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Afghan Report: August 23, 2006

August 23, 2006, Volume 5, Number 22
Parliament's recent approval of a new chief justice and eight other members of the Supreme Court could mark a notable step on the road to long-term stability and a democratic society.

While Afghanistan has flirted with real and "kangaroo" parliaments in the past, genuine power has historically been held by the executive -- represented by kings, presidents, and commanders of the faithful. However, with few exceptions, the executive branch has had to walk a fine line with the judiciary, a branch that remained to varying degrees independent or even at odds with the executive branch.

The judiciary -- formally or informally -- also assumed the role of safeguarding Islamic values and character. This prerogative became more entrenched after the communist takeover in 1978 and the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union a year later.

A Break With Precedent

During the period of resistance to Soviet forces and their surrogates in Kabul, the elements who traditionally controlled and represented Afghanistan's judiciary became a vanguard of the struggle.

In 1992, those same elements took power in the capital, seemingly placing the executive and judiciary branches in the hands of a single group of people: They were the judges and the court functionaries, the ulama (religious scholars), the clergy, and important hereditary religious families. Those groups have traditionally preserved their power bases and legitimacy by steering the Islamic sensibilities of the Afghan public in a highly conservative -- and unwavering -- direction.

To date, Afghanistan's judiciary has remained mostly in the hands of men from conservative religious circles. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, conservative circles have been in firm control of the judiciary, most notably the Supreme Court (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 3, 2006).

The importance of the Supreme Court is boosted by the abysmal state of Afghanistan's formal judicial system. That situation has resulted in increased involvement for the Supreme Court in even minor legal aspects of the country's development.

Moreover, the Supreme Court as envisaged in the constitution holds tremendous power over lower courts -- all the way down to district courts. That authority extends all the way to judicial appointments and directives on points of law.

Ray Of Hope?

The makeup of the Supreme Court sworn in on August 5 is based less than its predecessor on strong ties to past Islamist governments and to prominent Afghans.

This new court is headed by Abdul Salam Azimi. Azimi is a moderate technocrat with experience in law and education not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan, the Middle East, and the United States. He was also among the main drafters of the country's current constitution.

The other eight justices (Mohammad Qasem Hashemzai; Abdul Rashid Rashed; Gholam Nabi Nawai; Bahuddin Baha; Zamen Ali Behsudi; Mohammad Qasem; Mohammad Alim Nasimi; and Mohammad Omar Barakzai) include highly educated technocrats with seemingly moderate views and no obvious ties to conservative Islamist circles. The average age of new members is under 62, with the oldest member (Behsudi) 70 years old and the youngest (Nawai) 46.

Critics accused the previous court of allying itself with conservative elements in the National Assembly in an effort to systematically challenge Afghanistan's generally reform-mined executive branch.

The new court is more likely to seek to establish itself as a contributor to stability. Its justices are arguably more disposed to safeguarding the Islamic character of Afghanistan as enshrined in the constitution while allowing gradual reforms within legal limits.

They might also be expected to seek to respect Afghan traditions while trying not to perpetuate reactionary measures that might impede a march to democracy.

The Afghan Constitution adopted in January of 2004 creates the judiciary branch as an organ of the state independent of the other two branches -- executive and legislative.

Chief Justice Azimi and his new colleagues on the bench face a daunting task. They will certainly be tempted to reeducate Afghanistan's judiciary branch from top to bottom. But they will also be expected to work to prevent the various centers of power in Afghanistan -- both formal and informal -- from grinding progress to a halt. (Amin Tarzi)

Countries with troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are discovering that they need better protection from roadside bombs and land mines -- the weapons most commonly used by Taliban fighters.

Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany all have recently ordered light armored vehicles to replace less-protected military transport in Afghanistan and Iraq. Freshly deployed Australian special forces also have brought about a dozen armored personnel carriers for their work in southern Afghanistan.

When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in March of 2003, the advance across the desert to Baghdad was spearheaded by Abrams M-1 tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers.

