Outwardly Progressive, Internally Corporate: Pacifica’s Next Challenge

Published on Znet online (www.zmag.org) in September 2002

In an article on Pacifica entitled “Gloves Off”, Michael Albert wrote: “progressive organizations should employ participatory and self-managing rather than corporate structures … advocating self-managing structures has not only long-run but also short-run relevance to Pacifica, because Pacifica activism will grow quicker and be stronger and wiser if it pursues positive aims.”

As a listener and subscriber to KPFK, Pacifica’s Los Angeles station, I kept a close watch on the campaign to “save Pacifica” and wrote letters, and supported efforts to reclaim Pacifica. At the height of the crisis I heard Juan Gonzalez resign on the air on Democracy Now! and began withholding my donations from KPFK.

Today, I find myself in a unique position: from a listener/subscriber to a worker at KPFK. Since March 2002, soon after the lawsuit was won and the “old regime” replaced, I began hosting and co-producing KPFKs Morning Show on weekday mornings. As the months have passed, I have grown into my new job and have fallen in love with journalism, radio, and production for the purposes of raising progressive awareness and motivating to action. I have seen and continue to see Pacifica as not simply reporting on the movement for social and political justice, but as an integral part of the movement. I have grown to appreciate my fellow workers who are as passionate as I am to be a part of this station. Excited as everyone else was about the changes heralding a new era at KPFK, I embraced our new General Manager and new Local Advisory Board (LAB) with enthusiasm.

Before I go further, I want to emphasize that there are several aspects of KPFK and Pacifica that have changed for the better. Listeners have more power and input into station policies, new bylaws are being debated by listeners, there are plans for elections to the Local Advisory Board, etc. But, where working conditions and internal management structures are concerned, KPFK retains the structures that were designed to “corporatize” the stations in the first place.

While the players changed, the game remained the same. I should have been wary from the start about an essentially hierarchical structure working for progressive goals. Hence, the realization that KPFK, in my opinion, is replicating the very structures it replaced saddens me. A progressive organization like KPFK must reject corporate structures and “employ participatory and self-managing” ones. But that has never been the case. If anything, in the last seven months that I have been employed at KPFK, I have seen only a reaffirming of corporate structures. When I first came into the station, I was assigned an “executive producer”, a “professional” who, I was told, was ultimately responsible for the show I hosted and would be the one responsible for the show. This executive producer was hired after the lawsuit was won, and was not a product of the previous management. This acceptance of mainstream media power roles came as rather a surprise to me. I imagined that as the person on the air, the words I spoke were my responsibility. I spent months battling the philosophy that I thought died with the previous regime. Egalitarian in theory, authoritarian in practice.

Eventually the executive producer finally had enough of my resistance to this philosophy and asked to be taken off the show, much to my relief. The Morning Show is now run by myself and one other producer and newsreader. We make every attempt to share power and decision making on the show. About half our stories are pitched to us by members of the community whose lives are affected by the prevailing power structures in our society.

The experience with “professionalism” was only a taste of things to come. One of the actions by our new General Manager only weeks after her arrival at KPFK was to fire a beloved and dedicated staff member on impulse as a result of a dispute over a financial transaction. I have gathered that the official reason given was “insubordination”. The staff at KPFK was shocked. The event galvanized us and, over the course of several long meetings, collectively decided upon a course of action. The attack on one staff member empowered the rest of us to collectively demand that the fired staff member be immediately re-instated and that financial transactions be made transparent. It was this part of my tenure at KPFK that has been the most exciting. We were exercising workplace democracy and cooperation based on consensus-based decision making! Our solidarity reaped rewards: the fired worker was immediately re-instated. However, closed-door mediated sessions between the GM and that worker ensured that eventually no blame was assigned to either party even though one had the power to fire and used it, and the other had no say in the matter. We, the staff, were told to move on.

