The Unwinnable War: America’s Blind Spots in Afghanistan
The Unwinnable War: America’s Blind Spots in Afghanistan
Op-Ed / Asia

Gaining Consensus

For those who have not seen a parliamentary debate on TV or squashed into one of the broken chairs of the new legislature's visitors gallery, it is something to be recommended.

The sheer diversity is a sight to behold: people clad in pakools, headscarfs (getting steadily brighter in hue over the weeks), turbans and Western neck ties.

With so much bad news coming out of Afghanistan lately, this new body offers a ray of hope, with the real potential to be the voice of the people - previously all too easily lost or ignored in the rush to rebuild.

The National Assembly is probably the most ethnically diverse body ever seen in Afghanistan. Further, under a quota system that would shame many Western democracies, 68 of the 249 members of the more powerful lower house (Wolesi Jirga) are women.

Since its emotional inauguration on 19 December 2005, the members have worked slowly but steadily until going on a break in June.

Yes, it can be confusing and messy. Members mill around for sessions that never happen, they debate fiercely and then vote in complete opposition to the stance they just advocated, decisions made will be endlessly rehashed for days - sometimes weeks - afterwards.

But slowly and steadily it has been moving forward with members (wakils in the lower house and senators in the upper house or Meshrano Jirga) taking the job extremely seriously. Many sessions hold 80 to 90 per cent of representatives - numbers rarely seen in other countries.

One of the major stumbling blocks to smooth functioning remains the lack of large formalised political parties. The executive did all it could to marginalise such groups during the elections, apparently hoping to create a fragmented and pliable body. All 3,000 candidates had to stand as individuals with party names and symbols not even appearing on the ballot papers.

Thus, while there are many political parties represented within the legislature, there was no incentive to form broad-based coalitions during the election and little party discipline today.

Until larger blocks coalesce, the government and opposition must scrabble to gather numbers for each and every issue. This means campaigning banquets every night in the lead up to important votes. (With many of the members visibly putting on weight, donors should perhaps consider a parliamentary gym.)

Worryingly, President Karzai seems to be relying on some very conservative Pashtun members as his core supporters. So far, issues have gone both for and against his government.

Karzai rival, Younus Qanooni, was elected to the leadership of the Wolesi Jirga. However, when it came to approving ministerial appointments - one of the National Assembly's few powers in a strong presidential system - all the appointees for the "power" ministries of Defence, Finance, Foreign Affairs and Interior were approved in what was seen as a victory for Karzai.

The Supreme Court nominees, however, fared less well with four*TBK of the nine rejected. This included the conservative Fazl Hadi Shinwari, who has long been seen as one of the major impediments to judicial reform, although Karzai has stuck by him for the past four and a half years.

Yes, there are bad people in the parliament. But this is the same as any other body in Afghanistan and is a symptom of the culture of impunity which has flourished over the last four and half years. Indeed, at least two of the 34 people excluded from standing in the elections because of their links to armed groups have since been appointed to positions of power in the administration.

The Constitution makes it very clear that there is no amnesty to members who have committed crimes, and any attempts by them now to do so must be strongly opposed. However, it is the institution rather than the members that are important. And this is one that promises to let the voices of the people of Afghanistan be heard. The international community should follow it closely.

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