KABUL, Afghanistan – With one contentious issue settled, Afghanistan's grand council got down to work Wednesday amid complaints that foreigners, warlords and political cliques had hijacked the selection process for a new government.
The difficulty of taming the war-wracked nation was underscored by a brief but tense standoff between international peacekeepers and gunmen near the meeting site.
Interim leader Hamid Karzai appeared set to become head of state on the second day of the loya jirga, or grand council, but it appeared little would get done quickly. The meeting started late, with selection of a chairman to lead the loya jirga topping the agenda.
Karzai's election as head of state was all but assured when the other two contenders —former King Mohammad Zaher Shah and ex-President Burnahuddin Rabbani — bowed out and endorsed him.
That left only one opponent — Masooda Jalal, a female employee of the World Food Program. Although Jalal was not expected to win, her candidacy reflected the demands of women for a voice in public affairs after years of discrimination by the Taliban.
Reflecting the difficulty of bringing lasting peace to this restive and heavily armed country, German troops from the International Security Assistance Forces stopped two trucks full of armed men driving toward the loya jirga site on Wednesday.
Spokeswoman Lt. Col. Helen Wildman said at least one man got out and aimed a gun at the Germans, who immediately disarmed them. Afghan police then took four men into custody.
Wildman quoted a liaison officer from the Afghan national police force as saying the men were bodyguards of Ahmad Wali Massood, a member of the powerful Panjshiri faction in the anti-Taliban northern alliance.
At the loya jirga, delegate Safar Mohammed, drew cheers and applause when he questioned the presence of warlords and military commanders at the meeting.
"We were told that this loya jirga would not include all the people who had blood on their hands. But we see these people everywhere. They are the ones who had the guns. I don't know whether this is a loya jirga or a commanders' council," Mohammed said.
He also said 1,500 delegates were supposed to be attending but 1,700 were on hand. Official delegates were chosen in U.N.-sponsored district elections, held across Afghanistan for nearly a month.
"Who are all these other people? Why are they here? The commissioner has not explained who they are," he said. "All the governors are here, the warlords are here. Who chose them?"
Organizing commission chairman Ismail Qasim Yar responded: "It's up to the people to decide. And whoever they chose is here."
The European Union special representative Klaus-Peter Klaiber said he was also surprised that warlords were participating in the loya jirga.
"I was amazed to see in the first and second rows those so-called warlords sitting together," he told a news conference. "It tells me only one thing: the interim administration has decided to try to integrate former warlords into policy-making in Kabul. If they succeed, that will be an achievement."
The departure of Rabbani and Zaher Shah from the running to lead Afghanistan defused a crisis caused by objections from a powerful ethnic Tajik clique that ran the northern alliance. They had opposed any role for the former monarch in the new government. Rabbani was titular head of the alliance.
The political maneuvering surrounding the loya jirga left some delegates disillusioned and angry about alleged foreign influence.
Karzai is backed by the United States and its allies, who do not want a return of leaders many Afghans believe were responsible for the destruction of the country. However, many also blame officials in the interim administration for the ravages of war.
Although support for Karzai is widespread, many delegates fear backroom deals could enable warlords, including those in the northern alliance, to end up with a disproportionate share of power.
"This is not a democracy; it is a rubber stamp," said Seema Samar, the interim minister of women's affairs. "Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones."
Nevertheless, the extraordinary gathering of delegates from all sectors of Afghan society — including women, turbaned clerics, and foreign-educated returnees in business suits — marked a major step in Afghanistan's transformation, which began after the U.S. and northern alliance allies drove the Taliban from power last year.
Delegates must appoint a government that will oversee drafting a new constitution and run the country until elections in 18 months.
"Afghans want an end to a nation of armed people," Karzai said Tuesday in his opening speech. "My greatest hope is that Afghans will have their country back."
In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell denied that the United States was manipulating the loya jirga, saying it seemed to be "representative of all the people of Afghanistan."
"I think we have helped create ... the conditions so that such a meeting of 1,500 representatives ... could come together and find their way into the future in accordance with their traditions and their processes," he said.