Accessibility links

Afghan Report: April 3, 2006

3 April 2006, Volume 5, Number 9
The case of an Afghan who faced the death penalty for converting to Christianity and aroused much debate outside Afghanistan, particularly in the Western countries that supported the country's move to democracy. Both Western governments and their publics equate democracy with freedom of choice, including the freedom to choose one's religion. But, while democracy is taking root in Afghanistan, the country's constitution is not a truly secular document.

Abdul Rahman, the man who was on trial in Kabul for having abandoned the religion of his birth for Christianity, will be invited to reconvert to Islam, Judge Ansarullah Mawlawizadah told the BBC on March 20. And, if Abdul Rahman agrees, "we will forgive him," Mawlawizadah said, "because the religion of Islam is one of tolerance."

If he does not, he will be judged according to Islamic law. And under the Hanafi school of jurisprudence adhered to by Afghanistan's Sunni majority and privileged by the Afghan Constitution, apostasy -- the rejection of Islam in favor of another religion -- is a crime punishable by death.

That is a possibility that has prompted open criticism from abroad, with critics questioning how anyone in a democratic state can be executed for their beliefs.

Other international reactions have been cautiously optimistic.

Contradictions And Ambiguities Of Afghan Constitution

They have some reason to be optimistic. But so too do advocates of the death penalty, because, on this and other issues of religious freedom, Afghanistan's Constitution is inherently contradictory.

Islam is central to the constitution. Indeed, the document begins with the statement: "With firm faith in God Almighty� and believing in the sacred religion of Islam." The constitution also identifies Afghanistan as "an Islamic Republic."

The constitution also provides little legal guidance about how other faiths can live or operate in this Islamic republic.

While followers of other religions enjoy the right to freely exercise "their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits and the provisions of law," neither the constitution nor the country's law set those limits. For example, there is no law that makes it clear whether a church can operate in the country. The unstated understanding seems to be that churches can operate inside diplomatic missions or in military bases but not publicly.

The constitution also states that in "Afghanistan, no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam." This confers extraordinary power on those interpreting the laws. And so, if an Afghan court decides that it is against the "beliefs" of Islam to have a church in the country, the constitution would -- if applied literally -- support such a decision.

But despite labeling the country "an Islamic Republic," Afghanistan's Constitution can also be read as a secular document. Pakistan's Constitution proclaims that "sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah alone." Iran's Constitution links the foundation of the Islamic republican regime to the "exclusive sovereignty of Allah." By contrast, the Afghan Constitution stipulates that "national sovereignty in Afghanistan belongs to the nation." In establishing the sovereignty of the people -- and not the sovereignty of God -- the constitution enables a reform-minded judge to interpret it as a fundamentally secular document.

And, in a clause of particular relevance to the Abdul Rahman case, the constitution stipulates that Afghanistan "shall abide" by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- which states that "everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief."

In other words, the case against Abdul Rahman could be unconstitutional or constitutional depending whether the judges are conservative or reformers.

A Muscle-Flexing Conservative Judiciary

Unfortunately for Abdul Rahman, at the moment, the judiciary is overwhelmingly in the hands of men from conservative religious circles. They view the judiciary as their prerogative and tend to view any encroachment on their turf, whatever the reason, as a challenge to their power.

Ever since the demise of the Taliban regime, conservative judges have used their power base -- which includes a large, strong section of the National Assembly -- to challenge Afghanistan's reform-minded government.

So far, these battles have mainly raged over the limits of press freedom.

The Abdul Rahman case, though, is more challenging for President Hamid Karzai. If he does not intervene, he will upset his Western backers. If he does, he will undermine his standing among conservatives, whose support he desperately depends on.

Karzai's administration will certainly be hard-pressed to openly support Abdul Rahman's case. The main source of the conservatives' legitimacy is that they are guardians of Islamic values and the country's interpreters of Islam, and they will presumably be determined to protect that legitimacy. Nor has there been any debate on the issue of apostasy that would at least have questioned the conservatives' position and, possibly, have undermined it. It is a position that is open to question by religious scholars because the Koran contains numerous passages that could be read as supporting freedom of religious choice. One verse (Surah 2:226) states, "let there be no compulsion in religion." In another (in Surah 16:82) Prophet Muhammad is instructed that his "duty is only to preach the clear message" for those who "turn away" from Islam.

