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Afghan Report: January 16, 2006

16 January 2006, Volume 5, Number 1
By Amin Tarzi

As the newly inaugurated Afghan National Assembly began its first week of deliberations on issues other than its own procedural matters, two significant patterns appeared to emerge: first, that this parliament is prepared to pursue a populist agenda; and second, that it is likely to challenge the executive branch's seemingly exclusive hold on power.

One of the first issues raised by the National Assembly's lower house, the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), concerned security barriers erected around the capital Kabul. Such barricades are employed primarily by foreign diplomatic missions, military units, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for reasons of security, and they cause enormous traffic jams and make parts of the city inaccessible for residents (see below).

'Remove The Barriers'

Reports suggested that the parliamentary debate on such a popular topic prompted President Hamid Karzai to order the Interior Ministry to issue a notice on 31 December declaring all barriers that block "footpaths, streets, and roads" illegal and ordering all foreign missions and NGOs to remove them within a week. The notice cautioned that if the barriers were not removed, the "ministry will take action" against those responsible. The Interior Ministry said that there were 46 such blockages, without identifying them.

A People's Council member and former planning minister within Karzai's Transitional Administration with a history of populist rhetoric, Ramazan Bashardost, told the parliament recently, "We have to open the roads that have been closed by foreign princes and war princes," according to "The New York Times."

Nonprofits Targeted

Another fiery issue among Afghans has been the real or perceived notion that the multitude of NGOs functioning in their country -- estimated at more than 3,000 -- has been profiting excessively from aid money earmarked for Afghanistan. Soon after his appointment as planning minister in March 2004, Bashardost launched a probe to evaluate the activities of nongovernmental groups in the country. Bashardost said at the time that those organizations had a negative impact on Afghan reconstruction and had wasted millions of dollars in aid money. After his electoral victory in October 2004, President Karzai reportedly came under pressure from foreign governments to exclude Bashardost from his new cabinet, and the Planning Ministry was in fact abolished.

Now the People's Council has decided to summon NGO representatives to question them on issues of accountability.

The independent Kabul daily "Cheragh," in a 4 January editorial, accused NGOs of embezzling international aid and welcomed the legislature's efforts to increase such groups' accountability. "If the Afghan parliament takes the plundering NGOs to task and quizzes them, they will indeed be bringing the enemies of the people to justice and people will be happy with this measure," the editorial asserted.

Effective Strategy?

When it ordered the removal of unauthorized security barriers, the Karzai administration essentially conceded that the new parliament can already force issues upon it. If the administration grants exemptions to some of those foreign organizations who seek to negotiate over the removal of security barriers (as some have suggested they will), the executive branch's credibility would almost certainly be challenged by voices inside the People's Council. Moreover, the opposition would be handed a popular issue that pits the parliament against the government and could be interpreted as demonstrating government disregard for the public and weakness in the face of foreign pressure.

The lower house can maneuver the government into a similar corner if it decides to curtail the activities of a large number of foreign NGOs. After his selection as speaker of the People's Council in late December, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni resigned as head the unofficial National Understanding Front -- a loose alliance of would-be opposition parties -- and pledged to work constructively with the government.

But Qanuni and his allies appear willing and ready to flex their muscles and challenge Karzai's dominance in the Afghan power structure. The first high-profile opportunity to challenge the government will come when the cabinet faces a vote of confidence.

Muscling In

The weekly "Payam-e Mojahed," the official mouthpiece of the Jami'at-e Islami party to which Qanuni once belonged, asserted in an editorial on 4 January that the Afghan political system is "semi-presidential," as the 2004 constitution grants parliament a supervisory role vis-a-vis the executive branch. In a possible sign of things to come, the weekly added that while President Karzai "chairs the cabinet...he does not have full authority to form the cabinet. A vote of confidence from the parliament is required. That is why the next cabinet will be a mixed one" that would include Karzai supporters and opponents alike.

Karzai worked hard to avoid the establishment of a parliamentary system with a prime minister and to prevent political parties from gaining a strong foothold. Enter the National Assembly, which may well trumpet its new presence by challenging presidential authority and drawing Karzai into popular contests that he simply cannot win.

After backdoor political maneuverings and a heated contest, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, head of the New Afghanistan Party and the unofficial leader of the National Understanding Front -- the largest opposition bloc -- was elected speaker of the Afghan National Assembly's People's Council on 21 December.

Qanuni, who was considered the most likely candidate for the speaker post before the People's Council and Provincial Council elections in September, actually had to break with his allies at the time and bond with former brothers in arms to secure the position.