In 4 short weeks, an atmosphere of intimidation and harassment has returned to KPFK when the GM suspended the same worker. This time “for her own good” as the worker was apparently too stressed to work – a fact that was not supported by her or anyone else’s observations on the staff. We’re back to business as usual and old timers on the staff are reminded of the striking parallels between then and now.

When KPFKs new GM came on board, as part of her speech at the National Board Meeting in Berkeley she said her goal was to “take the hierarchy out of management”. Unfortunately her actions are vastly different. Staff members at KPFK have been derided for having unauthorized meetings to plot against the GM and for showing disrespect to the GM. Lately the GM has asked that she be informed when staff members have lunch together outside of the station premises. Even a small gathering of staff members in the parking lot for 15 minute breaks is questioned. When management meets without larger staff permission and summarily fires and suspends highly respected and hard working staff members, somehow that is not “disrespectful”. Staff has been told that the GM “does not report to them”. Of course, what she means is that staff reports to the GM and the GM reports to the National Board – that is how it works within a hierarchical system.

Some might say, so what? She is the General Manager; someone has got to have the power to make decisions unilaterally for the good of the station, for “practical purposes”. If I have learned anything from my six month tenure here, it is that many progressive thinkers find it disturbingly easy to separate political ideals of workplace democracy, egalitarian thinking and non-hierarchical decision making, from the actual workings of their own institutions.

Sadly our new General Manager not only has problems with challenges to her authority, but also seems to be bearing the weight of previous workplace conflicts. Various people have raised numerous questions about her background and the National Board promised to review any findings from an investigation. A month ago, the Pacifica Executive Director Dan Coughlin visited KPFK and happened to be in town when our fellow worker was first fired. As he tried to quell the staff over the firing, I asked Coughlin about this investigation. His response was that it had revealed nothing of concern. However, a few days ago, the person who conducted the investigation revealed to a few other staff members and me that this was a lie. This person’s inquiries, which were thorough and came from a geographically diverse array of sources, were a devastating indictment of the suitability, skills and honesty of our new GM. A pattern of mismanagement, quite consistent with her current behavior at KPFK also emerged – enough to raise red flags. I was more shocked to realize that the top management at Pacifica was protecting their political investment in this GM on whom their reputation was staked. We, the staff, and the listeners were lied to.

There seems to be growing participation between listener activists and management on a national level, and this is indeed a step in the right direction. More needs to be done, however, to engage the larger listening community who may not be activists. On the station level, a replacement of the General Manager seems to be the length to which reform has gone. A search committee that was representative and democratic picked the current GM. But, once she was picked, the functioning of the station was left up to her, just like it was left up to her predecessor. The figurehead has changed; the system has stayed the same. It is akin to imagining that the state of our country will change if a Democrat replaces George W. Bush. Predictably the same abuses of power are being seen today. Staff members who stand up to the General Manager are being fired or have their hours reduced. Staff meetings are conducted by the GM through intimidation and authority.

So remarkable is the parallel between what is currently happening and the previous struggle to reclaim Pacifica, that sometimes the same language is being used that the previous regime used in trying to undermine the “save Pacifica” campaign. A February 2000 letter by Saul Landau was entitled “An Appeal to All Progressives: Stop the Pacifica Bashing!” In a GM’s report to the listeners at KPFK, a caller began criticizing the station’s output saying that nothing had changed. The GM’s response was to berate the caller for “bashing Pacifica” and dismiss him without hearing him out. The parallels are clear.

Additionally, a few listener activists who are involved in rebuilding the station are vehemently opposed to airing dirty laundry and assert that it would only serve to prove the previous regime correct. It would just “play into their hands”.

If Pacifica and its network stations are to recover from this very difficult period, the most destructive path it can take is to follow in the footsteps of the previous management. And it seems to be doing just that. Have things really changed?

