U.N. envoy scrambles to save deal over Afghanistan's parliament

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 23, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — The United Nations representative in Afghanistan held an unscheduled meeting with Afghanistan lawmakers holed up at an upscale hotel here Sunday in an effort to rescue a deal that Western diplomats say is critical to instilling democracy in this war torn country.

U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura's desperate dash to the Intercontinental Hotel Sunday evening underscored just how high the stakes are for the international community in resolving the conflict between members of parliament and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over when parliament will convene.

"It's a very critical moment," said de Mistura, as he emerged from closed-door talks with lawmakers. "The hope of the international community is for a speedy agreement."

Legislators on Saturday thought they had a deal with Karzai that would allow the new parliament to begin work on Wednesday. Karzai had wanted the start of the parliamentary session, which had been scheduled for Sunday, delayed for a month while disputed results from last September's election are resolved.

But by Sunday morning the deal to allow parliament to start meeting appeared to be crumbling.

Instilling democracy is a key part of the U.S.-led effort to stabilize Afghanistan, so that foreign troops can pull out.

The U.N., speaking on behalf of the United States and the other main Western players in Afghanistan, on Friday had expressed "deep concern" that Karzai wanted to delay the start of parliament. Karzai is seen as increasingly autocratic and often at odds with his Western backers.

"Afghanistan's peaceful future lies in the building up of robust democratic institutions based on the rule of law and clear respect for the separation of powers," the U.N. said.

The new parliament would include many Karzai critics who won election in September. Karzai's opponents say his effort to delay parliament is tied to his hopes of replacing his sharpest opposition with more pliable candidates, through a special election court that the president created to hear the allegations of fraud.

Both lawmakers and Western diplomats reacted to the planned delay with anger.

"The president under-estimated the response," said one Western diplomat, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "He's lost a bit of political clout and the members of parliament will feel a certain positive momentum as they go into the new session (of parliament)."

The lawmakers thought they had persuaded Karzai to go along with Wednesday as the opening day for parliament by threatening to unilaterally convene the parliament — a scenario that some privately admitted was a bluff — and had won his agreement to drop the special election court.

After seeing de Mistura on Sunday, the lawmakers agreed to relinquish their demand that the special court be disbanded. However, they added new language in the proposed deal to note the "immunity" members of parliament enjoy, said Mohammed Younus Qanooni, who served as speaker in the last parliament.

Late Sunday, there was still no word from the presidential palace on whether the revised agreement proposed by the lawmakers was acceptable, keeping the international community hanging, with no certainty that parliament would indeed be inaugurated this Wednesday. Adding to the intrigue was news that Karzai planned to meet on Monday with some of the 2,500 candidates who had lost the parliamentary election.

"We will tell him (Karzai) that he must stick to his announcement to delay the inauguration by one month," said Azita Rafhat, an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate invited to the meeting with Karzai. "Otherwise we'll show our protests."

And there are further battles ahead, perhaps most obviously over who will be the speaker of the new parliament. A strong rumor has it that Karzai will back Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, an Islamist former warlord who is accused of gross human rights violations. His choice for the job that would be a red flag to the West.

"He (Karzai) is trying to punish the international community," said one lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared political reprisal. "Karzai will pressure MPs (members of parliament) to vote for Sayyaf."

Even the most basic battle is far from won by parliament: it is not yet in session.

"The Intercon (hotel) is not parliament. It is not sitting, not doing its job. Parliament is still struggling to survive," said Fabrizio Foschini, of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization.

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(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this report.)

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