What Lies in Afghanistan’s Future? Prospects for the Loya Jirga

Published on June 10, 2002 by CommonDreams.org

A New Afghan Democracy?

As Afghanistan continues to receive the brunt of US military attention in the post-September 11th world, the first Afghan Loya Jirga in decades will meet for six days in June 2002. Hailed as a step towards a new Afghan democracy, this “grand council” of 1500 delegates, based on a traditional (read patriarchal) Pashtun grand assembly, will be held on June 10-16 this year. During the meeting, delegates are expected to vote for the first internationally recognized government of Afghanistan since the Peshawar (Pakistan) Accords of 1992.

At the 1992 meeting, Burhannudin Rabbani, a top figure in the Taliban opposition called the Northern Alliance, was declared transitional President for six months. He later had his term extended for two years by a “Council of Wise Men,” but it was reduced to 18 months under the 1993 Islamabad Accord. Under the same decree, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the recipient of the bulk of US/CIA aid during the 1980s, became Prime Minister. Rabbani and Hekmatyar are enemies who have spent more time fighting one another and killing tens of thousands of Afghans, than governing the country. There is little evidence to suggest that the upcoming Loya Jirga, which both Rabbani and Hekmatyar have threatened to disrupt, will bring serious progress.

Abdul Rashid Waziri, a former minister in the 1980’s Soviet-backed regime, doesn’t have much faith in the process which is for many Afghans the only hope for expectations of peace and democracy. The Loya Jirga could, in theory, be a major turning point away from decades of brutal and traumatic war. According to Waziri, many powerful fundamentalist groups, “particularly [former president] Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami, were trying to hijack the process by bribing tribal leaders, the clergy and other prominent people around the country.” Former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is also reportedly planning to sabotage the proceedings. An unconfirmed plot to topple the interim government of chairman Hamid Karzai was supposedly led by Hekmatyar. While it is certainly true that Hekmatyar is behind plans to destabilize the regime, the government is eager to use the Hekmatyar threat to stifle any potential challenge. Afghan security officials arrested over 700 people in connection with the alleged bomb plot. “With details of the plot so sketchy, the fact that the roundup focused on well-known opponents of Mr. Karzai’s government seems certain to prompt suspicions that the government fabricated the threat to crush its opponents.” This sends a message about the willingness of Karzai’s government to tolerate dissent.

The interim government is “politically weak, surrounded by potential saboteurs, and dependent on international charity and protection,” so Karzai is taking no chances. “Only happy questions, please,” is his standard refrain at news conferences.”International charity and protection” means money from rich countries and military backing by mostly the United States. For example, the US has invented charges of conspiring with the Taliban and al Qaeda to justify the recent CIA assassination attempt on Hekmatyar. “There has been some evidence that Hekmatyar has certainly provided some support to Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” said General McNeill, the commander of the 18th Airborne Corps. The probable truth of the charges is irrelevant. There is more than “some” evidence that members of the Saudi royal family and the Pakistani government have supported those same groups but the CIA has not sent unmanned Predator drones after them

“We are a very poor and deeply fragmented society, I am afraid that people with money and weapons will dominate the Loya Jirga,” says Abdul Rashid Waziri. In a world where money and weapons, mostly of US origin, dominate politics, this is an uncontroversial statement. In fact, it was easily explained by Zbignew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to President Carter when the CIA began its covert program in Afghanistan, a program that would ultimately provide billions of dollars of weaponry and training to fundamentalist warlords in Afghanistan. Brzezinski says: “America’s economic dynamism provides the necessary precondition for the exercise of global primacy…[Its] assertive military capability…enables it to project its power…in politically significant ways.”