One can imagine a major corporation undergoing internal upheavals where the top brass has an embarrassing closet of secrets, which, if exposed, would require an entire re-organization of structures and a re-evaluation of transparency and accountability. The corporate world is based on hierarchical top-down style management of workers that is geared toward maximizing production and minimizing risks at the expense of workers rights and human rights. Why are Pacifica stations continuing to adopt structures where a lone person at the top makes decisions? Don’t we need to honestly assess our progress and risk exposing mistakes so that a truly revolutionary media institution can be rebuilt?

An excellent example of bottom-up structures is the Indymedia movement. The Independent Media Centers that span the globe first began in 1999 in Seattle, Washington when tens of thousands demonstrated against the World Trade Organization. Since then, there has been an explosion of these Indymedia Centers throughout the world from Los Angeles to Jerusalem. While I’m not suggesting that Pacifica needs to emulate this structure in order to be a truly progressive institution, I think many lessons can be learned. Namely that decision-making among those who create the output can be horizontally rather than vertically designed.

Ultimately internal honesty and a bottom-up structure are the only things that can build a station resistant to outside attacks. We need to move toward the “participatory and self-managing structures” that Michael Albert spoke of. Mimicking the very structures we criticize in our political analysis should never be an option. Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and co-producer of KPFKs The Morning Show, a daily drive time public affairs and political show on global and local issues. She was one of KPFKs Union stewards when she wrote this piece and subsequently resigned as steward.

A Green Party Unlike Others

Invited Talk at Green Party of Orange County event, GEM Theater in Garden Grove – September 2002

I’d like to start with a subversive thought – a quote from a Jello Biafra poem entitled, “I Blow Minds for a Living”. He said:

How many out there think this country is a Democracy? Or is it more of a one party state masquerading as a two party state? The Democrats are on the inside what the Republicans are on the outside. Each having almost identical financial backers. . . Did you vote for the Pentagon? (NO!) Did you vote for Wall Street? (NO!) Did you vote for a nuclear arms race? (NO!) Did you vote for the CIA? (NO!) Ever try reading the Bill of rights to a cop? (No, LOL.) People didn’t vote for star wars, people didn’t vote for drug wars, no one voted for acid rain, no one voted for being homeless.

I think Jello hit it on the head. We didn’t vote into place so many of the ills in today’s America.

There are two major parties, and, on the national level at least, these two parties work very well in preserving the status quo. In other countries where the Green party has a lot of power on the national level, such as in the case of Germany, they do so because of the coalition style government allowed by the state. In effect, the party, Republican or Democratic, is a coalition for the purpose of campaigning for office. With two major parties of similar views and of approximately equal strength competing for control of a government, it is possible for governmental control to alternate between the parties without shifts in policy so radical as to incite minorities to resistance. And we see that to be true in the US.

Well, so much of that is mirrored on the state level with the Republicans and Democrats duopolizing almost all the power in the form of state senate and assembly seats and of course, the governor’s seat. But, there is a little more promise on the state level for positive change. And so we are here today. I think it is crucial that in today’s world where in the state of California we are seeing a housing crisis, an education crisis, a state where the prison system is better funded than the school system, and where in Los Angeles, a 2 year old baby has breathed more carcinogens than the threshold for an entire lifetime because of a smog filled atmosphere resulting from a car-centric corporatized society, it is crucial that we provide some good alternatives than what those in power provide.

That is why the Green Party is so crucial today. A real viable alternative, on a practical level alone, makes enormous amounts of good sense and provides the institutional basis for a progressive agenda. The huge apathy on a local and national level when it comes to voting is based necessarily on the belief that we have no power to change anything. I think one of the greatest challenges to the Green Party and any other third party, is how to reach out to those most affected by the abuses of power by the two major parties. That includes youth, people of color, low-income folks, etc. How will they be engaged in a process to build the Green Party and represent their communities, while balancing their lives, working from day to day. So many people who are marginalized today work two jobs, and have little or no time to spend on building a movement based party. How will those people be engaged in this process? In other words, how do you convince enough people to put faith in a process that will truly work only when enough people put faith in that process?

