Approaching the End of the Beginning

September 18, 2005 is set for parliamentary elections in Afghanistan. Long awaited democratic process preparation conclusion is in sight. With the culmination of this last step in democratic exercise, Afghanistan will officially join a community of nations that call themselves democracies. In Afghan democracy, elected officials whose actions would be regulated by law would rule the country. Continue reading “Approaching the End of the Beginning”

Angry Karzai-Sad Karzai

Many followed with interest the latest trip of the Afghan President Karzai to Washington, who had openly expressed anger over the report of torture of Afghan citizens at the hands of the US military at the US military base in Bagram, Afghanistan as was reported by New York Times. Many also watched with interest the outcome of his talks at the White House with the United States President on the issue he called long-term strategic relationship. Karzai seemed determined to request some degree of control over the US military activities in Afghanistan.
Continue reading “Angry Karzai-Sad Karzai”

Alienating the Hearts and Minds of the Muslims

When the Untied States was reportedly on a track leading to winning over the hearts and minds of the Muslims, the Newsweek report, still uncorroborated by other sources, shattered the notion. Yet it should serve as a wake-up call to the need for pursuing of a kinder and more just policy towards Islam and Islamic nations by the United States and a reaching out to the believers of the Islamic faith that constitute almost one quarter of humanity.

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Invoking a Shadow Legislature

Politicking is an amusing game. More recently President Karzai has started to learn and experiment some of its intricacies it in his country. Some observers are of the opinion that he is learning the game from his well-placed confidants at home and abroad that teach him the rules and the moves. But looking at the so-called inner circle surrounding the Afghan President, one does not get any impression that his colleagues like those in his cabinet who are all political novices, would be in a position to tutor him. So one has to look elsewhere.

Recent reports speak of President Karzai’s repeated hints at his country’s need for establishment of what now he calls a permanent strategic relationship with the United States without qualifying the term. Earlier and following the visit to Afghanistan last February by US Senator John McCain of the United States who had first hinted at establishment of permanent US military bases in Afghanistan, President Karzai had touched on the issue several times. This column in a commentary titled: ” Permanent Guests!” has touched on the issue before.

But one of the most important political moves by the Afghan President to date, as reported by Reuters News Agency correspondent Sayed Salahuddin on May 5, 2005, shows that the Afghan President now plans to invoke a shadow legislature to discuss the issue. The report quoting a presidential official says: “President Hamid Karzai has summoned hundreds of representatives from across Afghanistan for talks that will include the sensitive issue of strategic partnership with the United States.” The report further states that the invitees include members of the Loya Jirga that endorsed a new constitution in January 2004.

So far President Karzai has happily run his government as he had wished without any checking and balancing effects from a legislature. The Constitutional Loya Jirga wanted him to create a transitional era legislature to overlook the writing and creating of numerous laws needed for a new democratic Afghanistan that had emerged from the ashes of a quarter century of wars. He chose to use his own cabinet for the purpose. His cabinet, were chosen individuals and not elected members and therefore legally would not qualify to enact laws. On the other hand, many in his cabinet are professional individuals with little or no political experience at all. Therefore, too, using of the cabinet to pass transitional laws face legal questions. But so far, President Karzai had not faced major issues touching on Afghan sovereignty and independence. It is true that the US forces in Afghanistan, engaged officially in the war against terror, conduct their business freely and independent of the Afghan government control. It is also true that at times, the Afghan government forces help the US troops, but have no official say in the planning of attacks, searches and imprisonments of Afghan citizens suspected of acts of terror or aiding and abetting of suspect elements. At times, even the government itself has surrendered suspect Afghan terrorist elements to the US forces for interrogation and even imprisonment and or sending abroad for further investigation. In the war against terror all of this may be necessary, but there should have been a legal arrangement to safeguard the national interests of Afghanistan and that the Afghans should have been involved in the control and conduct of the operations.

