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Karzai manoeuvres to reign supreme

June 13, 2002

KABUL: Hamid Karzai apparently succeeded in winning a second term as Afghanistan’s leader on Tuesday after the loya jirga, the grand tribal council, finally opened a day late. The former king, Zahir Shah, urged delegates to support Karzai, whose only serious rival, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, bowed out of the race.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah said: “Today the people showed their support for Karzai’s candidacy, but this was not the official ceremonial procedure of endorsing his candidacy.”

Although many of the approximately 1,500 delegates angrily denounced a deal — achieved under American pressure — which led to Zahir Shah renouncing all political ambitions on Monday, they were unlikely to be able to reverse the decision.

Karzai, a Pakhtoon nobleman, tried to mollify Zahir Shah’s supporters by announcing that the former monarch would have the title of “Father of the Nation” and be given the powers and status of an unofficial head of state.

The former king’s roles would include approving a new constitution, taking part in national celebrations and awarding medals and titles to Afghans for distinguished service.

The 87-year-old former monarch would also be able to move from the Kabul villa where he has lived since he returned from exile in Italy in April and return to the royal palace.

The concessions were apparently enough to persuade Zahir Shah to abandon any thought of real power.

The concessions were also part of a deal to get the powerful Tajiks from the Panjshir valley to accept Mr Karzai as leader until elections in two years’ time. The Tajiks include the defence minister, interior minister and foreign minister.

Rabbani, another Tajik, had previously been sidelined in December when Karzai was first appointed. Despite still having presidential ambitions, he pulled out of the leadership race, though not without a reminder that he was political leader of the Northern Alliance, which took control of Kabul after the Taliban retreated under the weight of massive American bombing last November.

“We came into Kabul as warriors and conquerors. We had full control of the city. But we made concessions then for the best interest of the country. Now we do this again,” he said.

In a further step in the evolving package of mutual concessions and compromise between the Pakhtoons and the Tajiks — the country’s largest groups — Yunis Qanuni, the interior minister, told the loya jirga he was resigning so that Karzai would have a free hand.

“Everyone should make a sacrifice and follow the example of Ahmed Shah Massoud who gave his life last year,” he said.

After a day’s delay, expectations were high in the giant tent as the moment for the ceremonial opening of the loya jirga approached. But, as speculation was mounting that Monday’s deal was unravelling or that Zahir Shah might be using ill-health to boycott the session, the former monarch appeared an hour late, with Karzai at his side.

In a barely audible voice, he told delegates: “By the will of God, after 29 years of exile, I’m back in my country with my nation. My only wish is to bring peace, unity and reconciliation and take the nation back to peace and integrity.

“I am ready to help the people, and Hamid Karzai is my candidate,” he said, urging delegates to recognize Karzai’s “ideals of national unity and democracy based on Islamic values”.

In a contradictory speech to the assembly, Karzai said: “Private armies should be eliminated. Warlordism should be removed”, but went on to name and praise several warlords, including Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat.—Dawn/The Guardian News Service.