But of course, the true power of a third party can be manifested well before winning elections. The Green Party must be a tool for movement building, rather than simply building power.

What do I mean by movement building? I mean that foundation of ideology that is perpetuated, that multiples and diversifies and upholds values common to us. A movement based on progressive values that continually builds between elections, and not just before elections. There has to be a serious movement upholding the ideology behind the Green Party or else it will simply mimic the major parties.

What does it take for a gubernatorial candidate in California to actually win a seat? Some would argue the same as it does for a presidential candidate to become president – money, money and more money. The more money the more power. According to state records, since 1998, Gray Davis has taken in $550,000 from Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric — that’s his share of the $7 million the state’s top utility companies have doled out to politicians from both parties during that time. Of course, Davis’ spokesman said “There is no connection between contributions and policy.” Right.

Ariana Huffington in an article about the power of influence of big money over Davis’s campaign said, “.. the governor’s office proudly announced that Davis had turned down an offer by a group of independent energy producers to hold a fund-raiser for him last month. Putting aside the ludicrousness of painting the rejection of a fund-raising opportunity as an act of great strength and moral leadership, why would Davis stop accepting utility contributions if, as he claims, there’s “no connection between contributions and policy”? And if he wants credit for turning the money down when the lights — at least the media ones — are on, why won’t he accept the implications of taking the money when they were off?” Good question. In fact as of mid-February Davis had already raised $29 million. Raising money is obviously his strength. So, should third parties such as the Greens simply join in the game, or work to change the rules? If Gray Davis’s track record is any indication, I think the answer is obvious.

When we critique our own institutions, marginalized as they may be at the moment, we emerge all the stronger. Hence, I ask those of you gathered here to reflect upon the question, what should the green party be doing to ensure it doesn’t reproduce the same power structures that the democrats and republicans have now, once it gets into power? This is a legitimate question to ask. Just look at the country where the Greens do have some power. Germany, where the Green party supported the bombing of Afghanistan, supported the transportation of radioactive nuclear waste through residential communities, supported the latest bombing of Afghanistan in the US’s so-called war on terrorism! Enough to make a Green blush pink.

So if Peter Camejo wins this gubernatorial election, and I do hope he does, as unlikely as it may be, we need to be asking the question about what Peter and other Green candidates will do once elected. Because winning an election is just the beginning of the battle. Take this example. So California supports one of the largest defense, aerospace and technology industries in the country. The economy of California is based on an industry which fuels war and the push for war. How would the Green Party handle this aspect of running the state, if they were in power? It would mean reconciling the machine that drives this economy with the ideology of the Green Party. I don’t know the answer to this, but I think we really need to ask the question and other difficult ones like it. California has one of the largest economies in the world! And yet we have so many disempowered people. We need to contemplate these issues now, before the Green Party gets into power.

You know, I’m new at this, I don’t have the right to vote, I’m an immigrant – what they call a resident alien. So I have not paid as much attention in the past to state laws, except of course when they become very politically charged and are so egregious like some of the propositions that people get to vote on (187, 21, etc). Now that I find myself a journalist of sorts, I spend my time researching ways in which people can make a difference in a variety of ways from organizing demonstrations, to using the power of their vote. So you know I recently did a show on the large number of state bills that were on Gray Davis’s table for him to sign into law. It seemed to me to be the educational and important thing to do – educate his constituency on the bills that had passed the California Senate and Assembly and were all but law except for this one little signature. Wow – that’s a lot of power for one individual. Way too much power. And that is just one example of his power. I think that when we talk about introducing alternatives to the two parties, we need to also think about introducing alternatives to the structure of political power in order to ensure that there is no reproducing of the same corruption of power that currently exists.