But now President Karzai faces an issue that has some degree of urgency according to him. This issue is the need he feels, for reasons of security, of a continued military presence of the United States in Afghanistan. He is well aware that a decision on this regard by him alone would tantamount to ignoring the need also of finding the will of the nation. This would stain his otherwise good record as a nationalist figure and would feed fodder to the claims of the opposition that he is giving priority to the needs of others rather than his own nation. The questions surrounding this issue include whether assigning of urgency to the question of security at this stage, that the nation is away only a few months from electing its legal legislature, is a wise thing. If the President considered a legislature so important why did he agree to separate the presidential election from general elections in the first place? There was an infrastructure in place for elections and a large investment had covered, for the most part, major portion of the creation of that infrastructure. But then he only let presidential elections take place and waited until later for the general elections for a legislature. Perhaps he had learned that the delay would help him make all decisions he needed without bothering about parliamentary opposition at a critical time in the history of the country.

But now, he thinks he has found reason to make a drastic decision regarding granting of legal permanency to the stay of foreign military bases in Afghanistan. This decision is so big that even Mr. Karzai is afraid of making it on his own. And here is how politicking can help. President Karzai is scheduled to make a quick trip to the United States late this month for receiving of some (urgent!) honorary degrees from some universities including the University of Nebraska in Omaha. While in the United States, he would also make a stop at the White House for talks with the Untied Sates President George Bush. He is sure to raise the question of the need for making of arrangements regarding what he calls establishment of permanent military strategic relationship with the United States. If by then, he has the agreement from a handpicked shadow- if even unofficial legislature like a gathering of representatives of people and members of the last Constitutional Loya Jirga, he would be best prepared to conduct his talks with the United States President. That is high politicking strategy.

But back home in Afghanistan many see through his plans and there is an opposition that has already raised objections to the theme. Xinhuanet on May 7, 2005 reports: “One of President Hamid Karzai’s strong critics, Afghanistan National Congress Party (ANCP), has strongly opposed the proposal of establishing US permanent military bases in Afghanistan, a Kabul-based weekly reported Saturday. The report added that according to the weekly Payam-e-Mujahid such a decision would ” tantamount to the complete occupation of the country.”

It is now to be seen whether the gathering would agree to President Karzai and buy his argument of urgency of the matter, so much so that it could not wait another few months before Afghan parliamentary elections are concluded and before Afghanistan has the legislative body to help in making of grave decisions regarding the issue of national sovereignty of the country. It would also show whether invoking of a so-called legislature, a shadow legislature, would serve the purposes of the country’s main politician and his team of tutors and advisors. It will also tell us if the game of politicking played by Mr. Karzai would yield him any rewards. 5/07/05

Bye-bye Viceroy

Perhaps one man, Zalmay Khalilzad, stands out in Afghanistan’s recent history as a man who wielded real power and used it unabashedly to influence Afghan affairs in the field. Khalilzad was there when the haphazard Bonn meeting participated by a handful and handpicked people convened under the auspices of the United Nations to chart out Afghanistan’s destiny. Khalilzad was there when the Afghans convened their emergency Loya Jirga. Khalilzad was there when they held their Constitutional Loya Jirga. Khalilzad was there when the Afghans held their first- ever Presidential Election. He was there, not as a spectator, but as a real life influence, facilitator, partner and activist. As an Afghan American and a US high-ranking diplomat representing the President of the United States and serving as the US Ambassador, his loyalty to the Afghan cause seemed unwavering. Perhaps, that is why, it was he and not the president of Afghanistan who would announce major decisions in policy, in issues related to internal politics and the course of affairs. He would meet with controversial politicians, solve a variety of their disputes and influence the Afghan government’s political path. All of these served as a double edge sword, cutting into problems faced by President Karzai on the one hand and promoting the notion that Karzai was a ruler by name only, on the other. In actual terms, Karzai, on his own right has emerged as a politician of import in Afghan history. And now that “Viceroy Khalilzad is leaving Afghanistan to assume his new position at a graver job in Iraq as the US Ambassador, Karzai would have to show that he is his own man.

