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Debate Begins on Constitution for Afghanistan

Debate Begins on Constitution for Afghanistan

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Will Afghanistan become a constitutional monarchy, or will it have an American-style presidential system, a parliamentary democracy -- or something in between?

Such questions are part of the debate surrounding creation of a new constitution for the war-battered nation.

Religious conservatives and reformists influenced by Western ideas all want a say -- and in the middle is the transitional government of President Hamid Karzai, who hopes to satisfy all sides, including the international community.

"The major difference between this constitution and those we've had in the past is that this time people will be consulted and their viewpoints will be reflected," said Farooq Wardak, spokesman for a committee created in October to write a new constitution.

Last week, the eight-member committee, headed by Vice President Nayiamatullah Shahrani, submitted a draft to Karzai.

The document still is under wraps but is unlikely to remain a secret much longer. When Afghan factions set up the post-Taliban administration during December 2001 talks in Bonn, Germany, they gave it until this fall to come up with a legal framework.

Karzai plans to appoint a 30-member commission soon to solicit public comment on the proposed legal framework.

Public input, however, will be limited.

Only selected Afghans -- professors, elders, religious leaders -- will be questioned on their views and there will be no referendum.

The final product will be debated at a constitutional loya jirga, or grand council, in October.

The new government likely will be an Islamic democracy with a powerful president, a weaker prime minister and a parliament -- all elected every four to five years, said Fazel Ahmed Manawi, deputy chief justice of the Supreme Court.

The administration currently is operating under an amended version of a 1964 constitution drafted under former King Mohammad Zaher Shah.

A U.N. official said on condition of anonymity that many ethnic Pashtuns in strongholds of the former Taliban regime like Kandahar would like to see a return to monarchy.

Zaher Shah, 89, was overthrown by Communists in 1978. He returned to his homeland a year ago after three decades in exile.

Part of the debate centers around how much power the administration in Kabul should have.

Some want a strong central government that will effectively collect revenues and rule the countryside.

But powerful warlords like Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, who once printed his own money and whose picture still adorns billboards in the north, want more autonomy.

Afghans have no doubt Islamic Shariah law will be reflected in the constitution. The question is to what extent?

The Taliban, who ruled most of the country from 1996 to 2001, ignored the constitution altogether and imposed their own harsh version of Shariah, banning girls from school and most women from working.

Bashir Ghazialam, an adviser to the justice minister, said many Afghans sympathize with the Taliban view on such issues. Those sympathizers include Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari.

In January, Shinwari banned cable television broadcasts, complaining images of scantily clad men and women violated Islamic morals.

"There is a major clash between reformists and fundamentalists," Ghazialam said. "The fundamentalists want to disrupt the reform process. Their main objective is for this whole effort to fail."

Past constitutions, like one written in 1990, skirted delicately around the issue with phrases like: "No law shall run counter to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam."

Among those who want to see a state based legally on Islam, there are divisions over which strain should be followed: that of majority Sunnis or minority Shiites.

Most agree that women's rights will be guaranteed in some form. But such Western ideals are more likely to be raised by international pressure than by Afghans themselves, whose society traditionally has been dominated by males.

One foreign analyst in Kabul said the one-year time frame was too short.

"I don't think there's time to have any meaningful debate," said the analyst, who declined to be named. "But politically, there's no way to change it, they're committed to the Bonn agreement."

However the constitution is written, critics say the most crucial task will be making sure it is adhered to.

Two decades of fighting have created a nation dominated by warlords that is ruled not by law, but by the gun.

"Afghanistan has never had any problem writing constitutions," Manawi said. "The problem has always been implementing them."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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