One of Qanuni's top competitors for the speaker position was the leader of the Islamic Unity Party of the People of Afghanistan, Mohammad Mohaqeq, whose party is part of the National Understanding Front. Another challenger for the post was former Afghan President and Jami'at-e Islami (Islamic Society) head Burhanuddin Rabbani. Qanuni used to be a member of Jami'at-e Islami. Karzai also scored a victory in the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga), where Sebghatullah Mojaddedi was elected speaker (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 20 December 2005).

During the election process for the speaker's position, Mohaqeq dropped out in favor of the archconservative leader of Afghanistan's Islamic Mission Organization, Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. Ironically, some of the bloodiest and most horrific battles after the collapse of the communist regime in Kabul in 1992 were waged between forces loyal to Sayyaf and followers of the Hizb-e Wahdat (Unity Party), to which Mohaqeq belonged. Despite being rivals in the past, Mohaqeq withdrew his candidacy after Sayyaf promised him the position of first deputy speaker.

In order to thaw relations between Sayyaf and Mohaqeq, Qanuni apparently sought and gained the support of Rabbani, who then dropped out of the race, leaving Sayyaf and Qanuni as the main contenders. At the end of the day Qanuni emerged victorious with 122 votes against Sayyaf's 117.

On 22 December, one day after being elected speaker, Qanuni said that he cannot continue as head of the opposition bloc and thus resigned as leader of the National Understand Front.

It is not clear what concessions Rabbani got from Qanuni, but the former president remains the most important power broker in Afghanistan. During the presidential elections in 2004, Rabbani threw his lot in with Hamid Karzai against Qanuni and got his son-in-law, Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, positioned as first vice president.

Qanuni's decision not to remain as the leading opposition voice is a clear, albeit short-term victory for President Karzai, who now has to guard against the formation of an alliance of hard-line conservative Islamists.

Karzai also scored a victory in the Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga), where Sebghatullah Mojaddedi was elected speaker. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Karzai worked for Mojaddedi's National Liberation Front of Afghanistan and has remained close to him.

Qanuni's election as speaker of the People's Council is not a surprise, though the manner in which it occurred was somewhat unexpected. It will be interesting to watch the legislature's actions to see whether Afghanistan's new National Assembly will serve as a rubber stamp for the government or act as the responsible legislative branch of a budding democracy. (Amin Tarzi)

Afghanistan's government has decreed that the United Nations, the American embassy and other organizations in Kabul must clear concrete security barriers that block the streets by Saturday. The decree, issued last Friday, comes following pressure from the newly formed Afghan parliament and public complaints over the heavy traffic jams caused by the barriers. The foreign groups are expressing concern and saying that the security situation does not permit that.

Mohammad Yusof, a Kabul resident, recently told RFE/RL's Afghan Service that the removal of the security barriers from the streets of the Afghan capital is good news.

"Currently it takes sometimes three hours, or 2 1/2 hours, or at least 45 minutes to take a sick person by car to the hospital," Yusof said. "The reason for it is that public roads are blocked; the streets are one way, [and] it causes traffic jams. We are happy about this government's move, if applied it would be really positive."

Most Kabul streets are full of security barriers and large concrete anti-blast blocks aimed at protecting foreign organizations, embassies, foreign military forces, security firms, and others.

They have been set up as security measures against the insurgent and terrorist attacks that have risen in the past four years since the fall of the Taliban regime.

Some organizations, such as the U.S. Embassy, have even closed off whole streets around their premises.

In addition, whole districts are shut off during visits by foreign dignitaries or when senior Afghan officials travel across the city.

Many Kabul residents complain about the inconveniences caused by the security barriers, including heavy traffic jams and city congestion. Some say the anti-blast blocks and barricades make the city look like a war is raging there. Last month, angry local residents and displaced street vendors staged a protest against a security barrier set up outside a newly built hotel in Kabul. The barrier was reportedly removed.

But foreign organizations consider the blockades essential for their security. In recent months, suicide attacks have increased in Afghanistan, with several cases happening in Kabul.

A suicide car bomber detonated near a U.S.-led military patrol in the southern city of Kandahar on 2 January. As a result, one U.S. soldier and two Afghans were wounded.

The United Nations is one of the organizations concerned by the Afghan government's order.

UN chief spokesman in Kabul Adrian Edwards told RFE/RL that security barriers are still required. "We are in a difficult security environment which certainly hasn't improved during 2005," Edwards said. "There have been a number of suicide attacks. Within the UN here, I think none of us would wish to be behind these barricades, we would prefer things could be open as we are in some other countries. However there have been necessary for our security, that's why they are there."