The presidential office has indicated that Karzai will not intervene in the case, but he would no doubt welcome a face-saving solution to the crisis. Mawlawizadah's comment that, if Abdul Rahman does not abandon Christianity, the court will evaluate his mental state before passing judgment might just be that face-saving compromise.

While Abdul Rahman was released March 29 on a technicality and vague references to his mental capacity, the case has opened the debate on the future of Afghanistan's march to democracy and how to reform the country's judicial sector. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on March 22 approved a list of names for his new cabinet. The list still requires the approval of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga. But analysts already note one name that is conspicuously absent from the proposed cabinet -- Abdullah Abdullah -- the man who has been the foreign minister for the past four years.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to present his final list for a cabinet reshuffle to the Afghan parliament on March 23. The parliament will conduct a separate confirmation vote for each of the 25 proposed ministers.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah has been dropped from the cabinet. Karzai has named his adviser on international affairs -- Rangin Dadfar Spanta -- as his next foreign minister.

Ismail Khan, the powerful former governor of Herat, is the only former warlord keeping his seat in the cabinet.

Awaiting Parliamentary Approval

Reports from Kabul say Abdullah was offered several lesser posts but refused them.

Jean McKenzie is the Afghanistan country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. She tells RFE/RL that it is too early to discuss the impact of the proposed cabinet reshuffle: "It's a little soon to tell what it is going to mean for Afghanistan's foreign policy," McKenzie says. "Certainly, Abdullah Abdullah has been quite a figure in Afghanistan's foreign policy for the past several years. [But] we don't know yet exactly what this means or how the [Afghan] parliament is going to react to the list -- to the cabinet reshuffle -- in general."

Abdullah was one of three members of the former Northern Alliance's Shura-e Nazar faction, who obtained a powerful cabinet post through the Bonn accords of late 2001. The others -- former Interior Minister Yunos Qanuni and former Defense Minister Qasim Fahim -- also used their de facto control of Kabul at the time of the Bonn meeting to negotiate for ministry posts.

Last Of The Triumvirate

"The triumvirate of Fahim as defense minister, Qanuni as interior minister, and Abdullah as the foreign minister was -- in the beginning -- [representative of] the three main factions of Shura-e Nazar," RFE/RL's Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi says. "So one faction within the so-called Northern Alliance had the power. And now the last one of them is gone. On face value, this looks like a purging or a defeat of the Shura-e Nazar faction that began with all power concentrated in their hands in 2002."

Tarzi notes that much of Abdullah's power base was a result of his association with the late Ahmad Shah Mas'ud -- the iconic leader of Shura-e Nazar who had fought against both the Soviets and the Taliban until he was assassinated by suspected Al-Qaeda operatives two days before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

"His [real] power base is very weak. He was not considered as one of the most powerful members of that group -- of the Shura-e Nazar," he says. "It doesn't seem that he personally can do much unless he is supported by other colleagues. Maybe there is an agreement between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Karzai's first deputy -- which we shouldn't forget is Mas'ud's own brother. So there may be a split within this [Shura-e Nazar] faction. But Mr. Abdullah, by himself, doesn't have any power base -- either military or political -- to do anything on his own."

McKenzie says there have been rumors in Kabul for the past year that Abdullah would be replaced as foreign minister. But she says there are no signs that Abdullah's replacement would bring an angry response from the faction's militia fighters.

Voting Questions

"I haven't heard murmurings that they are angry," she says. "It may be just a shifting of alliances -- that the former power ministers [from Shura-e Nazar] are now transferring out of the government and [some of them are moving] into the legislature, where they will have a different type of power base. But I think that it will all become clear in the coming days when we have confirmation hearings -- which I think will be quite revealing, provided they make a decision on how the parliament is going to vote on the cabinet. They are still discussing whether the vote is going to be secret or open."

Qanuni, now the speaker of the lower chamber of parliament, has been arguing for an open vote on Karzai's proposed ministers. But McKenzie says some parliamentarians have expressed fears of being attacked if their votes are made public. They are arguing for a secret ballot on Karzai's proposed cabinet list.

Ismail Khan, the powerful former governor of Herat, is the only former warlord keeping his seat in the cabinet.