Bombing as Development Aid

We are told by US officials and media pundits that the US has bombed Afghanistan to help kick start a post-Taliban democratic rule. Or, to use the more colorful language of Christopher Hitchens, “The United States of America has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age.” The benefit of such “ends justify the means” ideology is that whole villages become statistics on a balance sheet. Consider, for example, a New York Times Op-Ed piece by Nicholas Kristof, which begins,

One of the uncomfortable realities of the war on terrorism is that we Americans have killed many more people in Afghanistan than died in the attack on the World Trade Center…So what is the lesson of this? Is it that while pretending to take the high road, we have actually slaughtered more people than Osama bin Laden has? Or that military responses are unjustifiable because huge numbers of innocents inevitably are killed? No, it’s just the opposite. Our experience there demonstrates that troops can advance humanitarian goals just as much as doctors or aid workers can. By my calculations, our invasion of Afghanistan may end up saving one million lives over the next decade.

In a world where money and weapons dominate, the slaughter of innocents becomes a form of development aid. One obliterated village here pays for two saved villages there. Perhaps it is comforting to know that villages like Mudoh, near Tora Bora, were sacrificed for a good cause. “A new cemetery carved from a rocky bluff where the village once stood holds the remains of 150 men, women, and children…they were killed, and the village obliterated, by American warplanes.” Strangely, Janat Khan, the mayor of Mudoh, is not happy with his village’s role in bringing Afghanistan out of the Stone Age. “No one should ever have to bury a baby’s hand,” he told reporters as he recovered fragments of corpses in the aftermath of the bombing.

With a landscape littered with landmines, an agriculture dominated by lucrative poppy production, a population traumatized, disabled, and starving from decades of war, non-existent infrastructure and economy, the new government of Afghanistan, or whatever emerges from the Loya Jirga, has a near impossible task in store for itself. It is difficult to imagine a valid democratic process taking place when most of the people are starving, homeless, and uneducated. The Afghan people have needed basic survival assistance from foreign agencies since well before 11 September 2001. If anything, they are in worse condition now. In the capital Kabul, poverty is so severe that many families have begun turning their children over to orphanages, desperately hoping that they will provide the necessary food and shelter. The situation in rural areas is even worse. Some villagers are “surviving on a diet of boiled grass and tea” and “selling all their land, livestock, in many cases even the tools they use to plant and harvest” to survive. Numerous reports describe villagers selling their daughters in exchange for a few bags of wheat. A US Agency for International Development report “based on interviews with 1,100 households across Afghanistan found that the level of ‘diet security,’ a measurement of vulnerability [sic] to famine, has plummeted from nearly 60 percent in 2000 to just 9 percent now.” Tragically, the World Food Program has been forced to scale down some food aid programs in Afghanistan, as it is 48% under funded.

Less than $1 billion of the $4.5 billion in aid to Afghanistan promised at the Tokyo conference in January 2002 has been delivered. Kieran Prendergast, the UN Undersecretary-General for Political Affairs said that while “it was understandable that donors might wait for greater stability before committing to long-term projects…We must also recognize that implementing rehabilitation and reconstruction projects will greatly help bring about that stability.” Apparently, social infrastructure is not considered a precondition to a viable political process. Instead, the aid is being intentionally withheld until after the Loya Jirga. According to the administrator of the United Nations Development Program Mark Malloch Brown, “The countries are ready to post the money” but won’t do so until after the meeting because, “The international community is waiting for a political stabilisation of Afghanistan.” Brown says that “a rapid acceleration of financing” will follow the meeting. Essentially, wealthy donors are holding the Afghan people hostage to an “appropriate” outcome to the Loya Jirga

At the Mercy of Warlords

The “appropriate” outcome, of course, hinges on the good behavior of the warlords. Afghanistan is dominated by war criminals such as Rabbani and Dostum who, with backing from the US and other governments, have reconsolidated their old feifdoms after the Taliban’s demise. Those controlling the December 2001 Bonn Conference that formed the interim regime sought to balance Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, with the mostly Panjsheri Tajik Northern Alliance, whose leaders have occupied 17 of 30 government posts, including the key ministries of Interior, Defense, and Foreign Affairs. Karzai himself came to power only after “enormous pressure from the American government…delegates in Bonn chose a different leader, Abdul Sattar Sirat…[but] pressure from American and United Nations officials resulted in the naming of Mr. Karzai.” Initially Karzai got no votes, “But all the delegates understood that the Americans wanted Mr. Karzai.” The inclusion of the Northern Alliance in the upper echelons of the interim government is likely to mean a major role in the Loya Jirga process as well. Already Abdul Rashid Dostum, one of the most notorious Afghan warlords (backed by Turkey, who now heads the international peacekeeping mission in Kabul), has been elected as a delegate to the council, despite guidelines barring participation by those responsible for killing civilians. The inclusion of criminals like Dostum is a slap in the face of those Afghans who have suffered their depredations and greatly undermines the effectiveness of the Loya Jirga in setting standards of peace.

