Patricia Gossman is an independent consultant on human rights and rule of law issues in South Asia, Afghanistan in particular. She is currently a grantee of the United States Institute of Peace to write a book about justice and stability in post-2001 Afghanistan. In 2001 she established the Afghanistan Justice Project to document past war crimes in Afghanistan. Prior to that, she was a senior researcher on South Asia at Human Rights Watch. She recently responded by email (from Istanbul, where she is based) to six questions about the current situation in Afghanistan.
1. Recent reports from Afghanistan have been discouraging. How would you rate the general military/security situation in the country?
It is very grim. Recent statistics on security incidents, ranging from gun battles to suicide attacks, show a 40 percent increase throughout the country over last year. Security was the problem from day one after the Taliban fled Kabul and Kandahar in 2001, and six-and-a-half-years later it remains the most urgent priority. On the one hand, this new improved Taliban is fighting NATO and U.S. forces in a wide swath of the country’s south and southeast–even fairly close to Kabul. A few years ago I never thought twice about traveling from Kabul to Pakistan via Jalalabad, or from Kabul down to Logar (a 45-minute drive). I wouldn’t do it now. This time round the Taliban have new tactics too, in line with their Al Qaeda connections. Suicide bombings are a recent phenomenon, and they are becoming more frequent and lethal. One near Kandahar in February killed over 100 people. And people are afraid of the Taliban–traders cannot drive the roads safely, teachers have been beheaded. At the same time, crime has become a serious concern. When I was in Kabul last month my driver was unwilling to work after dark out of fear of kidnappings and robberies. The police are often behind it–human rights lawyers in Kabul gave me details on case after case of extortion and illegal detentions—essentially kidnappings for ransom by the police. People fear the police, and even more, the National Security Directorate–the intelligence agency. Torture is rampant. This is what we’ve achieved after six years of reconstruction.
2. What about the economic situation?
It’s a mixed picture. There has been some reconstruction, but nothing like what was needed and nothing comparable to what has been done in other conflict areas like the Balkans. Not all the money that was promised materialized and too much of the reconstruction money went to pay high-priced foreign consultants. Afghans legitimately wonder where it all went, especially as they see former commanders building fancy new (and absolutely hideous) glass and metal high-rises and wedding halls and driving Hummers while ordinary Afghans are struggling to make a living. Now the food crisis has hit Afghanistan in earnest, with Pakistan no longer exporting wheat in order to meet domestic demand.
All of this ties into the drug economy as well: Poppy-growing is bound to increase so long as the ongoing conflict and general insecurity makes it impossible for poor people to find economic alternatives, and so long as they need more and more cash to buy basic necessities like food. Every year since 2001 Afghanistan has set a new record in opium production. There are few alternatives that can match what opium can deliver. The more insecure the country is politically, the fewer economic opportunities there are, the more likely people will grow poppies.
3. How much genuine democracy exists in the country?
How do you measure democracy? To start with the usual benchmark, yes there were elections. Indeed, international support was high for creating of a strong presidency–unfortunately without the necessary checks and balances. The 2004 presidential election was generally considered a success, the first such vote of its kind, with little violence or blatant interference. The parliamentary elections of 2005 were a different story. Efforts to exclude candidates who maintained private illegal militias, whose disqualification was required by law, failed miserably. They are likely to fail again in the next round tentatively scheduled for 2010. The voting system excluded political parties as such, weakening the development of a vibrant opposition. There is a great deal of frustration with a government that is seen as corrupt, and with Karzai, who is seen as indecisive, weak, and leaning on thuggish supporters to keep himself afloat. Civil society–which never really developed under previous regimes and pretty much vanished during the worst stages of the war–remains very weak. The media is constantly under threat. Some parliamentarians want to ban all sorts of programs they deem un-Islamic, while individual journalists who try to investigate corruption and human rights abuses risk retaliation by those in power, be they the warlords on the outside or those in the government. The Attorney General himself had a major TV station raided after it broadcast a story critical of him. Institutions fundamental to the rule of law–especially the police and courts–are criminalized and corrupt. From the outset the United States and many of its allies took the approach that the only way to bring stability was to co-opt the warlords and terminate the Taliban: inclusion for the warlords on our side, exclusion for those who were not. Those excluded have just fought longer and harder and will continue to do so; those on the inside have basically gotten not just a place at the table but the keys to the whole store.
