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11-09-03, 08:00 AM
Afghan lessons
November 08,2003

The first impression sounds almost alarming: The United States kicked out the Taliban and shed American blood in Afghanistan, only so its leaders could write a constitution that declares Afghanistan an Islamic republic with a powerful central government?

The unfolding situation might not be as bad as that, however.

The first article of the new constitution does say that "the religion of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam," but it also says followers of other religions are free to practice those faiths. The constitution does not impose Islamic law, or Shariah, and it vests legislative authority not in religious mullahs, but in an elected legislature. It guarantees liberty, equality for women and free speech, at least on paper.

"As long as Shariah is not imposed, the declaration that it is an Islamic country is largely symbolic," said James Dobbins, director of the Rand Corp.'s Center for International Security and Defense Policy. Dobbins was President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan after the war.

"The most important thing is that legislative and executive powers are vested in people elected by a democratic process," he said.

Perhaps more troubling is that the proposed constitution envisions a relatively powerful central government. Afghanistan has always been highly decentralized. "It might have been more logical to have a federalist structure," Dobbins said, "but Afghanistan has no experience with such a system. To most Afghanis, the most benign period in recent memory was when they had a king who used power lightly. This constitution is similar, but with a president rather than a king."

Afghanistan might have a chance for stability, at least for a while, because its neighbors prefer stability to stirring up trouble. In Hamid Karzai, expected to win the presidency, it has a leader with some respect throughout the country.

Beyond (perhaps) helping to control incipient Islamist or al Qaida-like movements along the Pakistani border, the best way the United States can help Afghanistan is to turn over full control - without hidden strings - to the Afghanis. America would hate to have to relearn the lessons the Soviets learned so painfully in the 1980s.