U.S. tank commanders like Sergeant Jerold Pyle spoke confidently about their vehicles -- knowing that even the best Soviet-era tanks of Iraq's Republican Guard were no match for the Abrams.

"The Abrams tank in a battle? This is the heavy armor," Pyle told RFE/RL. "These are the killers. This is what the enemy is afraid of. The Abrams was made to fight the Soviet Union, designed back in the 1980s. It's been updated over the last 20 years until it's the best tank in the world. This is the heavy armor. This is the tip of the spear."

A few weeks later, however, when Pyle became one of the first U.S. soldiers to enter Baghdad, his tank was destroyed in an ambush by Iraqi ground troops using guerrilla tactics.

The lesson was clear for U.S. military planners. Heavy tanks, with their clanking metal tank treads and fuel-guzzling engines, can dominate a battlefield in the open desert. But many advantages are neutralized in an urban guerrilla war.

On The Ground In Afghanistan

U.S. military officials tell RFE/RL they did not deploy heavy armor into Afghanistan because its mountainous terrain isn't suitable for a tank campaign against guerrilla fighters. They say the main gun barrel of an Abrams tank often cannot be raised high enough to fire on targets at higher elevations in the mountains.

So for the last four years, U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan have conducted most lowland patrols in light armored cars called Humvees. Small commando teams also have been dropped off in the mountains by helicopter, relying on support from coalition aircraft instead of tanks when they engage militants in combat.

Countries like Germany, Canada, and Romania have provided some armored personnel carriers for ground troops in Afghanistan in the past. But there haven't been enough of those vehicles for the thousands of troops deployed this year as part of the NATO-led expansion into the south. The equipment sent in with many of the newly arriving troops has been chosen for speed and mobility rather than armor protection.

Thus, most ISAF troops in Afghanistan now rely on trucks or Land Rovers without adequate protection against the kind of attacks most often carried out by Taliban guerrillas.

Resurgent Violence

Facing a resurgence of violence by militants in southern Afghanistan, several countries in the NATO-led mission now recognize that their soldiers need more protection.

"The reason most of these armies are now buying new armored vehicles is these vehicles are specifically protected against land mines and improvised explosive devices [IEDs]," says Ian Kemp, an independent defense analyst based in London. "And the IEDs are certainly the most lethal threat which the opposition forces are using -- both in Afghanistan and in Iraq."

The governments of Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany have all faced domestic criticism in recent months for not providing their troops with enough armor. As a result, all have announced major purchases in recent weeks of light armor for Afghanistan.

Australia has deployed about a dozen Bushmaster armored personnel carriers for use by its special forces in Oruzgan Province.

The British Defense Ministry has ordered the most new vehicles -- 100 armored Pinzgauer Vectors purchased in July to bolster 66 bought by Britain earlier this year. Deliveries to Afghanistan are due to begin in 2007.

Speedy And Mobile

What Afghans will see on the desert plains of Helmand Province -- where the British are heavily deployed -- are vehicles that look more like six-wheeled camping vans than armored personnel carriers or tanks.

"It's an all-terrain vehicle, a cross-country truck to put it simply, called the Pinzgauer," Kemp says. "They're running on wheels. They're running on tires. [So] they can move at much greater speeds across roads [than tanks and other heavy armor]. What the company has done recently is develop an armored version. In extreme boggy terrain, it doesn't have the mobility of a tracked vehicle. But in an operation such as Afghanistan, most of the coalition forces are [now] deploying wheeled armored vehicles."

Kemp has been closely following how the tactics of Afghan and Iraqi guerrilla fighters have led to such acquisitions.

"There has been considerable criticism about the equipment of British forces both in Iraq and in Afghanistan," Kemp says. "Most of the equipment that is in service with the British Army was designed during the 1980s and the 1990s. The difficulty with them is they are quite heavy to ship and they are quite intimidating when they are actually used on operations. They also suffer from the fact that they are expensive to operate, being tracked vehicles. What the British Army is missing is the spectrum of light and medium armored vehicles."

