Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

AFGHANISTAN: Elections May Be Less Than Free

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Sep 16 2005 (IPS) - While Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections Sunday are expected to go relatively smoothly, the freedom with which they are being carried out is being questioned by many observers.

The presence on the ballot of a number of notorious warlords and their close associates, as well as the continuing threat posed by the Taliban insurgency, which has become increasingly aggressive since last spring, leads a list of concerns about the vote and its effectiveness in moving the country toward more democratic rule.

The election results, it is feared, could not only legitimise the power of warlords and militia leaders, but also increase ethnic and sectarian tensions within the country. These have contributed to a growing divide between the U.S.-backed government of Pres. Hamid Karzai, who has tried hard to woo his fellow-Pashtuns, and the predominantly Tajik and Uzbek forces that ousted the Taliban with U.S. support nearly four years ago.

There are also concerns that policymakers in the West, and especially the United States, may see the elections as evidence of success and begin reducing both their commitment and assistance to what remains one of the world’s poorest countries.

These have grown sharper in the wake of a recent U.S. proposal to reduce by as much as 20 percent its nearly 20,000 troops there beginning next spring, and last-minute difficulties in securing contributions to cover the election’s cost of nearly 160 million dollars.

“It is absolutely imperative that these elections be viewed as the beginnings of democratisation, not the end,” wrote Joanna Nathan and Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in ‘The Washington Times’ Friday. “Afghanistan is still at a perilously fragile stage.”

Sunday’s elections, in which almost 6,000 candidates – including nearly 600 women – are running for seats in the National Assembly and provincial councils, represent an important landmark in the transition from the Taliban regime to a government with many of the institutions of a democratic state. Indeed, these elections were seen as the final stage in the transitional process contemplated by Afghanistan’s major donors and neighbours at the Bonn conference in December 2001, a month after the Taliban’s ouster.

With more than 12 million people officially registered to vote, technical preparations for the election have been largely successful, according a report released this week by Human Rights Watch. Kabul and other cities are reported to be blanketed in campaign posters.

Despite these achievements and the evident enthusiasm of both candidates and many voters, however, “an underlying climate of fear”, as Human Rights Watch (HRW) put it in a report released this week, has affected the campaign, due both to recent threats and attacks carried out by the Taliban and other insurgent groups and the candidacy of alleged war criminals and human rights abusers.

“The Afghan people are clearly eager to participate in elections that will help them move away from the rule of the gun,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of HRW’s Asia Division, who has traveled frequently to Afghanistan since 2001.

“But they are disappointed that the government and its international partners haven’t done more to prevent warlords and rights abusers from dominating Afghanistan’s political scene,” he added.

Indeed, a special Electoral Complaints Commission consisting both of international and Afghan members was set up to vet candidates and disqualify them if they were shown to be tied to militias, notorious rights abuses, or the opium trade, which has flourished since the Taliban’s demise.

As of election eve, the Commission had banned 32 candidates from running, but HRW, ICG, and foreign media have reported that as many as 10 times that number of candidates with such connections remained on the ballot.

“We are not a criminal court or a transitional body,” Grant Kippen, the Commission’s Canadian chair, told the Los Angeles Times this week.

Among those who made it through, according to HRW, are a number of commanders and former officials who were implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially during the battle for Kabul that destroyed most of the city in the early 1990s.

The list includes Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf (a Karzai ally whose forces are accused of having massacred hundreds of Hazaras in Kabul), former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mullah Taj Mohammad, Younis Qanooni (a Tajik leader who was runner-up in last year’s presidential elections and is expected to head the opposition), Haji Almas, and Mullah Ezatullah.

In addition, according to the HRW report, “Afghanistan on the Eve of Parliamentary and Provincial Elections”, Sayed Mohammad Gulabzoi, who is running for a seat from Khost, once served as head of the notoriously brutal police under Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, while several former high-level Taliban officials and commanders, including the former minister of vice and virtue, are also on the ballot.

In provincial and more remote areas, intimidation and fear are strongest, with some candidates unable to even travel or campaign in their constituencies. Female candidates have faced special problems in rural areas due to the pervasive social conservatism in those areas where local militias and warlords control security, according to HRW and other observers.

Indeed, given the continued dominance of warlords in most of Afghanistan’s countryside, HRW appealed urgently for the repeal of a clause, known as “the assassination clause”, in the electoral law that allows losing candidates to take the seats of winning candidates who die or resign from the office.

“The last thing Afghanistan needs is the election’s losers murdering the winners to take their seats,” said Zarifi.

A resurgent Taliban and its allies, like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, add to concerns about the election, particularly in rural Pashtun areas, although U.S. officials and others insist they will not be in a position to seriously disrupt them.

Nonetheless, insurgent attacks – particularly against electoral targets and police – have surged over since last winter and have been blamed for the killings of six candidates to date. On Wednesday, a female candidate, Hawa Alam Nuristani, who works as an anchorwoman on the state-run television and radio, was wounded in an attack and two of her supporters were kidnapped, although no one has taken responsibility.

U.S. forces this year have suffered their greatest losses in Afghanistan since their 2001 campaign to oust the Taliban.

More than 70 U.S. servicemen have been killed there since January, although almost half of them were killed in just two incidents involving helicopter crashes.

Washington officials insist that the higher death toll was due to a more aggressive counter-insurgency campaign designed precisely to keep the Taliban from disrupting the election process. However, some observers attribute it as well to increasing recruitment both in Pakistan and in parts of Afghanistan where the Karzai government has failed to substantially improve economic and social conditions.

That makes it all the more necessary for the West to remain engaged in Afghanistan after the elections, according to the ICG’s Nathan and Schneider.

“(M)ore than three and a half years after the fall of the Taliban, the growing discontent on the streets of Afghanistan is palpable,” they wrote. “If Afghanistan is allowed to slip back into being a failed state because the international community tuns away after elections, that sense of discontent will be the country’s major export.”

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