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A fghanistan takes a crucial step toward building a viable future this week with the convening of a grand assembly of tribal elders. The Loya Jirga will pick a government that will rule the country until general elections are held. While the conclave has been long anticipated, and is critical to the country’s long-term cohesion, its success is by no means assured. The rivalries that have divided Afghanistan for centuries may yet undermine the rebuilding process. This week’s meeting was planned last year when representatives of the Afghan factions met in Bonn to plot a post-Taliban order. They then agreed to convene the Loya Jirga after its 1,501 delegates were picked in local elections. Those delegates will choose a head of government, one or more vice presidents and ministers. The transitional authority will write a constitution and prepare for the permanent government that will be elected in two years.

The Bonn agreement stipulates that the Loya Jirga is to be composed of literate, respected Afghans from all regions and ethnic groups. In addition to the 1,051 members chosen by local voters, an additional 450 are to be appointed by a national commission. In an attempt to minimize the influence of the warlords that have done so much damage to Afghanistan in the past, anyone with a violent past is to be excluded. That stipulation has not been honored.

Human rights groups have complained of incidents in which local authorities used threats to influence elections. Eight people have been killed in the delegate selection process, although the commission regulating the process says only one death has political connections; dozens more have been imprisoned. More worrying has been the vote-buying in many districts. Several of the more notorious warlords, in particular those charged with assaulting Kabul after the Soviet retreat, are delegates. Despite these concerns, officials concede that it is better to have the warlords participating in the process than excluded and fighting the new government.

The Loya Jirga is expected to choose either Hamid Karzai, the current prime minister in the U.N.-backed government, or former king Mohammed Zaher Shah, to lead the government until elections are held. Most major militia leaders support Mr. Karzai, as does the international community. A few holdouts want to see the former king govern. Their position reflects their standing in the current government: They feel that they would have more power if the king were to lead the transitional authority. The king himself has endorsed Mr. Karzai.

The key to the success of the Loya Jirga will be its ability to keep Afghanistan’s patchwork of tribes and factions together. The country has long been divided between Uzbeks and Tajiks who control power in the north and Pashtuns, the country’s ethnic majority, in the south. The current government established a rough balance of power: The Northern Alliance, which played a central role in defeating the Taliban, got the ministries of defense, the interior and foreign affairs. Pashtuns are represented by Mr. Karzai and claimed other ministries. To no one’s surprise, the Northern Alliance wants to see the current government continue. Many Pashtuns are not happy and want to see power redistributed.

Holding the coalition together is only the first challenge for the new government. There is also concern that Islamic fundamentalists may try to disrupt the assembly. Marshaling a competent and capable security force is the second challenge for the government. Currently, an 18-nation security force keeps the peace in Kabul. This force has trained a new multiethnic Afghan National Guard that will be the nucleus of the new national police. Its effectiveness and neutrality are by no means assured.

A third problem is posed by the flood of refugees returning home. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 920,000 Afghans have been repatriated since March, and 200,000 more have come back on their own. That is only one-quarter of the 4 million Afghans displaced during the two decades of war that consumed their country. The U.N. agency has warned that it has received only two-thirds of the $271 million it needs to help those refugees. That is another burden that the Afghan government will have to bear. It is already having trouble paying a mere 15 percent of its $460 million annual budget — the refugee costs are not part of that sum. The failure to aid the returnees will only heighten instability in the country. Given recent history, that is a burden the international community should be ready to bear.

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