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March 13, 2005

Afghanistan Today: What Kind of Freedom is This?

If one were to listen only to the Bush administration and the mainstream media that so dutifully and unquestioningly publishes Bush administration statements as though they were gospel truth, then one would think that everything is coming up roses in Afghanistan. Well, the reality is poppies, maybe, but not roses. (Opium production has tripled since the Karzai administration was installed, and 2004 was a record production year according to US and UK sources.)

So, smack is up, but how about other things? Human rights, democracy, quality of life?

Human Rights: little has changed for Afghan women

After the fall of the Taliban, George W. Bush proclaimed, "The mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school -- today women are free."

Free? Not true. Not even true three years later. Ramita Navai reported in the January 23, 2005 Sunday Herald, “In President Hamid Karzai's Afghanistan, women are still imprisoned for running away from home.”

In all fairness, ancient traditions and social mores are deeply engrained and won’t change overnight. However, the point is a lack of any serious attempt at change--- 90% of Afghan women are illiterate today! Added to old mindsets, Afghanistan is still so dangerous that programs of development and social uplift have gone nowhere.

In late 2003, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) stated, "[n]early two years on, discrimination, violence, and insecurity remain rife, despite promises by world leaders, including President Bush and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, that the war in Afghanistan would bring liberation for women".

Human Rights: abuses continue, post-Taliban

Amnesty International reported in 2002, “[a]buses perpetrated by armed groups against women and girls since the fall of the Taliban government in November 2001 include rape, abduction, and forced and underage marriage.”

In ’03, an Amnesty report stated, "[n]ot only are police unable to guarantee the protection of human rights in Afghanistan, some members of the police are themselves involved in committing human rights violations,"

Then there’s widespread reports of abuse in and out of prisons—by US troops and by Afghan security. This includes allegations during summer 2004 of sexual and physical abuse by US marines against 35 civilian villagers detained in central Afghanistan.

While I was in Afghanistan during May 2004, filming for what became “Worlds Apart: 9/11 First Responders Against War”, many Afghans told me that they felt as though the country was on the verge of another civil war. Even in the words of Karzai himself, “[t]he warlords and private militias who were once regarded as the west's staunchest allies in Afghanistan are now a greater threat to the country's security than the Taliban.” (The Guardian (London), July 13, 2004 )

Marc Herold, UNH professor and author of the controversial Afghan civilian body count during US bombing, summed up the human rights situation when I interviewed him: “If this is a success story, I fear to see what a failure would be.”

Democracy: What kind of democracy is this?

Some mainstream media pundits in the US have claimed that the proposed Afghanistan constitution has no mention of Shariah, the legal code based on the Koran. However, according to the Afghanistan Constitution, Article One, “Afghanistan is an Islamic Republic”. Alternative media pundits have argued that in order to have a strong, US-friendly Afghanistan presidency, the US has been willing to concede to local tribal leaders a foundation of Islamic law in the Afghan constitution.

The Afghan judicial system can offer people little help, since it was virtually non-existent after a quarter century of war. It is now on the rebuild at a glacial pace, in Kabul. Outside of Kabul, lack of governmental control, the existence of ongoing conflict, and de facto rule by warlords in many areas of Afghanistan undermine the rule of law on a daily basis.

As Afghanistan’s October ’04 election approached, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report detailing extensive abuse of democratic rights by warlords and their militia throughout Afghanistan. HRW’s report outlines systematic intimidation of political rivals, election organizers, journalists, and coercive methods used to ensure support of ordinary voters.

Surprisingly, even the mainstream press in the US criticized the approaching elections in Afghanistan.

“These days, Mr. Bush and other administration officials often talk about the 10.5 million Afghans who have registered to vote in this month's election, citing the figure as proof that democracy is making strides after all. They count on the public not to know, and on reporters not to mention, that the number of people registered considerably exceeds all estimates of the eligible population. What they call evidence of democracy on the march is actually evidence of large-scale electoral fraud.” (New York Times, October 1, 2004 )

While in Afghanistan last spring, I had the good fortune of meeting and interviewing Dr. Massuda Jalal who was a presidential candidate in 2002 and 2004.

Jalal admitted that she didn’t have a chance to win the election. This was due to a number of reasons. “I have zero money. I have zero military support.” Then there’s the cultural mores. Then there’s the enormous disparity between Karzai’s ability to use Afghanistan’s media, and that of the rest of the candidates.

Ongoing violence in Afghanistan actually played in Karzai’s favor in the election. As president, he already had name recognition, and access to the media that no other candidate had. While some candidates were well know in certain regions of the country, lack of access to the media or to in-person visits to other parts of the country undermined their ability to gain recognition.

Furthermore, Dr. Jalal explained that grassroots access to the public is challenged under the current administration. In one typical scene, government officials in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif tried to block Jalal from speaking to residents by revoking permission at the last minute for her to use a university hall.

"We just gathered in the park instead," she said. "What could they do about that? We had no loudspeaker, of course, so I spoke in a loud voice. In the end, the people were agreeing with me -- what kind of democracy is this?"

Jalal summed up the likelihood of her or anyone else defeating Karzai by saying, “[t]he US backs Karzai. Karzai will win.”

In the October election, Karzai won, taking 55% of the vote.

The tragedy of the installation

Hamid Karzai was the US leader of choice from the fall of the Taliban. The BBC described him as “[w]ell educated, Westernized and stylish… He even won praise from the Gucci fashion house for his trademark green-and-white chapan - traditional Uzbek coat - and ceremonial karakul hat.”

Karzai was born in Kandahar. He is an ethnic Pashtun and a member of the powerful Populzai clan from which many Afghan Kings have come. Thus, he was involved in Afghan politics early on. He did postgraduate work in political science in India from 1979 to 1983, then returned to Afghanistan to work as a fund-raiser supporting anti-Soviet uprisings during the rest of the 1980s. After the expulsion of the Soviet military from Afghanistan, Karzai served as a government minister for the new leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani. When the Taliban arrived on the political scene in the early 1990s, Karzai initially supported them. He later broke with the Taliban, citing distrust of their links to Pakistan. After the Taliban overthrew Rabbani in 1996, Karzai declined an offer to serve as their U.N. ambassador.

Many sources have reported that Karzai once worked as a consultant for the oil company, Unocal. (The first claim seems to have appeared in the December 9, 2001 issue of the French newspaper Le Monde.) Spokespeople for Unocal and Karzai have denied any such relationship.

Afghans who I asked about the pipeline had no specific information, except they were sure it was being built. The pipeline runs out of the Caspian Basin, to the north of Afghanistan, and down through Afghanistan, thus avoiding running it on the more direct route through Iran.

Given the unshaking support of Karzai from the US, it is clear that he is at the very least a pipeline-friendly leader.

A RAWA representative (she preferred to remain anonymous) who I interviewed stated that violence of the current scale could have been avoided, but for the installation by the US of Karzai. She said (and Jalal agreed) that warlords around the country were ready to turn in their weapons just after the Taliban fell, but before Karzai was installed. After more than 25 years of war, Afghans just wanted peace—warlords included. But, once someone who was seen as a US puppet was installed, warlords determined it was in their best interest for their militias to remain armed. In his inauguration speech in December 2004, Karzai vowed to curb the influence of regional warlords. He gave no specifics on his approach.

Violence in Afghanistan continues, albeit on a somewhat lower level than many of the past 25 years. While our government paints a rosy picture of Afghanistan, many Afghans fear the worst is yet to come.

Posted by Joe Public at March 13, 2005 05:01 AM


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