Khalilzad may have helped Karzai in a variety of issues, but Afghanistan is too big for two politicians to take care of it only by themselves. The problems facing Afghanistan are manifold and involve all aspects of social, economic, and political issues. Khalilzad, by virtue of his position served the US interests first and foremost. While this does not necessarily mean that he ignored Afghan needs altogether, the Afghans as reflected in the free Afghan press, blamed Karzai for letting him in on all issues related to the Afghan government. People expected their president to rely more on Afghan citizens in mapping out of their destiny. They wanted to see balances and checks in place to prevent the government from being ruled by one person at the top. History has shown that that is how dictatorships are born. Democracy requires peoples’ participation and in President Karzai’s government, there is no evidence of that yet.

But problems are many. President Karzai, now a shrewd politician, in his speeches shows his people and the world at large that he is not only aware of the problems of his country, but that he also wants them to be remedied. He has at times endeavored to quantify some of these problems and has promised to improve upon the situation, but has always fallen short of assigning target data. It was a surprise for many Afghan watchers when recently in his address to the donors conference in Kabul held for three days from April4-6, 2005, he pledged his government to raise the per capita income of the Afghans from $200 to $500 in five years. While how he is going to do this needs to be described by his government, other figures given out by him or his government are not encouraging. For example, Ambassador Khalilzad assured the conference that the United States has already planned to increase its aid from $ 2.5 billion in 2004 to 5 billion this year. There has been no announcement of how much of this money will be spent for the rebuilding of the infrastructure and how much for the military. One report stated that $ 1.4 billion was needed for the expansion of the national army and the police. On the other hand, The Afghan government just prior to the conference announced its budget for the year 2005. The Afghan cabinet had adopted this $4.75 billion budget for the current year. But it is important to note that 93% of this budget is foreseen to be received from foreign donors. On the one hand, in Afghanistan where the average value of a dollar oscillates around 50 Afghanis, and where the average salary of a government official including professional staff like doctors and nurses is around $ 50-70 per month, talking in billions of dollars seems at odds with the realities. Hearing a figure like that keeps people at awe. On the other hand what kind of a government expects to run successfully when it may have control only over 7% of its budget?

The government claims to have scored economic expansion at a staggering number of 29 percent three years ago, which has been followed with expansion rates of 16% and 8% in the past two years. Originally the expansion claimed during the first year of the transitional government was announced to be 30% and this column had asked a simple question of how much is 30 percent of zero? And the zero was where the government had claimed it had started.

President Karzai raised extremely interesting subjects in his speech to the conference. These included a need to search remedies for the flow of aid money, which is presently happening outside the government budget into Afghan projects. This truly affects the confusion in government planning for services and development of the infrastructure. He had named a number of priorities. “We must now work together to overcome chronic poverty, and build Afghanistan into a stable and thriving economy in the region,” Karzai told delegates gathered at the Foreign Ministry in Kabul”, says an Associated Press report. “We are keenly aware of our people’s expectations.” Said President Karzai. It is heartening to hear a politician state that he is aware of his people’s expectations. However, today people demand clear-cut goals and targets for achieving those objectives. For example they need to know about the mechanisms of the working of the government for the achieving of those objectives. They need to know if the country is on the right track; they need to know if there is any mechanism of checks and balances in place. That is why many look forward to the upcoming parliamentary elections in Afghanistan that in itself is a complex yet interesting social issue. Only this time Dr. Khalilzad will not be there as his nation building experiences and his loyalty to the White House will be direly needed elsewhere.

So now that Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan American diplomat is preparing to leave Kabul for Baghdad pending his confirmation by the Congress, it will be time to test the politics of Mr. Hamed Karzai as practiced single handedly regarding the fate of his country. He will have to address many economic issues such as poverty (Afghanistan ranks sixth among the poorest countries of the world), unemployment, housing, health, education, hunger and disease and most importantly security and corruption as well as the huge needs for the construction and or reconstruction of the infrastructure. It will not be enough for him to tell the nation that his government has been able to extend new roads, but the nation would demand to know exactly how many kilometers of roads have been constructed and where? It would not be enough to promise people health services while they would demand to know how much disease and disability would be reduced over the course of a given year or period. The people would ask questions about when and how their suffering would end and their wait would be over and the government promises met. 4/10/05

