Afghanistan: "constitutionalising" the warlords' rule?

Submitted by Anon on 9 December, 2003 - 2:25

By Cathy Nugent

On 10 December a "loya jirga", a 500-strong assembly of regional and other delegates, will meet in Afghanistan to discuss a new constitution for the country.

The draft constitution is a sketchy document which seems to propose a hybrid state, incorporating a model of an Islamic Republic - "there will be no laws contrary to Islam" - alongside a bourgeois democracy, with a bourgeois rule of law. There will be a bicameral legislature with enormous powers for the President. Nowhere in the document are explicit equal rights for women written down. Once (or perhaps, if) the constitution is agreed, elections to a National Assembly and for a new President will take place. These are scheduled for mid-2004.
The loya jirga will include women and representation for Afghanistan's national minorities. But crucially, it will also include the proxy representatives of Afghanistan's warlords who now run the country. The constitutional process and subsequent elections will inevitably be a focus for the disputes and regional rivalries between the warlords.

Who are these warlords?

Under the "interregnum" set up after the 2001 US-led war and subsequent fall of the Taliban, former mujahedin commanders who fought against Soviet occupation came into government. These men were the commanders of the "Northern Alliance" , a military opposition to the Taliban, which helped the US-coalition remove the Taliban from power.

These men are ethnically non-Pashtun (the Taliban based their rule on Pashtun ethnicity). For instance, Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a former mujahedin, is the Minister of Defense. His department has been dominated by Panjshiri Tajiks. Recent changes have brought more non-Tajiks into the higher echelons of that ministry but members of the renamed Northern Alliance, Shura-e Nazar, still fill two of the three most senior positions.

The warlords and their representatives occupy almost every province's governorship.

In the north, power was mostly divided between the military forces of the Tajiks and the predominately ethnic-Uzbek Junbish party.

The Kabul area and the northeast came under the control of Shura-e Nazar forces.

In the West, another former mujahedin leader, Ismail Khan, took power. Khan has now established the most authoritarian and "fundamentalist" form of rule in the whole of Afghanistan.

In the south, provinces were put into the hands of Pashtun commanders - former mujahedin - some of whom earlier worked with or co-operated with the Taliban.

The mountainous central area of Hazarajat came under the control of local military commanders in the Hezb-e Wahdat party (which claims to represent the Hazara minority and also to have "liberal" views on women's participation in society and politics).

The eastern provinces near Jalalabad came under the control of various other former mujahedin groups.

Large parts of the Afghan police and other local officials serve particular warlords.

For understandable reasons the US did not want to exclude the warlords in the interregnum: that would have been a recipe for conflict. But the Afghani people, women in particular have paid a price for this - often very "fundamentalist", and/or ethnically chauvinist government (in so far as there is effective government in Afghanistan) has come to the fore.

The Afghan President Hamid Karzai has sat at the centre of the interregnum, out on a limb. Karzai is a Pashtun who also fought the Soviet occupation, but lived in exile for much of the 90s. During the 1990s he was involved in negotiations with the Taliban regime for the construction of a Central Asian gas pipeline through Turkmenistan to Pakistan. He was a top adviser and lobbyist for Unocal, a Californian based oil company with links to the Bush family.

When Karzai has attempted to diversify the ministerial make-up of the government or to place limits on the rule of the warlords, his efforts have been frustrated. The US may publicly back Karzai in Kabul, but it has to co-operate with the warlords in the provinces and these are people who seek to enrich themselves and strengthen their own political power at the expense of Karzai and the national administration. The age-old centri-fugal forces of Afghanistan, exacerbated by the contradictory intervention of the US, may very well undermine the new constitutional process.

Karzai can be denounced as a puppet of the US, but any President of Afghanistan will be in an untenable position. Afghanistan needs western money. The "peace-keeping" forces of the US, the UN and NATO may be the only thing stopping the country from breaking down into total anarchy. The new Afghan "national" army is just 5,000 strong. Canadian troops will guard the loya jirga this month.

For nearly two years, despite repeated requests from Karzai, there was no deployment of international "peace-keeping forces" outside Kabul. And so warlords were allowed to establish themselves and their militias - often unpaid, rag tag bands of men - have been allowed to run riot.

It is only in the last few months, with an Afghan (and a US) election looming, and with US troops facing a resurgent Taliban in the south of the country, that the west has paid much attention to Afghanistan.

Last month $12 billion was promised in emergency aid by the US. At the beginning of 2003 the Americans and British set up units of their own soldiers, special forces, and civilians to work as "provincial reconstruction teams". In Mazar, the 85-strong team is British.

In August 2003 the ISAF was taken over by NATO and their missions have been extended to places outside Kabul.

A programme has been put in place to "demilitarise" the militias, but this lacks the resources to be implemented effectively, will be controlled by the Afghan Minister of Defence (!) and may mean that the militias are simply dissolved into the new Afghan army and will become rival "gangs".

In many areas people feel at the mercy of warlord-controlled "officials" and militias.

The army and police troops have kidnapped ordinary Afghans and held them for ransom in unofficial prisons.

The militias break into households, rob families, rape women, girls and boys. The militias extort from shopkeepers and bus, truck and taxi drivers.

Political organisers, women's rights activists, journalists and media editors have been threatened with death and arrest by the army, police and intelligence agents.

This atmosphere of intimidation and harassment surrounds the loya jirga. Regional military commanders and troops have been threatening loya jirga candidates and regional representatives, issuing death threats, and nominating themselves for the loya jirga. For instance in Badakshan a nominated candidate who had received a death threat withdrew his candidacy.

On one level the draft constitution, if it is adopted and implemented, might be an improvement for the people of Afghanistan. If it is implemented it will be because this reform has been not been pushed through entirely by diktat, even if the elections to the loya jirga or a national assembly are less than models of democracy. The constitution is far more "liberal" than might otherwise have been expected - it provides for political parties and a free media. And that is the problem.

There are men in Afghanistan who will fight to the death before they see a free media established or women have equal rights. This constitution cannot guarantee the limited freedoms it sets out - the "Islamic" elements may come to dominate, other parts just may not be implemented.

There is no explicit provision for women's rights because too many established powers in Afghanistan want to continue the so-called (albeit disputed) traditions of Afghan family life: marrying off of girls, the selling of women, punishment for sex outside marriage.

The definition of Afghan rule of law is unclear: it could be sharia law (any interpretation of that) or bourgeois law.

In fact the interregnum itself is the model for the new constitutional arrangements. The only difference in theory is more effective powers for the President. The US seems to think the status quo works, at least more or less, it provides what the US want: stability. (Or relative stability).

It looks like Karzai will stand for President. The President will have the power to appoint 50% of the upper house of representatives. Half of those representatives must be women. The President can determine fundamental policy, control the army, appoint the judges and declare a state of emergency. He will also appoint Ministers.

But which selection of warlord/ethnic representatives will be appointed Ministers? Who will be left out of the new Ministerial line up?

So this model of potential stability may yet fall apart. Clearly the US want to keep the expense of outside "peace-keeping" in the country to a minimum. But that expectation may be very short-sighted.

For socialists the critical questions are different: what will happen to the women of Afghanistan - what use is some representation in central government if all the privations and humiliations of the lives of ordinary Afghan women stay the same?

Will there be freedom of speech? Or will politics and media be closed down. If all political parties have to be "not contrary to the sacred religion of Islam", what will happen to the tiny socialist opposition?

  • Next issue: the plight of Afghani women

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