To close, I want to talk a bout this play that I recently watched which is based on one of my favorite books: Animal Farm by George Orwell. You may know the story. The animals on the farm who were oppressed initiated a revolution to change their lives and professed, “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad”. Before long however, since there wasn’t any attempt to distribute the power, after the revolution, the exact same power structure was rebuilt and the animals in power began saying, “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Better”. I think there is a lesson in there for all of us, no matter what struggle we are talking about. Whether it is about how to break into the two party system, whether it is about the serious labor struggles in KPFK where I work and the attempts to rebuild Pacifica, or whether we are talking about how to counter the world’s greatest superpower. Thank you very much.

The United States and the Afghan Loya Jirga: A Victory for the Puppet Masters

Published in Z Magazine, September 2002

The June 2002 Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, is considered to be the start of a new era in Afghanistan, if only because the country is finally engaging in a political process that the United States accepts. Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, the US government is rather particular about which outcome it considers acceptable. This is why important decisions were not left to the 1500 delegates.

“Backroom Dealing”

Through no fault of the delegates, the sessions did little more than confirm Hamid Karzai, head of the interim government, as President of Afghanistan. This result can hardly be called a decision, however. According to United Press International, “democracy nearly broke out in Afghanistan on Monday [10 June], but was blocked by backroom dealing to prevent former King Mohammed Zahir Shah from emerging as a challenger to Hamid Karzai.” Instead of beginning at 8AM on 10 June, as scheduled, the Loya Jirga was postponed, supposedly until 10AM, but at 3PM it was announced that the meeting would not convene at all until the following day. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy to Afghanistan, told the press that the organizing commission decided to postpone the opening of the Loya Jirga “to ascertain the true intentions of the former King.” Before Zahir Shah could make his own announcement, Khalilzad gave the answer: “The former king is not a candidate for a position in the transitional authority. He endorses Chairman Karzai.” At a 6PM press conference, the former king, “looking grim,” was flanked by Khalilzad and Karzai. He said nothing, but his chief of political affairs read a statement. “As I have always mentioned, I have no intention of restoring the monarchy and am not a candidate for any position in the emergency loya jirga.”

Khalilzad explained, “Statements that were issued yesterday [9 June] that the former King might be, or is, a candidate for the post of President of the Transitional Authority…were inconsistent with earlier statements by the former King,” which had caused “consternation and confusion” among the Loya Jirga delegates. The “statements issued” were actually the former king’s response to a BBC interviewer’s questions. When asked if he would accept the job of head of state, he answered, “I will accept the decision of the Loya Jirga… What the majority decides about the future of Afghanistan, and my role, I’ll accept that.” Contrary to Khalilzad’s assertion, this was consistent with at least one earlier statement in which he said, “I will accept the responsibility of head of state if that is what the loya jirga demands of me” (AFP, 28 May 2002). Clearly, many delegates took these remarks to mean that the former king would stand for office if nominated.

According to UPI, the US special envoy had “apparently brokered” a deal with the former king to withdraw his candidacy. So it was only natural that, “Some delegates…were angered by what they perceived to be a US effort to front load the loya jirga to ensure that Karzai was reappointed.” One delegate, Omar Zakhilwal, wrote in the Washington Post, “Rather than address the issue democratically, almost two days of the six-day loya jirga were wasted while a parade of high-level officials from the interim government, the United Nations, and the United States visited Zahir Shah and eventually ‘persuaded’ him to publicly renounce his political ambitions.” It is well known that, if given the chance, Shah probably would have obtained a significant number of votes. UPI said, “many delegates felt the highly popular ex-king would probably have had the votes to be chosen for a role in the transitional government, but had been prevented from declaring his candidacy.” According to the New York Times, Amanullah Zadran, the tribal affairs minister, “promised that he would take 700 delegates from the loya jirga to the former king’s house on Tuesday to show the strength of support for his candidacy.”