Walking the Political Tightrope

Regional politics in south-central Asia make a complicated maze for any politician and especially for Afghanistan’s newly emerging democracy’s leaders. One of the biggest functions of Afghanistan’s president who bears the banner of Afghan politics mostly on his own shoulders, especially at this stage where the country does not have the benefit of the balancing effect of an elected parliament, is to devise and direct Afghanistan’s political course in a region that acquires increasing importance in Asian affairs. The situation gives rise to speculations that the person of the Afghan president, therefore, is vulnerable to influences by a variety of interest groups, most of them from abroad. It is also of concern that he lives apart from his people in a presidential palace that is surrounded by eight security circles. Although these circles are devised for the physical security of the president, it is feared that they also isolate him from close contact with his countrymen.

Nevertheless, while Karzai’s government has been extremely slow in the implementation of the promised reconstruction of the country, he has taken bold steps regarding his country’s political standing in the regional and international circles.

The social, economic and political situations in the region are getting complicated. Nuclear powers, India and Pakistan on the east, China in its northeast and Iran that is drawing world attention to its nuclear program, on the west and the energy rich young countries in Central Asia put Afghanistan at the hub of an interesting geopolitical wheel that is gaining more momentum by the passing of each day.

It is therefore not surprising that a leading US senator, Senator McCain calls for the need to establish permanent American military bases in Afghanistan. The comment has already drawn comments in Afghan free press that any decision in this regard must have the approval of the Afghan parliament.

On the other hand, gas and oil, as always try to dictate regional and international relations among countries in that part of the world. The story of the extension of a gas pipeline from the rich gas fields of Daulatabad in Turkmenistan via Afghanistan to Pakistan and India now seems an old story. Yet, no one has written a “happily ever after,” clause to that story. Indian foreign minister during his recent visit to Kabul was very cautious in the expression of any official support to the project. Some news items suggested that India feels there is not enough gas to be carried by the pipeline from Turkmenistan as that country’s gas has already been committed to be exported to Europe and elsewhere. Economic considerations together with political maneuvering have already influenced a reshuffling of positions by Pakistan, Iran and India regarding the need of India for the extension of a gas pipeline. On the other hand, Iran would like to see that the gas pipeline is extended from Iran via Pakistan to India and thus Afghanistan might lose the opportunity of a lifetime to benefit from the Turkmen gas pipeline going through its soil. Also recently, in view of the pressures on Pakistan by the United States in the war against terror, Pakistan’s nuclear know how and technology of nuclear weapons, relations between Iran and Pakistan had reached a critical point. To appease Iran, Pakistan is willing to agree and extend a guarantee for a gas pipeline from Iran to India via its soil.

It was in this context that the Afghan president made a three-day visit to India. It was assumed that he would press for getting Indian agreement to the extension of the gas pipeline through Afghanistan. Indian authorities have continued to express a diplomatic happy face stance in this regard, without giving any firm commitment. India is also weighing the possibility of another gas pipeline from Myanmar via Bangladesh.

In the meantime, the Afghan president took a bold step in applying for membership to the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, SAARC. The association consists of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. President Karzai argued that Afghanistan’s membership to this regional economic cooperation grouping would provide a link between South and Central Asia. He has further stated the need for a trade corridor for Afghanistan through Pakistan, an issue very close to the hearts of those in favor of Afghanistan’s economic independence as a landlocked country.

Coupling the above with the ambitious project by the Asian Development Bank to extend an Asian Highway from Kabul to Bangkok and on to Hanoi would bring many countries in the region and beyond together in a critical time in the beginning of the 21st century.

Maintaining of a balanced stance in these conditions, considering the rivalries between the nuclear powers Pakistan and India, Iranian competition for securing not only of markets for its oil and gas, but pushing for a gas pipeline from its soil and thus huge economic gains, Afghanistan’s need for a peaceful region with friendly relation with its new democratic government and opening up of a new silk route and a route of economic prosperity for all, seem like walking on a political tightrope for a single Afghan politician who has been put in the position of making huge decisions for his country single handedly and without the benefit of political allies or at least a parliament. Yet, it seems that he has the political courage and the foresight to attempt at walking the rope. It is only to be mentioned that no ropewalker does his piece without help from a team that look out for his well being and the success of the show. The question is who are Karzai’s advisors? 2/27/05

Whose Priority

With Karzai’s position secured as the president and his cabinet selected, the nation looks forward to action. Karzai had promised action on the basis of recognized priorities. But the first priority he chose was a jihad against opium.