There is only one woman in the proposed list -- Suraya Rahim Subrang, who has been proposed as the new women's affairs minister. If approved by parliament, she would replace Mas'uda Jala, who stood against Karzai as a candidate in the presidential election of 2004. Two other women in the current cabinet also did not make Karzai's new list. (By Ron Synovitz. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's long-serving foreign minister, insists that his removal from the government will not end his political career.

The departing foreign minister of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, says he still does not know why Afghan President Hamid Karzai decided to sack him (see above). In a press conference on March 27, his first since Karzai announced a cabinet reshuffle on March 23, Abdullah insisted that, after over 21 years at the center of the Afghan political scene, he will not leave it now.

Clearly trying to put a brave face on the decision to remove him from the post he had occupied since shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Abdullah rejected rumors that there had been foreign policy differences between him and the president.

"I am not aware of any such thing," Abdullah said, adding that there had been no mention of policy differences in his conversations with Karzai.

"Naturally I would have preferred it if I had been consulted and known what the problems may have been," Abdullah said. "I am sure there must have been problems," he continued, but said he now needed "some time to judge for myself what could have led to this decision."

Abdullah expressed some unhappiness, saying that "I told the president that, naturally, anyone removed from a post -- even a lower-ranking one -- would be unhappy." However, he was restrained in his comments. "I can fully understand that an elected president has to choose a team that suits him," he said. "He has to be responsive to the people."

Asked repeatedly what public post he now hopes to fill, he replied that he did not know but that he is certain of one thing -- that he will not leave the political scene.

Abdullah first came to prominence in the 1980s when he became a senior adviser towards Ahmed Shah Mas'ud, an ethnic-Tajik resistance leader.

Given that record, "you can imagine not being in the post of a minister is not going to deter me," Abdullah told reporters. "The end of my ministerial post will not be the end of my service to Afghanistan, I can say that much."

Abdullah, who will remain the country's acting foreign minister until the new cabinet is approved by the Afghan parliament, was the last major leader of the Northern Alliance in the cabinet. The president had earlier, in a reshuffle in 2004, removed Mohammad Fahim from the Defense Ministry and Yunos Qanuni from the Interior Ministry. (Massoumeh Torfeh)

At a major gathering of politicians, scholars, and military officers in the Turkish capital, Ankara, Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged the world not to associate terrorism with Islam.

In a keynote address at a large symposium devoted to terrorism, Afghan President Hamid Karzai on March 23 called terrorism the "most menacing of mankind's enemies."

It is a threat that requires a global response, he told the delegates at the two-day symposium, who came from 82 countries.

He also said it is wrong to link Islam with terror.

Terror has no religion, no tradition, and no system of values, he said, and the use of the word "Islamist" to describe the phenomenon is inaccurate.

"Islam is a religion of peace. In Islam killing an innocent man, killing an innocent person is equated with the killing of the whole humanity," he argued. "Therefore, the first thing that we should do as people in this world is to commit ourselves to recognizing that no religion is for extremism or terrorism, that no religion wants to hurt."

Mutual respect for systems of values is a basic element in cooperation between peoples, Karzai said in his address. He was therefore critical of the publication in the West of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which triggered a wave of violent protests across the Muslim world early this year.

In urging cooperation, Karzai did not refer to any specific situation. At home, Karzai has been critical about the counterterrorism efforts of neighboring Pakistan, whom he accuses of not doing too little to prevent the movement of militants in border areas.

The speech was well-received by the politicians, academics and military officers at the gathering, says Seyfi Tashan, of the Turkish Bilkent University's Foreign Policy Institute.

"He spoke without papers, he was very lucid, and he made a very good impression," Tashan said. "He also thanked Turkey for all the support it has given Afghanistan for many, many years."

Along with Karzai's calls for greater cooperation, respect, and understanding, there was also a call for a common vocabulary.

Another speaker, the chief of Turkey's general staff, General Hilmi Ozkok, appealed to the international community to agree on a common set terms to apply to terrorism.

He noted that descriptions at present could range widely, from "freedom fighters" to "traitors."

The symposium, which was organized by the Turkish Army, will also be addressed by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace. He was scheduled to speak on March 24. (RFE/RL)

A spokesman for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan says the group has launched a spring offensive in southern parts of the country. The announcement follows a bold Taliban attack before dawn today against an antiterrorism coalition base in southern Afghanistan that left a Canadian and an American soldier dead. The U.S. military says 32 suspected Taliban fighters were killed in the battle.