4. How much popular support does Karzai have?
In 2004, at the time of the presidential election, he was fairly popular. Hopes were high then that the situation would turn around, that even if reconstruction was slow, it was going in the right direction. That’s not to say anyone saw him as a savior–far from it. As one Afghan friend of mine put it: “It’s like you have a job interview and you discover every shirt in your closet is dirty. What do you do? You wear the least dirty one. That’s Karzai.” But since then, as Karzai has shown little interest in backing reform efforts he had originally claimed to support. He has embraced some of the worst officials, appointing well-known torturers to high police positions, relying on other abusive and corrupt leaders for support. It’s all about patronage, it’s all personal, and the international community shares the blame.
Now problems are more entrenched than ever. What was possible in 2002 in terms of reform is far more difficult today. A lawyer described to me the “trickle-down” effect of corruption: “Three years ago, in a criminal case, you would get an arrest, and a trial, and at the sentencing phase the judge would be bribed to give a light sentence. Now the police are bribed from the outset. We can’t even get an arrest.” If you ask an ordinary Afghan if he or she is better off economically than they were in 2001, the answer will vary. Some will acknowledge increased opportunities, particularly functioning schools and universities, jobs for people with the right skills (English and computer literacy to work with all the foreigners). The less lucky will complain rightly about high prices of food, fuel and housing, and the lack of jobs and economic opportunities. If you ask if there is security, if he or she personally feels safer, the answer in much of the country will probably be no.
5. What about the Taliban? Is there any lingering support for them?
If you ask people if they want the Taliban back, in most of the country, the answer will be an emphatic “no.” The strongest support for the Taliban is coming from Pakistan’s border areas. But there are Taliban and there are Taliban. I do not agree with those who claim that you cannot negotiate with the Taliban: There are those who adamantly will not negotiate and who are bent on burning down girls’ schools, beheading aid workers and teachers, and detonating suicide bombs against civilians. But there are also former Taliban now in the government or outside critics of it who are not undermining peace at all but working within the political system. This is what you want–not an endless war that only succeeds in radicalizing another generation. There is a Taliban leadership that is becoming more and more aligned with Al Qaeda interests, and there are local Taliban leaders throughout Pashtun areas who may or may not agree with these non-Afghan elements and who are willing to negotiate. Immediately after September 11 there were many Taliban–not the hard-line leadership and not the pro-Al Qaeda elements-but others who wanted to be part of a negotiated settlement, but were shunted aside, marginalized and worse. Many Pashtuns were ostracized (and in some cases, persecuted) regardless of whether they had ever supported the Taliban. This has fueled a lot of discontent in Pashtun areas. In areas where Karzai’s administration has failed to address local corruption, abuse and crime, there is more local support for anyone that can provide security. In many places, people are hedging their bets as best they can. Afghans in the conflict areas are caught in the middle. The fact of the matter is no matter how many bombs the US drops on Afghanistan the problem will not go away without some kind of a political solution.
6. What about the next five years? Can things turn around?
Whether or not things will turn around depends on whether the United States and its allies recognize that it’s going to require a political solution, not a purely military one. And it’s going to depend on Afghans in the government and outside it making a serious commitment to provide good government that meets the basic needs of its people. How do you tackle rampant lawlessness when the police are among the criminals, the parliament is packed with war criminals who voted themselves an amnesty and want to make sure there are no constraints on who can run for the next election? Until now, good governance has taken a back seat to rewarding allies and buying “stability” in the short term. This is not a short term problem. The biggest mistake has been that we–the whole international enterprise, but the US in particular–tried to treat it like one.