When over 1200 of the 1500 delegates voted for Karzai three days later, it came as no surprise. The New York Times had reported in late May, “[Karzai] is expected to win an easy victory and lead the new government, Afghan officials and Western diplomats said.” The predictions of “western diplomats” have a strange way of being fulfilled, especially after the careful intervention of the US special envoy and other “high-level officials” to ensure that there is no real choice in the matter. After the vote, the Times wrote, “the grand council did what had been expected of it today” by electing Karzai. Sima Samar, the minister for women’s affairs, commented wryly to the BBC, “This is not a democracy, it is a rubber stamp. Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones.” The “powerful ones,” namely the US government and its allies, have made sure that the leader of Afghanistan was not someone who could challenge their power. Zahir Shah would present a minor challenge to US dominance in Afghanistan, but a challenge nonetheless. Unlike Hamid Karzai, Shah is well known, with a 40-year history as king of Afghanistan. A State Department poll released in June 2001 found that nearly half of 5000 Afghans questioned regarded the former king “as the leader most likely to address the country’s problems.” The next most likely choice (20%) was “Don’t know.” Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was ranked third with less than 10% choosing him. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a political and humanitarian organization that is outspoken in its denunciation of fundamentalists like the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, declares that they are “not a monarchist organization.” Nevertheless, in the absence of democratic alternatives, RAWA admits that “only…Zahir Shah could unite the people and take the country out of prevailing chaos.”

Zahir Shah’s “Experiment with Democracy”

Zahir Shah is associated with a relatively happy period in Afghanistan’s history. There was little bloodshed during his reign from 1933 to 1973. He established a constitutional monarchy in 1964, and the period 1964 to 1973 (when he was overthrown by his cousin Daud) is probably the most democratic in the country’s history. Writing in 1973, US Ambassador Neumann told the State Department, “Afghans have become acutely conscious, and indeed jealous, of the personal freedoms guaranteed them under the 1964 Constitution. This consciousness has manifested itself in hitherto undreamed-of criticism of the government by members of parliament, students, and the free press…Many educated Afghans carry the Constitution in their pockets and quote from it extensively.” During Shah’s reign there were growing student and women’s movements, including eight well-organized nationwide “parties” (true political parties were outlawed) that Ambassador Neumann considered left-of-center.

The declassified record from the period gives a glimpse into the US government perspective on Shah’s “experiment with democracy,” and foreshadows the disaster that was to follow. A 1970 analysis by Neumann discussed “clerical unrest” and demonstrations by religious leaders against “atheistic communism,” but concluded, “mullahs [religious leaders] probably did little to change the views of the segments of the society at which the communist appeal is aimed.” Interestingly, the report also finds, “Religious conservatism, for the first time in many years, vividly demonstrated that it remains a force with which the government must contend. Nevertheless, the existence of a reasonably strong army, the absence of outside assistance [my emphasis], and a basically conciliatory government policy, has so far prevented the situation from getting out of hand…[T]he demonstrations may ultimately come to be regarded as proof of the mettle of the society and the democratic experiment.” Neumann’s mention of “the absence of outside assistance” to the mullahs is ominous in hindsight, given that billions of dollars of US assistance to religious fundamentalists in the 1980s are responsible for the condition of Afghanistan today.

After the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, Zahir Shah, in exile in Rome, began meeting with members of the Northern Alliance opposition to the Taliban. In late September Shah had “asked for political support and economic and humanitarian help from the United States,” but not for an invasion. His grandson Mustapha said, “We believe that Afghans can do the job (of fighting terrorism) but they probably would need some of the tools to do the job.” Clearly, the former king would not be a pliable leader. According to the Canadian magazine Maclean’s, the Bush administration gave a “lukewarm response” to “attempts to focus national reconciliation around” Zahir Shah prior to the US bombing. Meetings in Italy with 11 US Congressional delegates led Representative Curt Weldon to assert naively, “We think perhaps he is the person that can rally those [who are] against the Taliban most effectively.” The next day a White House spokesperson contradicted this, saying, “the United States is not backing any specific replacement for the Taliban.”