The battle began a few hours before dawn on March 29 at a forward operations base for coalition forces in the Helmand Province.

A statement from U.S.-led coalition forces says a "significant" number of guerrilla fighters attacked the walled compound in the province's northeastern Sangin District -- making it the biggest Taliban assault on foreign troops since last year.

British Colonel Chris Vernon is the executive officer of the coalition's task force in southern Afghanistan. "A Canadian soldier was killed, an American soldier was killed, and five coalition soldiers were wounded -- [including four foreigners and one member of the Afghan National Army.]," he said.

Vernon says at least 12 Taliban fighters were killed in an initial counterattack when coalition troops called in air strikes against the enemy.

By mid-morning, after the Taliban assault was decimated by air strikes, the attackers fled the battlefield with coalition ground troops close behind. Another 20 suspected Taliban fighters were killed by coalition forces during the retreat.

A New Weapon?

Coalition spokesman Lieutenant Mike Cody says the Taliban attackers used rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, and -- significantly -- mortar artillery.

While mortars are commonly used by insurgents against U.S. forces in Iraq, it is unusual for the weapon to be used by Taliban fighters. The use of mortars by the Taliban today strengthens claims by the U.S. military that pro-Taliban militants are getting equipment and training from insurgents in Iraq.

Ian Kemp, a London-based defense analyst, told RFE/RL on March 29 that NATO's recent expansion into southern Afghanistan has forced the Taliban to announce an offensive and carry out such bold attacks.

"It's particularly important for the Taliban this year that they have declared they are launching a spring offensive," Kemp said.

"They are aware that there is going to be a build up of NATO forces [in southern Afghanistan]. NATO will be very keen to say that they will be taking control of the situation. So, for propaganda reasons, it is important [to the insurgents] that the Taliban declare an offensive and the Taliban [are] seen to be taking action."

But Kemp says the Taliban guerrilla offensive differs from a conventional military offensive. Quick hit-and-run attacks are the norm as opposed to conventional battles in which opposing forces are locked in combat for weeks at a time.

Ulterior Motives

"This is not an offensive in the classic military sense," he said. "It does not necessarily involve hundreds or thousands of [Taliban] troops. A guerrilla offensive does not need a great number of people in order to cause damage. Every improvised explosive device, every bomb, every sniper attack is going to attract international attention -- particularly in those countries where the [foreign coalition] troops come from. The typical attacks that we've seen over the years [by Afghan guerrilla fighters] -- indeed going back to the war against the Soviets -- are rocket attacks against isolated stations, roadside bombs, and sniping."

While Kemp says the Taliban suffered a defeat in conventional terms, he says such attacks also are aimed at affecting public opinion in the countries that send troops to Afghanistan.

From that perspective, Kemp says the attack shows that the Taliban is not finished in Afghanistan -- and that pro-Taliban militants want to show that they can continue fighting for years.

"It's important for the Afghan security forces and the coalition forces to make it clear that they will be protected when they cooperate," he said. "It's equally important that the Taliban demonstrate that they still have the ability to retaliate so that they can deter ordinary Afghans from cooperating with the security forces. This will be another important message which they are trying to send through the [declaration] of a spring offensive. So the [announcement of a Taliban] spring offensive is very much a part of the [Taliban's reaction] to the 'hearts and minds' campaign [of the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition.]"

Helmand is one of the provinces worst hit by militant violence in Afghanistan since the demise of the Taliban regime in 2001. Britain is in the midst of deploying more than 4,000 troops to Helmand as it spearheads a NATO force there attempting to take control of the volatile south.

Haji Muhaiuddin is a spokesman for Helmand's provincial governor. He says spring temperatures have opened up mountain passes along the Afghan-Pakistan border, making it easier for pro-Taliban militants to carry out attacks in southern Afghanistan and then seek shelter in Pakistan.

"It is true that Helmand is attacked every now and then. We have taken security measures to prevent this," he said. "Coalition forces are here and we have also asked for a brigade (300 to 600 soldiers) from the Afghan National Army to be stationed here. Up until recently, we have had only police for security -- no other security forces -- and that is why the enemy was active here."

Helmand's Sangin District has been particularly volatile. The Afghan National Army's southern corps commander, General Rahmatullah Raufi, says six Afghan soldiers were killed there on March 29 by a roadside bomb that exploded as their vehicle passed. (By Ron Synovitz. RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)