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Security Challenge in Afghanistan

December 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Two years after the U.S. ousted Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders, 500 Afghan delegates are gathering in Kabul to take a major step toward creating a Democratic government.

They’re to attend a Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, whose purpose is to approve a new constitution for the country. Taliban remnants have threatened to disrupt the meeting, which comes on the heels of a particularly deadly week in Afghanistan.

Two U.S. air strikes, part of a stepped-up U.S. Military operation in provinces along the Pakistan border, killed 18 civilians, most of them children. For a preview of the meeting and the latest on the security situation, we’re joined from Kabul by Carlotta Gall, bureau chief of the New York Times. Carlotta, welcome. I gather this Loya Jirga has already been postponed twice, most recently from tomorrow to Sunday. What’s been the problem?

CARLOTTA GALL: I think it’s mostly logistical at this stage. Things always take longer than you expect in Afghanistan. I think maybe also there are some backroom dealings between the factional leaders so they all know where they stand on the constitution once the debate begins.

That’s rather a tradition as well here. So I think a variety of reasons, and some security reasons probably, too– that it’s difficult for some delegates to get here, and some of the elections were running late to select the delegates.

MARGARET WARNER: The Taliban, as we reported, did threatened to disrupt this meeting. How seriously are authorities taking the threat? What are they doing about it?

CARLOTTA GALL: There’s extreme security, very heavy security in Kabul right now. They have the Afghan national army deployed in the area round… where the Loya Jirga will be held. They’ve got police and of course they’ve got NATO peacekeepers, 5,000 of those, so there’s intense security, and we’ll see lots of roadblocks once it actually begins in the city.

And then, of course, the U.S. forces, the coalition based in Afghanistan have taken the offensive in the last week to the Taliban across the country or across the South or the Southeast of the country, in an effort, I think, to keep them busy so they can’t come to the main roads and to Kabul to try and launch the terrorist attacks. So there have been intense efforts to ensure that this can go ahead.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, these attacks in which all these children were killed, one, was it part of this offensive? Two, how does the U.S. Military explained what happened?

CARLOTTA GALL: They’re not very clear on how the first one we heard of happened, in which nine children were killed. They were targeting a Taliban member that they knew lived in that village, and they say they spotted him on surveillance footage, on film. But at the same time they don’t really explain why they opened fire when the children were there.Whether they saw them or not is not very clear.

The second incident, which actually happened on the Friday last, they knew that they were assaulting a heavily guarded compound and they had seen fire coming from the compound. So they went in treating it as a military object, and, of course, they didn’t know there was a family living there. And the family, two adults and six children, were crushed under a wall that fell under the explosion. So it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

MARGARET WARNER: I read today that the top U.N. official in Afghanistan also said the U.N. may have to pull out its aid workers. How bad is the security situation?

CARLOTTA GALL: Well, it’s very bad because they have sought to target foreign aid workers and Afghan aid workers and also some of the construction workers working on the big road project in the South. So in the sense that they are targeting those people specifically, it makes it very dangerous for foreign aid workers to drive around in those areas. But the whole north and central part of Afghanistan are okay.

There they have to deal to an extent with a lot of weapons and some commandos who throw their weight around, but essentially they are getting on with the work in the center and in the North and to some extent to the East of the country.

So it’s really the South and Southeast that’s a common no-go area for the U.N. You know, a UNHCR woman was killed a few weeks ago, so that has really made them look at it and yes, now officials are saying it’s going to be very difficult to launch an elective process next year if you can’t travel to these areas.

MARGARET WARNER: Which is, of course, part of what this Loya Jirga’s supposed to help set up. Let’s go to the meeting on Sunday. Is there a big battle brewing between the interim government of Hamad Karzai, what he wants, and from factions different from what Karzai wants and others?

CARLOTTA GALL: Well, it’s difficult to gauge how big a battle it will be. Certainly, he’s set out the guidelines. He’s brought out this draft constitution for a strong presidential system, which he wants, and he says he will stand as a candidate next year.

If there’s a parliamentary system that sets up a prime minister as well as a president, he says he won’t run because he doesn’t want that division of power and that difficulty of a system that could just create more problems.

Having said that, there is a strong feeling among the delegates who have arrived that a strong presidential system could create a dictatorship and it needs to be curbed by a parliament that is more representative of the people. So there will be calls for curbing some power of the presidency, if not redrafting the whole constitution.

MARGARET WARNER: Human Rights Watch charged today that a lot of delegates are not really representative, that there’s been a lot of vote buying, I guess by the warlords. Do you put stock in that? How representative is this group?

CARLOTTA GALL: It starts – democracy is imperfect here. It’s barely started. It clearly is a problem. The warlords and the regional commanders are the people who call the shots in the region and even in Kabul. And so people feel that the factions have got their own people in.

But having said that, the Taliban threat, which were very real and intimidated some people, hasn’t really prevented them coming to Kabul; they managed to hold elections and the delegates are arriving, so at least the delegates are going to be here.

We’ll see how much they stick to their factions or they do voice their own opinions. The word from the compound is that it’s very democratic, that people are voicing their own views. So even if they are supportive of some of the big warlords and the regional commandos, the debate is still very alive.

MARGARET WARNER: The reports are that the U.S. is supporting Karzai’s approach and the strong president model and wanting him to have that kind of power. What kind of role does the U.S. have in this?

CARLOTTA GALL: Well, a lot of the delegates say, we know we must not scare away the international community, that we need the aid, so I think a lot of them are taking on board that it has to strike a balance and please the people and serve the country and also doesn’t alienate other countries, in particular the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: Carlotta Gall, thank you so much.