Kemp says he thinks some of the new British Pinzgauers could eventually be left in Afghanistan to bolster the equipment of the Afghan National Army. (Ron Synovitz)

In the winter of 2002, a 29-year-old Scotsman set out from Herat, in western Afghanistan, to walk 800 kilometers to Kabul. Rory Stewart -- an Oxford-educated former British Foreign Service officer -- was told to expect to meet death along the way -- whether from cold, wolves, or a Kalashnikov. His book, "The Places In Between" is the story of that journey and of Afghanistan's people and history. He spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher about his trek and his project to help restore Kabul's old city.

RFE/RL: Tell me about the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which you founded after you finished your walk and now run in Kabul.

Rory Stewart: The Turquoise Mountain foundation is a project to help a community in central Kabul work to preserve and restore the old city of Kabul, which was threatened with demolition. So we're working on a section of the old city and we're doing a range of activities, from improving infrastructure [and] clearing rubbish to restoring a series of very beautiful late 18th- and early 19th-century courtyard houses. We also run a school, which trains calligraphers, illumination painters, woodworkers, masons, and ceramicists.

RFE/RL: I noticed on the foundation's website that you are asking for traditional craftspeople to come work with you?

Stewart: Yes, we're hoping to encourage exchange programs to bring over international craftsmen to work in Kabul and work alongside Afghan craftsmen.

Cultural Identity

RFE/RL: In your book, you describe talking with villagers from the valley of Jam who are plundering ancient sites and showing little respect for the significance of the artifacts they find and are selling. You seem slightly horrified by their lack of recognition of the historical value of what they're looting. Is that when you first had the idea to try and do something to protect what is left of ancient Afghanistan?

Stewart: Yes. I think one of the great casualties of these kinds of conflicts -- in the case of Afghanistan it's 25 years of war -- is to a county's cultural identity, and to its history. Because people have other priorities during a time of war. And I believe that in a generation's time, Afghans will be very sorry to have lost the traces of their history -- which once made them one of the real central civilizations of the world. So we're hoping, through working with craftsmen and through working with historic buildings, to support Afghanistan's traditional culture and use it to create economic opportunities for a new generation.

RFE/RL: How do people in Kabul feel about this kind of preservation work you're doing?

Stewart: I feel that the community we work with is very supportive. They're a very proud community, they've been living there for two or three-hundred years in this particular part of Kabul and they're very keen to make sure these buildings -- which they value and which their families have lived in for generations -- are preserved. But at the same time there are very aggressive, new property developers who have very little interest in history and who want to send in the bulldozers and build a new generation of [what are] often East German-inspired tower blocks.

Final Leg

RFE/RL: When you began your walk in Herat in the middle of winter, many people warned you of a certain death -- either from weather, war, or wolves. You seemed unafraid. What was it that let you think you could succeed in reaching Kabul?

Stewart: Partly because I had been walking for 18 months already across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal; and I'd heard similar warnings in parts of those countries, too, which had proved to be untrue.

Generally, my experience is that even in the most fragile, most traumatized, most war-torn countries, most people are extremely hospitable, dignified, generous, and welcoming. And that even without a government, without a police force, without a formal structure of rule of law, local political structures do provide security and people are generally kind to other humans.

RFE/RL: But in fact you did encounter hostility. You were beaten up once and another time came close to death at the hands of an angry crowd. Were you surprised to be attacked like this?

Stewart: Perhaps I should put it the other way around. Perhaps, in a sense, looking back, it was surprising that it didn't happen more often. You're right, on a couple of occasions -- once I was beaten up by Hazara militiamen in Bamiyan and then, once, surrounded and threatened with death by a group of young Taliban men in Wardak. But given that this was a country in the throes of an invasion with no government or structures, perhaps what is notable is that it didn't happen more often.

RFE/RL: You encountered so many different ethnic groups in your walks -- each with different histories, different views of the West, different ways of greeting a traveler. Were there any commonalities?

Stewart: I think one of my real lessons was that villages are very different each from the other, that it's dangerous to generalize. And one of the big mistakes that foreigners have made intervening in places like Afghanistan, or even Iraq, is to imagine that you can generalize about communities in remote areas who almost by definition because of the lack of communication and contact with the rest of the world are very, very isolated.