The Afghan nation has a multitude of needs and thus requires its government to deal with priorities that relieve its acute pains and sufferings and lay out the grounds for its further progress and improvement of its lot. While drugs make one of the priorities indeed, the nation’s priority at present seems to be different. There are people who understand the urgency of the fight against illicit drugs from the perspective of the Western powers that support president Karzai’s government. But the same people name life saving health and educational programs that would reduce the highest infant mortality rate in the country, save deaths among pregnant women whose lives are in serious danger because of lack of health and medical facilities, prevent communicable diseases among children and the elderly, prevent deaths caused by malnutrition all over the country and especially in poorer regions, prevent child and women abuse, boost agricultural production and develop small industries. Priorities, such as extension and improvement of roads, settlement programs for the refugees as they return home from years of internal and external displacement and exile, improvement of the lot of government employees and creating jobs seem more urgent. Security, fighting of widespread corruption and working on a system of a secure civil life plus wiping out of the unjust and inhuman influence of warlords are other demands by the nation.

In the area of politics, preparation for just and proper parliamentary elections is another priority. The parliamentary election entails also elections for the provincial and district councils. These, in addition to electing of members of the Wolusi Jirga, the Lower House, include 34 provincial councils and 400 district councils who would then help choose two third of the Mishrano Jirga or members of the Upper House of Parliament.

The government enjoys support of all the optimistic citizens, yet it would need to prove its worth by doing something about the nation’s priorities first. A close look at what goes on in the country shows that the government so far has done little to organize its priorities or to take issue with the problems that are facing the nation. Yet it has taken up the priority it shares with Great Britain and the United States, namely the issue of drugs.

While fighting production of opium and its illicit trafficking is very important the government has not started considering in earnest a solution that would not hurt the farmers in the country. It has not considered any solid plan for transition by the farmers from opium centered farming to growing of other cash crop that would meet the need of the farmers for cash. It has failed to experiment or explore in detail a variety of solutions that are available in this regard. One example that was talked about was the possibility of growing saffron instead. There are other plants, such as fiber, that can be experimented with also. Yet the government seems to consider the more drastic action of burning the poppy fields, irrespective of its affect on the farmers, as suggested by the British and the US. More recently, the Germans have come up with a solution that include education and plant replacement program claiming that their program would not alienate the people from the popular government of Karzai. They fear that drastic measures may lead to a loss of confidence in the popularly elected person of the president of Afghanistan.

Regarding the elections, Mr. Karzai officially states that it would be appropriate to hold parliamentary elections as scheduled. President Karzai personally feels no urgency in bringing forth a parliament which would limit his powers and which take all his skill to deal with. Yet, the Afghan Constitution calls for an elected parliament so that democracy would be thoroughly launched in the country.

Karzai has failed to decide on district boundaries that need to be marked by the government 120 days prior to elections. It has still to conclude an acceptable census of the country so that the number of candidates per district could be determined and it has failed to make its final decision regarding whether there is a possibility for party based elections. This last point seems to be controversial, as based on the bitter experience of the country with parties, a party based parliamentary election may deprive the general public in electing the people they want as their representatives rather than representatives named for them by parties.

On top of all of these failures, there is the issue of the need for $ 130 million to hold parliamentary elections. This is money the government does not have and would like to receive as aid from the international community. Besides this, the government has not been able to receive the aid money in full promised it by the international community for general reconstruction work. A considerable part of the money it has received so far has been spent on salaries of the government employees. As no government should indefinitely depend on aid money to pay the salaries of its workers, there should be economic planning to boost the country’s income so it would gain its economic freedom from aid giving international community. Reconstruction does not mean running of an old bureaucratic administration at the cost of development programming.

