President Hamid Karzai signed the post-Taliban constitution into law Monday, hailing its promise of equal rights in hopes of uniting his splintered nation and ending the reign of violence in Afghanistan.
In a sign of just how far the country has to go, U.S. airstrikes hit suspected insurgents in the tense eastern border region, the latest in a string of attacks that have killed 60 people in just the last few weeks.
Karzai called out a triumphant “Congratulations!” to Afghan leaders who helped draw up the 162-article constitution and signed a decree making it the nation’s supreme law in a ceremony at the Foreign Ministry.
Dignitaries, including former King Mohammed Zaher Shah, Cabinet ministers, foreign diplomats and military officers applauded.
In his decree, Karzai prayed the document would bring “prosperity for all and will ensure peace, equality and brotherhood” among the country’s feuding ethnic groups.
Ratified Jan. 4 after a sometimes bruising debate at a 500-member loya jirga, or grand council, the text also declares men and women equal before the law.
The constitution is a strict departure from the harsh version of Islamic law enforced by the Taliban, who were ousted from power by U.S.-led forces more than two years ago.
The constitution outlines a tolerant, democratic Islamic republic under a strong presidency—as sought by Karzai, with strong backing from Washington—a two-chamber parliament and an independent judiciary.
It also recognizes minority language rights, although it gives few powers to its far-flung provinces. Some critics warn it could give too much power to religious hard-liners in the supreme court.
The United States welcomed the constitution as a “turning point” that would help return the rule of law to a land still dominated by warlords.
“We are witness to a major milestone in putting behind the era of the rule of the gun,” U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said in a statement.
He pledged continued American help to project the charter “into the basic political realities of Afghan life.”
Observers hope the constitution will inject new momentum to efforts by U.N. and NATO-led peacekeepers to disarm militias and return tens of thousands of fighters to civilian life.
Karzai also hopes the constitution will help him build a state strong enough to stand up to Taliban insurgents and their allies, who appear determined to overshadow his triumph.
More than 60 people have been killed in the past three weeks—including 15 civilians, most of them children, who died in a Jan. 6 bombing in the southern city of Kandahar.
On Sunday, U.S. warplanes attacked suspected militants who clashed with a patrol in the eastern province of Kunar, a U.S. military spokesman said.
Further south, two Afghan soldiers and two civilians traveling in a car in Helmand province died in a gunfight with other soldiers after they failed to stop at a checkpoint.
The United Nations has warned that countrywide elections to be held under the constitution in June may have to be delayed because of poor security, and can only go ahead at all if the situation improves.
So far, only about 500,000 of the estimated 10 million Afghans eligible to vote have been registered, and U.N. teams have yet to venture into the riskiest areas because of attacks on Afghan and foreign aid workers.
Karzai is widely expected to win the presidential vote.