Afghans Get Constitution Draft

Afghanistan unveiled a post-Taliban draft constitution Monday, a historic milestone on what has been a bloody, bumpy and often tragic path to recovery after decades of war.

The draft starts by declaring that "Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic," then later creates the posts of president and vice president, as well as envisioning two houses of congress.

The draft reflects the government's desire to bring the country together under the banner of Islam, which is practiced by the vast majority of Afghans. However, the hard-line Islamic law enforced by the former Taliban regime is not expected to be a part of Afghanistan's future.

Under the Taliban, men were forced to grow beards and pray, women were banned from schools and almost all public life, and music was forbidden. Executions were carried out before large crowds at Kabul's sports stadium.

"The religion of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam. Followers of other religions are free to perform their religious ceremonies within the limits of the provisions of law," the draft states, according to an English translation provided by the government.

While avoiding direct mention of Shariah, Islamic holy law, the draft states that "in Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam and the values of this Constitution."

The position of prime minister — included in previous versions — was cut from the final draft. Many feared a strong prime minister could have emerged as a political and military rival to the president, a major concern in a country that has known little but war for a quarter-century.

"The most important thing that a country like Afghanistan needs is stability," said Jawid Luddin, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai. "This constitution is made for Afghanistan for the next 100, 200 years."

The draft must still be debated at a grand council, or loya jirga, next month. Ratification of the document will set the stage for nationwide elections scheduled for June.

A rash of violence by suspected Taliban insurgents and fighting among powerful warlords that control large swaths of the country has raised fears of the security of holding a vote in June, and officials say privately it is possible the election might be delayed.

A red-bound copy of the long-awaited draft constitution was handed to former King Mohammad Zaher Shah, Karzai and Lakhdar Brahimi, special envoy of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, during a ceremony at Kabul's Presidential Palace.

"I hope this will be acceptable for the people and will direct people toward peace, security and democracy," said the 88-year-old Shah. The constitution enshrines Shah as the ceremonial "father of the nation," but he has no official political role and the title will not be passed along to his son.

Karzai made no comment during the unveiling ceremony. The draft constitution was handed out in Dari and Pashto, and the English-language version was later released by e-mail.

The draft allows political parties to be established as long as their charters "do not contradict the principles of Islam" and sets other conditions such as not having any military aims or foreign affiliation. It sets Pahsto and Dari as the official languages, but the national anthem will be sung in Pashto.

While not specifying gender, the draft states "any kind of discrimination and privilege between the citizens of Afghanistan are prohibited. The citizens of Afghanistan have equal rights and duties before the law."

Women suffered greatly under the former Taliban regime and in conservative Afghan society are usually given fewer rights than men. Many still wear the all-covering burka robe, and husbands don't allow wives to be seen by male guests.

A variety of divisive issues sparked heavy backroom negotiating between various factions, and the release of the draft constitution has been delayed several times over the past month.

The constitution, which has 12 chapters and 160 articles, was drafted by a 35-member Constitutional Review Commission that started work a year ago after two months of delays. The constitutional loya jirga has also already been pushed back two months.

After criticism that the constitution was being written in secrecy, the commission sent 460,000 questionnaires to the public and held meetings in villages across the country seeking input.

Karzai is widely expected to win next year's elections, and some of the disputes have focused on how much power will be concentrated in the presidency.

Had a prime minister's post been established, it likely would have been filled by a member of the ethnic Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance — who toppled the Taliban with the help of the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition.

Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun, has increasingly distanced himself from the Northern Alliance and its military commanders as he seeks to expand the influence of his central government.

Under the draft, the vice president will run on the same ticket as the president and succeed him should he die in office or become incapacitated. New elections would be mandated within three months.

The constitution gives congress the power to impeach the president, but bars the president from dissolving congress.

The country also commits to preventing terrorism as well as the production and smuggling of narcotics. Afghanistan is the world's leading producer of opium.

By Burt Herman