The delegate selection process leading up to the Loya Jirga has been wracked with problems. According to a UN Election observer, “We have found some illegal methods in the elections and interference by the Northern Alliance, such as sending money and mobile phones to their supporters” to garner votes. When UN election observers entered the city of Gardez, the local commander fired rockets at them. Eight delegates to the Loya Jirga were murdered in May and there has been a general increase in violence in the months leading up to the meeting. For example, in Mazar-e Sharif, the city ruled by Dostum, “armed men broke into the home of an Afghan aid worker and raped the women and looted all the household assets,” in February. In the same city in April, a UN employee was dragged from his bed and killed by gunmen.

Sam Zia-Zarifi, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch explains, “Warlords are making a power grab by brazenly manipulating the loya jirga selection process. If they succeed, Afghans will again be denied the ability to choose their own leaders and build civil society.” The CIA agrees. In a leaked report the agency warned, “Afghanistan could once again fall into violent chaos if steps are not taken to restrain the competition for power among rival warlords and to control ethnic tensions.” Human Rights Watch advocates an end to the US use of warlords “to provide security,” and an extension of the international peacekeeping presence to all of Afghanistan. Clearly, “improved security in Afghanistan would greatly raise the chances for the successful Loya Jirga.” The lack of security was already frustrating the distribution of aid. Ahmed Rashid wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Afghanistan’s lack of a nationwide peacekeeping force is allowing local warlords to jeopardize efforts to…deliver humanitarian supplies…Outside Kabul, warlords and bandits have become so pervasive that aid agencies are unable to deliver relief supplies to large swathes of the country.”

The CIA’s Kind of “Outreach”

Rarely admitted is the fact that “the power of the warlords…has been enhanced by the money and weapons that the United States has funneled to regional leaders who have helped Washington.” To support the bombing campaign, the CIA indiscriminately enlisted the help of leaders who “could quickly put men in the field and were willing to follow US orders…Payments ranged from $5,000 for village elders who could supply personnel to more than $100,000 for warlords who could field hundreds of troops.” An intelligence official told the Wall Street Journal, “We were reaching out to every commander that we could.”

This closely parallels past US actions in Afghanistan in the 1980s when seven factions of Mujahadeen warriors were armed and trained to fight the “menace” of a communist threat. During this period, Hekmatyar came into his own. By the CIA’s own description, he was a “facist” and “definite dictatorship material.” Hekmatyar’s misogynist fundamentalist attitudes were well known – he was notorious for throwing acid in the faces of women who refused to wear the veil. The fact that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was the chief beneficiary of CIA arms and military training to Afghan factions in the 1980s cannot be understated.

Prior to 1993, Afghans and people in the Middle East were the major victims of the CIA-trained terrorists in Afghanistan, so it wasn’t really worth paying attention to what was happening there. Then the World Trade Center was attacked with a truck bomb, and the men involved were linked to CIA-sponsored factions in Afghanistan. The Washington Post published an article entitled, “Aid to Afghan Rebels Returns to Haunt US: Washington Created a Monster by Arming Zealots, Many Say.” The article called the first WTC bombing “a sour last chapter to one of the great US foreign policy success [sic] stories of the 1980s.” Of course it wasn’t the last chapter, nor the most sour, for Americans or Afghans. With the CIA reprising its 1980s “outreach,” it is little wonder Afghanistan remains so insecure.

