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Last Updated: Monday, 18 December 2006, 17:38 GMT
Afghan MPs struggle to find voice
By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Kabul

Afghan parliament
The people's voice - the parliament - is short on results
In Afghanistan's parliament, former enemies politely wait their turn to speak, and women debate with warlords.

The country's first parliament in more than 30 years is regularly cited, by the Kabul government and its foreign backers, as one of the great achievements of the post-Taleban era.

"This gathering shows that all of the people of Afghanistan are unified," President Hamid Karzai said at the swearing-in ceremony on 19 December last year.

The 91-year-old former king Zahir Shah felt it was "a step towards rebuilding Afghanistan after decades of fighting".

"The people of Afghanistan will succeed!" he exclaimed to applause from the new members of parliament, and guests who included US Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Beyond symbolism

In a recent debate in the Wolesi Jirga, or lower house, the VIPs were absent, but the slogans were similar.

We are not happy because the government does not consult us about the problems in Helmand, and neither do the international forces
Nasima Niazi,
MP from Helmand

"In our 5,000-year history, Afghans have defeated every country that has invaded us," one MP said.

"All of us here in the parliament should stand together, for the sake of the unity of our country."

That day the MPs were discussing one of the key challenges facing Afghanistan - how to stop the insurgents crossing the border with Pakistan.

But for all the fighting talk, at the end of the debate, they could only agree on one course of action - to issue a press release condemning a statement allegedly made by Pakistan's foreign minister.

This seems illustrative of the fact that beyond its symbolic importance, Afghanistan's parliament has little to show for its first year - a period which has coincided with the escalation of conflict in the south and east of the country.

Malalai Shinwari, one of the 68 women, admits the MPS are still learning their jobs.

"As the representatives of the people, we should advise the government make good policy," she said.

"We do have power in our hands. But it is now up to us to decide how to use that power."

In May MPs flexed their muscles for the first time, and used their powers to veto President Karzai's nominee for chief justice of the Supreme Court, and five of his ministers.

'Ignored'

But according to Nasima Niazi, who represents Helmand province, where British troops have been battling the Taleban, at other times they are simply ignored.

Maulvi Abdelaziz, Afghan MP
Maulvi Abdelaziz MP feels the government cannot deliver justice

She says that neither Nato nor the Afghan army have involved them in their struggle to defeat the insurgents by "winning hearts and minds" in Helmand.

"We are not happy because the government does not consult us about the problems in Helmand, and neither do the international forces.

"Even when we asked for a meeting with the authorities there, they said they didn't care who we were," she said.

Within the assembly, too, she says she sometimes finds it hard to make herself heard by religious conservatives.

"Most of them don't want to hear women's voices, and turn off our microphones, but we will continue with our struggle.

"We want to be listened to, like women in other countries' parliaments," she said.

More democracy

In the eyes of some Afghans, the MPs' authority is weak because many have links to militia groups.

Instead of being investigated for war crimes, it is alleged many have been able to buy, or cajole themselves into parliament.

But it seems there is little that can be done for now.

"There has been a lot of injustice and cruelty, but we don't have a government which can bring people to justice," admits Maulvi Abdelaziz, an MP from north-eastern Badakhshan province.

It has clearly been a slow start for the parliament.

But according to a recent report by a think-tank, the International Crisis Group, if the government wants to defeat the insurgency, it needs to involve MPs much more.

"The national assembly as the voice of the people needs to be listened to," the report says. "Afghanistan needs more democracy, not less."


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