. He accepted parliamentary supervision over senior appointments and over some spheres of policy. An accommodative spirit was displayed by the Jirga overall when the members of a traditionally male-dominated society endorsed provisions that are beneficial to women. They approved articles of the draft constitution that grant equal citizenship to women and reserve for them a quarter of the seats in the lower of the two chambers of parliament.

It augurs well for the future of Afghanistan that the various groups were able to reconcile their differences in a relatively short period of three weeks. However, the Constitution has several inbuilt frailties that will have to be addressed over time. The most significant of these fault lines lie in the provisions that seek to balance the conflicting demands of democracy and religion. While the Constitution does not enshrine the Shariah as the source of the law, it does prohibit legislation that is repugnant to Islam. The longevity of the democratic order might well depend on the character and calibre of the senior judges who will be appointed to the Supreme Court to be formed. Afghanistan's future can only become more secure when institutions such as an independent judiciary and a national army are established. However, the establishment of the mechanism of governance will not be sufficient to enthuse the Afghans to work the constitutional scheme. They will embrace the new democratic order only when they are certain that they can run their affairs free from foreign intervention. Afghanistan's history contains ample proof that the powers that deny freedom to the people of this country do so at their peril.

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