A single day's walk -- 25 kilometers -- can take you from a place governed by an old, feudal family who are relaxed and friendly towards the West, into a community run by a radical Muslim cleric with connections to Iran, trying to stir the community up on a jihad.

Some communities want a very centralized government; others want a very strong degree of local autonomy. Some are interested in notions of human rights; others emphasize security.

If there was something in common between them, I think that most of the villages have a relatively conservative vision of Islam and talked to me predominantly about Islam -- perhaps because it's one of their great ways of reaching out and contacting the outside world.

Helping Afghanistan?

RFE/RL: That raises another point. Do you think the international community - by that I mean the Americans and British -- understands how to help Afghanistan? You imply in your book that foreigners are somewhat misguided in their efforts to assist with development and social issues, and for all their well-meaning policy plans and projects, they're really not making a real difference in people's lives.

Stewart: I think that's true. The international community has basically decided that in order to achieve sustainable development, economic development, and improvement in living standards in other people's countries, it's necessary to change governance structures.

In other words, the conclusion for the last 10-15 years has been that there's no point just building dams and roads unless you have a clean, effective, accountable, and responsible government. These interventions are not sustainable. Now, they may or may not be right about that. Where I disagree with them is the notion that this is something that foreigners can actually deliver. Because by its very nature, political change -- i.e., the kind of changes which the minister of finance in Afghanistan described when he said, 'Every Afghan is committed to a gender-sensitive, multiethnic, centralized government committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law' -- is a type of change which is very difficult to explain to somebody in a remote rural community. I'd find it even difficult to translate into Dari.

And if we're serious about bringing those kinds of changes - and those are very, very radical changes, philosophically, structurally, politically - we would have to have much, much more understanding of these countries than we're ever likely to have and much more patience than we're ever likely to have.

We tend to go for six months, or a one-year contract, do workshops, talk nicely about democracy, but don't really engage in what would be a very long-term, very messy, and very uncomfortable business of really convincing Afghans, or Iraqis, to really believe in the vision that we hold, and to fight for that vision.

RFE/RL: Are you surprised at all by the resurgence of the Taliban, especially in the south of Afghanistan?

Stewart: I'm not so surprised, no. Because my experience was that many of the villagers I encountered were sympathetic towards the Taliban, or at least sympathetic towards their religious ideology. A single day's walk -- 25 kilometers -- can take you from a place governed by an old, feudal family who are relaxed and friendly towards the West, into a community run by a radical Muslim cleric with connections to Iran, trying to stir the community up on a jihad.

Generally, their objections to them were that the Taliban came from an alien ethnic group, or that the Taliban had killed them or stolen livestock, or property. But the south is a Pashto area, the Taliban are a Pashto ethnic-supported party and there is a lot of conservative Islamic sentiment there which provides quite a natural support base for a movement such as the Taliban.

RFE/RL: Can I ask where you learned Dari?

Stewart: I learned Dari initially in Tehran. I learned Farsi [Persian] and then I worked on it more in Kabul, and then on my walk across Afghanistan.

'Afghanistan The Most Appealing'

RFE/RL: Do you have any plans to make another walk?

Stewart: I'd very much like to travel more in the valleys between Bamiyan and Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan and explore some of the side valleys there, which people haven't been into much.

RFE/RL: You've walked across Iran, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan. Which country did you enjoy crossing the most?

Stewart: Of them all, I think Afghanistan was the most appealing country. I found such generosity. Only in Afghanistan, of all the countries I've walked across, did people insist on accompanying me from one village to another; take a real interest in accommodating me, feeding me.

The beauty of the landscape, the astonishing complexity of the surviving pieces of historical culture -- such as the Minaret of Jam, or the domes in Chist-e Sharif -- the challenge, the physical challenge of crossing a landscape of that sort. The physical beauty of seeing tents on a hillside, or men on horses riding towards you, really made it, I think -- and I've been to 67 countries -- the most enticing, enthralling, exhilarating place to travel across.