Today the capital Kabul is safer than the rest of the country, largely due to the presence of 4500 international peacekeeping troops. The opinion of many Afghans, aid workers, the US State Department, and even Karzai himself, is that the international peacekeeping mission in Kabul should be expanded throughout Afghanistan. In contrast, Secretary of War Donald Rumsfeld has said, “There’s one school of thought that thinks that’s a desirable thing to do. Another school of thought, which is where my brain is, is that why put all the time and money and effort in that?…If it’s appropriate to put in more forces for war-fighting tasks, the United States will do that [but] there are plenty of countries on the face of the earth who can supply peacekeepers.” Once again the US shows that it is only interested in promoting war in Afghanistan. In this vein, Rumsfeld advocates “helping them develop a national army so that they can look out for themselves over time.” In the mean time, Bush’s envoy to Afghanistan has said, “American military forces might intervene in local conflicts in the absence of international troops stationed around the country.” This absence of peacekeeping troops the Bush administration deliberately maintains, which ensures that the United States, rather than an international body, has control.

A Time for Optimism?

What is striking about the current situation is the level of engagement by ordinary Afghans, who are enthusiastic about participating in the rebuilding of their country after decades of war. For example, 250,000 refugees from northwestern Pakistan near the Afghan border, have demanded representation at the Loya Jirga. In the Kandahar, a surprising number of women turned up to nominate themselves for the Loya Jirga delegate elections. “I want to help my sisters in Kandahar. We have all suffered the pain together and now it is time to give a voice to women,” said one candidate. Close to 1,000 nomadic Afghans representing 12 tribes from provinces in central and south-central Afghanistan elected representatives for the Loya Jirga. “I am relatively optimistic, devastation of the past has changed our attitudes and people have every reason to pin hopes on any peaceful political developments,” Ghulam Nabi Chaknowri, an elderly Afghan refugee said of the Loya Jirga.

Afghans are naturally excited about a process that has been touted as a turning point towards peace and democracy. However, the success of the Loya Jirga is based on the assumption that the numerous and well-armed warlords will simply melt away and allow a transparent and democratic process to occur. But either the warlords will participate (like Dostum), which would run counter to basic standards of human rights, or they will attempt to disrupt or subvert the meetings (like Hekmatyar, Rabbani, and others).

At best, the Loya Jirga is unlikely to be anything more than a public relations stunt to legitimize the current regime and the US bombing campaign that led up to it. Karzai “is expected to win an easy victory and lead the new government, Afghan officials and Western diplomats said.” This is because, “He is being strongly backed by the former king, Mohammad Zahir Shah…and he has solidified his ties with several powerful former leaders of the Northern Alliance.” But he could not have reached his current level of power without “the enormous influence of the country that is backing him-the United States.” The key combination of money and weapons was crucial in leveraging Karzai’s rise to power: “many leaders [in Afghanistan] see American money and military clout as the ultimate source of power here. But the Americans cannot dictate events, or they risk making the council appear to be under foreign control, a situation that could boomerang in this nation that is fiercely resistant to foreign domination.” Clearly, the risk is in the Loya Jirga appearing to be under foreign control, regardless of who is actually in control.

For the thousands of Afghans who are optimistic about the Loya Jirga, its outcome could be one more devastating disappointment. Mr. Stanekzai, a former air force pilot under the Taliban, expressed the general sentiment of Afghans: “the people are very tired of fighting and war and they will participate. In sha’allah (God willing), this election will be honest.” But the honesty of average Afghans may not be enough to fight the power of money and weapons, the most often used tools of the warlords and their Western benefactor. “We thank the US for helping us against the war on terrorism,” says Abdul Sameem, director of the Alauddin and Tahia Maskan orphanages in Kabul, “but we want them now to help us in our war on ignorance and poverty. That’s more important to us than a war on terror.”

James Ingalls is an Advisory Board member of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a nonprofit organization that raises funds for and awareness of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. He is also a Staff Scientist at the California Institute of Technology. Sonali Kolhatkar is Vice President of the Afghan Women’s Mission. She is also the host and co-producer of a daily drive time public affairs and political radio show at KPFK Los Angeles, part of the Pacifica Network.