Asked whether the UN will comply with the order and remove its security barriers, Edwards said that the UN is awaiting more information and clarification from Afghan authorities. He expressed hope that the issue will be solved during discussions with Afghan officials "quite quickly."

The Afghan government has said it is determined to remove all the barricades. The directive of the government says that "blocking the footpaths, streets, and roads is illegal" and that no one has the right to create obstructions.

The government has also warned that it will take action against any organization that does not comply.

Afghan government spokesman Karim Rahimi, however, told reporters in Kabul on 3 January that there will be only a few exceptions. He gave no details. "Based on technical considerations, there maybe will be only a few locations where the removal of security barriers could cause security problems," Rahimi said, "but in general all these obstacles will be removed."

On 2 January, Interior Ministry spokesman Yusof Stanezai said that "right now, the only exception to the order is the presidential palace."

It is still unclear whether the U.S. Embassy and other foreign missions will abide by the new rule. U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor was quoted by AP as saying that American officials are aware of the directive and that they are continuing to "work with the government of Afghanistan about access and security issues in public spaces around the embassy."

A U.S. military spokesman, Lieutenant Mike Cody, said Afghan officials had indicated they would study the situation further and revisit the issue later with the parties involved.

With just a few days remaining before the deadline for removing the barriers, RFE/RL correspondents report that most concrete barriers in Kabul still seem to be in place. (Golnaz Esfandiari)

The European Union's special representative in Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, on 12 January warned that drugs remain at the heart of the plethora of risks faced by the country. He said an international conference in London at the end of this month will agree upon a "Compact for Afghanistan," a comprehensive blueprint for action in the field of institutions and security, the economy, and narcotics.

The assessment of the EU's long-time representative for Afghanistan of the situation in the country is relatively upbeat. Vendrell said the results of Afghanistan's credible and "mostly free" elections largely reflect the will of the people, thereby removing a major cause of conflict.

Vendrell also said Afghanistan is a pluralistic society and that although the political situation is fragile, its views across the entire political spectrum are represented in the country's parliament. And he said there has been progress on human rights and the situation of women -- although the central authorities hold on the country is in places "tenuous" and old customs still hold sway.

However, Vendrell warned, the country's future is still hostage to the drugs problem. "It is essential to proceed with the fight against narcotics, being aware that it is a long process, but also being aware that it is urgent to ensure that government and institutions in Afghanistan do not become corrupted by the drug production and trade," he said. "Of course, if that were the case, drugs have the potential to undermine what has been achieved in the last four years."

Vendrell said drugs are at the center of a whole plethora of interconnected social ills. And these ills all have a tendency to reinforce each other. "There is bad governance, and therefore, because there is bad governance in many provinces, some of the provincial authorities are corrupted or have links with the drug production and trade," he noted. "The lack of rule-of-law institutions makes it all the more difficult to fight against drugs if you don't have a proper police and a proper judicial system. The lack of security in the south, but also in other parts of Afghanistan, is the result of a lack of disarmament. And if you have weapons, it's very easy to become connected with the drug trade."

The sluggish progress of development in many parts of the country is another problem. Vendrell said the pace of reconstruction has not been as fast as the local population would have wished.

He said that to secure Afghanistan's future, a comprehensive approach to all these problems is needed. And Vendrell said this will be the aim of an "Afghanistan compact" to be adopted by leaders of the international community at a conference in London on 31 January.

This will be a predominantly political meeting, with some new pledges, he said, depending on budgetary cycles. For example, the United States is expected to offer "substantial" funds for one year, while the EU is preparing a longer-term offer. The conference will focus on three main areas: security, the rule of law, human rights, and governance; economic development; and counternarcotics.

Vendrell said the conference shows it is not all bad news for Afghanistan. "The good news is that at this stage of the process, at this stage of postconflict situations, in other countries the international community would be looking for the way out, thus ensuring that a few years later the country would be back to square one," Vendrell said. "Now, that that is not the case, fortunately not in Afghanistan, there is continued commitment by the international community."

He said there is some good news in the fight against drugs, too. Poppy cultivation acreage dropped by 21 percent last year, although production decreased only by 2.5 percent. This is mostly due to the efforts made in one major province, Nangarhar, where poppy cultivation areas contracted by 96 percent.

However, Vendrell noted that alternative livelihoods will take years to create and require large investments into roads and other infrastructure. He warned the "there will be disappointment" among those farmers who chose not to plant poppies last year.