A US-Backed “Dissident Emerges”

Just after the bombing began, reports began surfacing of a “dissident” Afghan exile named Hamid Karzai “who has emerged as the Bush administration’s main hope for forging a southern alliance against the Taliban.” The word “emerged” is appropriate. A National Newspaper Index search for Karzai’s name in the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal yields 273 instances, the earliest of which is a Los Angeles Times article from 12 October 2001 (the database extends back to 1977). The New York Times first referred to Karzai on 18 October, calling him an “influential Pashtun chief” who was starting “a quiet rebellion” against the Taliban with US support. This gave the impression that Karzai must have had plenty of popular support among the Pashtun ethnic group, over 40% of the population, even though he was not well known internationally. But in February 2002, two months after he was established as interim chairman of the Afghan government, the Times asserted that a better description of Karzai’s standing would be the exact opposite: “Mr. Karzai is a less formidable player at home than foreigners perceive him to be.” Mohammed Fahim Dashty, editor of The Kabul Weekly newspaper, said, “I can understand why people in the US were intrigued by Karzai, but people in Afghanistan are not impressed.” Karzai was picked by the US because of his longstanding connections to the US intelligence establishment: “The Americans … knew Mr Karzai, who had served as a funnel for covert American aid to the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s.” He had no power base of his own, and could make very few decisions of his own, making him indebted to his foreign benefactors and to his military colleagues within Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, “the anti-Taliban movement in the south led by Mr. Karzai and other Pashtun leaders would never have succeeded-or even come together-without the United States.” (NYT 15 Dec 2001; my emphasis)

The first step to legitimize the US choice of Karzai, and to delegitimize the former king, was the Bonn Conference of early December. “A Western diplomat” explained that “delegates in Bonn had chosen a different leader, Abdul Sattar Sirat, to head the interim government [but] pressure from American and United Nations officials resulted in the naming of Mr. Karzai.” Initially, Karzai received no votes, “but all the delegates understood that the Americans wanted Mr. Karzai…So on Dec. 5, they finally chose him.” Sirat, who was supported overwhelmingly by Zahir Shah’s delegation, did not even make it into the interim government as a cabinet minister. Haji Attaullah, a Pashtun delegate, said, “The Bonn conference was only for show. The decisions had been made before.” Meanwhile, James F. Dobbins, the senior US envoy there, called the Conference, “an outstanding success.” (NYT 6,15,16 Dec 2001)

Strong-arming Democracy

The Loya Jirga was the second step in foisting the US-designed order on the Afghan people. According to delegates Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi (NYT 21 Jun 2002), the meetings began optimistically: “Delegates from all backgrounds–Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks; urban and rural, Sunni and Shiite–sat together under one roof as if we belonged to a single village. Men and women mingled openly and comfortably. In tolerant and lively exchanges, we discussed the compatibility of women’s rights with our Islamic traditions. Women played a leading role at these meetings. We were living proof against the stereotypes that Afghans are divided by ethnic hatred, that we are a backward people not ready for democracy and equality.”

The delegates had put together a “wish list focused on national unity, peace, and security.” The list “emphasized access to food, education, and health services in neglected rural areas” but above all else the delegates were united in “the urgency of reducing the power of warlords and establishing a truly representative government.” Zakhilwal and Niazi wrote, “The sentiment quickly grew into a grassroots movement supporting the former king…as head of state. The vast majority of us viewed him as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords.” After the postponed opening of the council, followed by the announcement that Zahir Shah would have no place in the new government, “the atmosphere of the loya jirga changed radically. The gathering was now teeming with intelligence agents, who openly threatened reform-minded delegates, especially women. Access to the microphone was controlled by supporters of the interim government.” One woman delegate told Human Rights Watch, “We are hostages of the people who destroyed Afghanistan. They are trying to hold us hostage to their power. There are petitions being circulated and we are pressed to just sign them without reading them.” When she complained publicly, the delegate was later threatened with the words, “You either mend your ways or we will mend them for you.” A 13 June Human Rights Watch press release attributed the problem to the inclusion of major US-backed Northern Alliance figures in the meetings, people “widely held responsible for Afghanistan’s devastating decade of civil war and ensuing atrocities” during the 1990s. According to the rules of the Loya Jirga, war criminals were to be excluded, but Human Rights Watch “is not aware of a single case in which this exclusion clause was used, despite the presence of some of Afghanistan’s most abusive warlords among the delegates.”