But there have been a number of positive achievements by the government of Afghanistan in political and even military fields. Credit must be given to the government of President Karzai for seeing that the nation got its new constitution, convened two Loya Jirgas and elected its first president through general elections. The country is now put on the course of democracy.

Conditions are ripe for steering the country out of its past turbulent course, provided the navigators have a good map and are experts in understanding the directions toward progress and prosperity fully aware of the dangers of rocks and reef. The government of Mr. Karzai should take advantage of the favorable winds if he is to lead his ship out of the dangerous waters. 2/20/05

Peace without Justice

In matters of history, nations behave as individuals. Nations have collective memories. Nations have collective feelings and emotions. Nations have collective pride, collective aspirations and collective dignity. Nations prosper during peace and suffer during war. Nations hate wars and warmongers and collectively seek reparation of their damaged pride and dignity. They also seek compensation for their moral and material losses caused by irresponsible perpetrators of unrest, aggression and injustice. Nations believe there can be peace when there is justice and they doubt the achievement of peace without justice.

The Afghan nation was dragged into a protracted war designed and planned in the Kremlin and executed by the Red Army of the Soviet era. The state of war with the Soviet invaders lasted for a decade. It is one of the darkest decades in the country’s long history of many thousands of years. The nation suffered drastically. This suffering has and can be documented and material damage can be calculated to the infrastructure of the country both in urban and rural settings. The moral blow of the invasion is much harder to be priced in monetary terms, but there are examples of gauging even the mental consequences of aggressions. Furthermore, there is the lingering effects of the destruction into the future of the country and social and economic repercussions of war and oppression. One example can be the many years of productive educational opportunity lost to the innocent young members of the society due to war and insecurity and destruction of educational institutions and forced displacement of educators and destruction of the system as a whole.

In addition to the above, there is the question of continued aggression and oppression on and of the nation by warmongers and warlords, who imposed on a nation already weakened by war, their will in an atmosphere which was not unlike that of a lawless jungle where the gun ruled and the mighty quenched their avaricious thirst for more power at the price of inflicting more suffering on the innocent weak. This further injured the psyche of the nation.

Now, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the United Nations researchers and a great majority of the intelligentsia are talking about the need for meeting the great need of the nation for justice. The International Herald Tribune of February 3, 2005 carried an article by Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and Nader Naderi one of its members. The article says: “Haji Qudos, a middle-aged man from Nangarhar Province, is one of a vast majority of Afghans who are willing to commit their lives to promote peace and stability in order to pave the way for a sustainable democracy. But peace and stability in our country are
possible only if the United States and the international community help the Afghan people bring to justice those who have committed crimes against humanity.

Haji’s wife, sons and daughters were killed in front of his eyes in his house on June 7, 1995. Those responsible now hold very powerful political positions in the country and work closely with U.S. military officials in the war against terror.”

The commission’s report has drawn both praise and criticism from many quarters. The Afghan president has welcomed the report and has diplomatically and vaguely expressed a willing to look into the implementation of some of its suggestions. Some have criticized the report for having failed to identify the true culprits of injustice, war crimes and excesses committed against the Afghan nation.

But all of the above make only one aspect of the nations concern, namely identifying those guilty of the crimes against the Afghan nation and trying them for their crimes. The other aspect, on which the government of president Karzai has kept quiet and has not even given it his evasive diplomatic comment, is the issue of the demand for war reparations from Russia.

One of the questions raised recently among Afghan observers is: What can you do, if the government in place in a country either fails to demand the legal rights of the nation to war reparations or ignore it? The issue of imposition of war reparations on the aggressor is now a fully established international fact. If an aggressor nation is not subjected to meeting international justice, at least by payment of war damages it has imposed on the victim nation, justice is not maintained. Peace and justice go together and neither can be maintained without the maintenance of the other.

It is time that the government working with experts and intelligentsia take serious steps regarding the abovementioned two important issues so that a new democratic Afghanistan starts on a new slate of peace and justice working together and a nation that is satisfied with the work of its government regarding dressing of its collective wounds inflicted on it by aggressors and war criminals. Alternatively, Afghan patriotic circles and individuals could take up the issue for legal follow up with responsible national and or international organizations. 2/5/05