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Afghan Politicians Push For Constitutional Changes

File photo of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaking during the Loya Jirga in 2002.
File photo of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaking during the Loya Jirga in 2002.

In recent weeks, the world has turned its focus toward helping Afghanistan deal with increasing violence by the Taliban, a threat that has even raised the specter of Taliban control over major cities beyond their current hold over large swaths of the countryside.

Scores of Afghan lawmakers and political leaders are pushing Kabul to hold a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal assembly, to review the country's political system by debating constitutional changes that will create the office of a prime minister.

Last year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his then election rival and current Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah agreed to hold such an assembly. It was a key component of the power-sharing deal that keeps their national unity government in office.

The power-sharing agreement, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, envisaged an amendment to the constitution to create the post of executive prime minister.

This will essentially alter Afghanistan's presidential form of government into a presidential-parliamentary hybrid and formalize the hasty arrangement by essentially turning the post of chief executive officer into that of prime minister.

Critics say the arrangement has created uncertainty as supporters of the two leaders have often competed over appointments and exercising authority.

On November 1, the upper house of the Afghan parliament, or Meshrano Jirga, called on government leaders to fulfill their pledges by convening the assembly. First Deputy Mohammad Alam Eizedyar emphasized the need for holding the Loya Jirga as soon as possible.

"I hope that the kind of Loya Jirga outlined in our constitution will be held to decide on the current situation. It will also deliberate about the implementation of the agreement reached by the election teams of the two Afghan leaders," he said.

Mainly composed of national and provincial lawmakers, the Loya Jirga is defined by the current Afghan constitution as the "highest manifestation" of the will of the Afghan people. Such rarely held assemblies have historically been the supreme decision-making bodies in the country.

Another member of the Meshrano Jirga, Senator Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, also called on the government to move swiftly.

"Afghan leaders should convene a Loya Jirga as soon as possible to find out a solution to the [political] crisis," he told Radio Free Afghanistan. "They seem to have lost direction and seem to be unable to find a fix. The longer this lingers, the situation will worsen," he added.

His comments followed a similar demand by influential leaders in Kabul on October 31.

The Council of Council of Jihadi Leaders and Political Parties, a collection of former Islamist guerilla commanders who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, counts powerful powerbrokers such as Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Ismail Khan, and a host of loyalists to former President Hamid Karzai among its members.

One of its members, Mohammad Iqbal Safi, told an Afghan television news channel that holding the Loya Jirga was one of their major demands.

"If the government does not respond to our demands, we will make out next decision in consultation with the people," Safi said.

Kabul says it is aware of public sentiments and is already taking steps to hold the grand assembly.

"We will do our utmost to convene the Jirga as we have already promised the people," said deputy presidential spokesman Sayed Zafar Hashemi. "Now it would be premature to speak about any small changes or the timing of the Jirga."

There has been no word as to the date, venue, or agenda of the grand assembly. Similar events in the past have required months of preparation.

Shahzada Masoud, a former aide to Karzai, says the unity government is already late. He told Radio Free Afghanistan that Kabul should have set the assembly in motion during its first year in office.

Masoud says only a Loya Jirga can generate the much-needed consensus on a parliamentary democracy to prevent the country from moving into a deepening political crisis.

"The ongoing uncertainty can prove dangerous for the people and the government," he said.