A “Balanced” Cabinet

Karzai unveiled his new cabinet on 19 June. The Christian Science Monitor called the new government “a rogue’s gallery.” HRW’s Salman Zia-Zarifi said, “Afghanistan’s warlords are stronger today than they were ten days ago before the loya jirga started.” Zakhilwal and Niazi continue:

Our hearts sank when we heard President Hamid Karzai pronounce one name after another. A woman activist turned to us in disbelief: ‘This is worse than our worst expectations. The warlords have been promoted and the professionals kicked out. Who calls this democracy?’…The key ministries of defense and foreign affairs remain in the hands of Muhammad Qasim Fahim and Abdullah, both from the dominant Northern Alliance faction based in the Panjshir Valley…Three powerful Northern Alliance commanders–Mr. Fahim, Haji Abdul Qadir and Kharim Khalili–have been made vice presidents…These are the very forces responsible for countless brutalities under the mujahedeen government…As the loya jirga folded its tent, we met with frustration and anger in the streets. ‘Why did you legitimize an illegitimate government?’ one Kabul resident asked us. The truth is we didn’t…[W]e delegates were denied anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process.

It is significant that the New York Times and the Washington Post published separate accounts by Omar Zakhilwal criticizing the outcome of the Loya Jirga (the piece excerpted above was co-written by Adeena Niazi), but both articles were published as “opinion” pieces, not as “news.” So-called “news” articles instead focused on the chaos of the meetings, trivializing the controversies yet praising the “balanced” outcome. The New York Times (23 Jun 2002) said that Karzai’s cabinet “showed a careful balance of factions and ethnic groups… Despite Mr. Karzai’s declared intention of promoting professionals in his cabinet, his appointments clearly reflected the need to please the various regional and ethnic groups.” In this context “various regional and ethnic groups” means “warlords.” For example, the son of Ismail Khan, called “the strongman of Herat,” was given the ministry of aviation and tourism. The newspaper rather nonchalantly noted that women’s rights might get eliminated from Karzai’s agenda: “The ministry of women’s affairs was not mentioned for the new cabinet and may have been cut along with one of only two women ministers in the last government, Dr. Sima Samar.”

Alex Thier, a representative of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, called the Loya Jirga an “enormous missed opportunity” to weaken the power of the warlords. The Guardian of London complained that “The West is Walking Away From Afghanistan-Again.” But these criticisms miss the point. By actively shaping events so that the politically weak Hamid Karzai was unchallenged by Zahir Shah, who the “vast majority…viewed…as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords,” the US envoy was taking an opportunity. Far from “walking away,” the West was deliberately manipulating the politics of Afghanistan so that a weak leader who depends on foreign backing and who needs to appease the warlords was installed. The first act of intimidation was the US and UN pressuring of Zahir Shah. After the floodgates were opened it was impossible simply to allow the delegates, many of who had a strong human rights agenda and were intent on weakening the warlords, either to vote or speak their minds freely and fairly.

Referring to the Loya Jirga, Salman Zia-Zarifi from Human Rights Watch said, “Short term political expediency has clearly triumphed over human rights.” This will continue to be the outcome in Afghanistan, so long as the United States continues supporting fundamentalist warlords and subverting popular processes within the country.

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.