The EU envoy said the rule of law is still weak in Afghanistan. He said the judiciary must be overhauled and a "competent" supreme court created. The civil service needs reform, as does governance at the provincial level. There is an urgent need to reform the police and, Vendrell said, EU countries should follow a U.S. idea to send in a large number of instructors.

Meanwhile, the security situation remains fragile. Vendrell said a Taliban insurgency continues in the south, while tribal rivalries abound. He said Western countries need to assign their forces to areas where security is most difficult, not just the relatively safe north. But, he noted, in the EU only Great Britain and the Netherlands are willing to send troops to the south of the country.

In the Netherlands, however, the issue is highly contentious and the parliament will vote on 25 January whether to approve the government's decision to commit 1,400 troops.

"I have to say that if the Netherlands found it impossible to send forces to the south, this would be a heavy blow for Europe's prestige in Afghanistan," Vendrell said. "It would be less of a blow for Afghanistan itself because I suspect that other arrangements would need to be made -- be it by Americans, be it by some other European countries -- to fill up the void."

Vendrell noted that a very large number of illegal armed groups remains in existence in Afghanistan, possibly totaling 100,000 men. (Ahto Lobjakas)

A former Afghan intelligence chief has gone on trial in Kabul on charges of torture and war crimes connected to killings during the country's former communist government.

Assadullah Sarwari has been in detention in Afghanistan since 1992, when mujahedin factions overthrew the Soviet-backed communist regime. Appearing before the National Security Court, Sarwari said his incarceration has been illegal and denied any involvement in war crimes.

The trial of Assadullah Sarwari is the first war-crimes trial to be held in Afghanistan after 25 years of war.

Sarwari headed the country's intelligence department in 1978 under President Nur Mohammad Taraki, Afghanistan's first communist ruler. Sarwari was arrested in 1992 and accused of ordering the mass arrest and execution of hundreds of people who opposed the communist government. He has been in custody ever since.

During the first day of his trial on 26 December, Sarwari denied all the charges against him and maintained his innocence. "I and the intelligence organization were very active in providing security for our citizens, and we discovered more than 300 plots, and [as a result] the lives of thousands of citizens were saved. I believe that in the past I worked for the benefit of my country and my people," Sarwari said.

Sarwari could be sentenced to death if found guilty. His trial is due to resume in mid-January.

The proceedings against Sarwari began shortly after President Hamid Karzai's government approved a plan to investigate allegations of human rights abuses committed during the country's bloody past.

Nader Nadery, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, said the Sarwari trial is significant in that in shows that a culture of impunity may be ending in Afghanistan. He said the trial shows the commitment of the Afghan government to justice.

"Holding a trial that is related to war crimes and crimes against humanity and past human rights abuses can be considered as the beginning of a process of bringing justice to Afghanistan. So from this regard, it is very important. And it also shows a commitment by the Afghan government that there will be no amnesty for crimes against humanity and war crimes," Nadery said.

The Sarwari trial follows two similar trials held in Western Europe earlier this year. In October, a court in The Hague jailed two former senior police officials from Afghanistan's former communist regime to nine and 12 years in prison after they were convicted of torture and war crimes. In July, a former Afghan warlord convicted of a campaign of torture and hostage taking in his homeland was sentenced in Great Britain to 20 years in prison.

Nadery believes Afghanistan must change its laws and rebuild its justice system in order to better prosecute human rights abuses. He said addressing the abuses and violence of the past will help build confidence and trust among Afghan citizens.

"[The Afghan people] believe that justice can be achieved in different ways -- either by removing human-rights violators from government positions and also prosecution of their crimes," Nadery said. "The trial of Sarwari and measures for bringing justice help in increasing people's trust in the government and in democratic institutions that are being formed. But this can only be effective if people are not just used as scapegoats. Weak people should not be used for political purposes. There should be a transparent process based on principles of fair trials. Every person who has committed war crimes should face justice."

Some former militia commanders and warlords accused of past atrocities in Afghanistan hold positions in the current government. They include Abdul Rashid Dostum, who is currently chief of staff of the army in the Defense Ministry and Karim Khalili, who is one of Afghanistan's two vice presidents. Several others implicated in abuses, such as Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, were elected to parliament in September elections.

Human Rights Watch has urged Karzai to set up a special court to try people accused of past war crimes, including those who are serving in his government.

Last week, a conference on transitional justice in Afghanistan demanded that people implicated in rights abuses be removed from the government and face possible prosecution.

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah denied that human-rights violators hold positions in the government, however, and said only the courts can decide who has been involved in past abuses. He warned that the country had to avoid becoming trapped in a "limited circle of revenge." (Golnaz Esfandiari)