KABUL, Afghanistan - After three weeks of frequently contentious debate between rival Afghan factions, delegates to a historic national convention agreed yesterday on a constitution that is a key step toward Afghanistan's first democratic elections.
The loya jirga, an assembly made up of 500 delegates from across the war-ravaged country, approved a presidency with executive powers, two vice presidents and two legislative bodies with considerable authority.
"We have proven that through 30 years of war we still have a culture and we are still civilized," President Hamid Karzai said at the closing ceremony. "It is a success for all of us."
The agreement was hailed by President Bush, who said in a prepared statement that it "lays the foundation for democratic institutions and provides a framework for national elections in 2004."
Karzai emerged as one of the winners of the constitutional debate because he had pushed hard for a strong executive system. But he was forced to make concessions for the sake of national unity - most important, agreeing to the recognition of minority language rights that had been strongly opposed by his Pashtun supporters.
The document also could lead to further disputes because it includes equal rights for women yet leaves the door open for adherence to strict interpretations of Islamic law.
The loya jirga, which ran two weeks longer than expected, was nearly declared a failure by the chairman Saturday because delegates had so much trouble reaching agreement on the language-rights issue. Last-minute intervention by the United Nations and the United States helped save the conference.
The Uzbeks, a minority group in the north led by warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, demanded recognition of the Uzbek language, to the anger of the Pashtun delegates, who said it would turn the country into a weak federalist state.
In the end, it was agreed that Pashto and Dari would be the official languages of Afghanistan, but that minority tongues, including Uzbek, Turkmen and Nuristani, would be considered official in the areas where they are spoken by the majority of the public.
The loya jirga met more than two years after U.S.-led forces overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban government, which had long sheltered Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network. In mid-2002, Karzai was installed as the transitional president of a country that had been in a near-constant state of war for a quarter-century.
Even now, though, the central government is seen as having limited control of regions outside Kabul that are dominated by warlords and teeming with Taliban insurgents. If anything, instability has been spreading, particularly in the east and south where U.S. troops have battled Taliban holdouts and their al-Qaida allies.
Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations' special envoy to Afghanistan, said yesterday that implementing the constitution would be a challenge because of a dearth of such institutions as a police force, a judiciary and an army.
"The hard work is ahead, not behind," he said. "At the end of the day, all this has to be transferred from paper to acts and implementations."
Karzai had said he would not run for president in elections now scheduled for June unless the loya jirga voted for a presidential-style government to reconcile the country after decades of civil war. He was opposed by the northern factions and warlords who wanted a parliamentary democracy that would provide them more power.
While adhering to many of Karzai's requests, the constitution was amended to create a second vice presidential post, a move that could somewhat dilute the president's power. The president also will have to seek approval of the national assembly in a number of areas including foreign policy.
The loya jirga shifted the balance of power among the ethnic groups. The strength of ethnic Tajiks, who are strongly anti-Taliban and control the powerful defense ministry, may have diminished because of their resistance to the presidency. Yet for probably the first time in modern Afghan history, such traditionally oppressed minorities as the Uzbeks, Hazaras and Turkmens found their grievances heard.
There were also concessions to women, who have been disenfranchised, politically and socially. Men and women were declared equal, a key demand by human-rights campaigners. Also, two female delegates from the 32 provinces must be represented in the lower house. But female delegates to the convention complained that the constitution did not go far enough because it did not include a right for girls not to be forced into marriage.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said the constitution provides a framework for an enlightened society. "Men and women are equal. People can practice their religious rights. The recognition of languages in the areas they are spoken is revolutionary in this region. No one else has it."
But such provisions as women's rights also could lead to further rancor because they clash with other portions of the constitution.
Sharia, the strict interpretation of Islamic law, appears to have been introduced by the back door. The constitution was amended to say that "no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam."
Human-rights campaigners said the wording leaves all laws subject to interpretation by the nation's supreme court, traditionally controlled by strict Islamists.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.