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Afghan Report: December 20, 2005

20 December 2005, Volume 4, Number 29
By Amin Tarzi

With the certification of the results of the 18 September voting for the Afghan National Assembly's People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) and provincial councils last week, Afghanistan came one step closer to having its first parliament in place since 1965. Most of Afghanistan's 34 provincial councils have completed their local elections to appoint members for the National Assembly's Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga), paving the way for the opening of the National Assembly on the target date of 19 December.

Despite the more than 70 officially registered political parties in Afghanistan, the vast majority of the candidates for the Wolesi Jirga and provincial council seats ran as independents. Nonetheless, many of the new lawmakers are affiliated with political parties and there are political coalitions, although most are based on short-term political expediencies and have no clearly stated joint policy goals.

No Clear-Cut Map

No clear-cut political map of the new National Assembly can be drawn. This factor, plus the personality-based nature of Afghan politics and the history of radical shifts of alliances among Afghan political figures in the past, has caused some commentators and news writers in recent days to claim that the future parliament would be support Afghan President Hamid Karzai, while others have predicted that the National Assembly will be dominated by conservative mujahedin leaders.

Both of the above assessments could be true, but the first postulate is subject to change.

The 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga can be divided into four broad and often overlapping camps: first, former mujahedin, including the 40 or so members of Hizb-e Islami who have distanced themselves from their party leader and current antigovernment fugitive Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; second, independents, technocrats and those tribal leaders who are not affiliated with other parties; third, former communists and other leftists (ironically some of the former communists abandoned their mustaches --symbol of Afghan communists -- in favor of beards and joined mujahedin parties and even allied themselves with the Taliban, so there can be some overlap between this group and groups one and four); and fourth, former members of the Taliban establishment. Since a large number of Taliban leadership had previous association to the mujahedin parties, this last group could overlap with the first group.

A Weighty Agenda

In the absence of official political party lists in the Afghan parliament and because of the fluidity of the Afghan political loyalties it is very difficult, if not impossible, to gauge how the National Assembly will act before they convene. Their immediate agenda, however, includes retroactive action on many of Karzai's decrees, his cabinet nominations, and his choices for the Supreme Court.

The best assessment is that at the outset, the mujahedin and their affiliates will enjoy a majority. This however does not necessarily mean that the parliament in Afghanistan would have a majority bloc pushing for specific agendas as the mujahedin, almost from the beginning of the struggle in 1978, have been and remain hopelessly divided.

Among the mujahedin, a number of the more prominent figures -- such as Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf and possibly leader of the Jami'at-e Islami (Islamic Society) party and president of Afghanistan in the 1990s Burhanuddin Rabbani -- are currently in Karzai's camp. Most of the members of Hizb-e Islami and former Taliban members, lacking any strong leadership, being mostly Pashtuns, and having to deal with the stigma of past association with Hekmatyar or the neo-Taliban, are mostly likely to back Karzai for now. Karzai seems to enjoy strong support among the technocrats and women, most of whom belong to the second grouping mentioned above. The tribal leaders should be expected to stick on ethnic lines and perhaps more than any other group be sensitive to the interests of their constituencies.

Rough Sailing Ahead

In this unscientific calculation of the Wolesi Jirga, Karzai fares well at the outset, but he must navigate very dangerous currents. Some of his allies among the mujahedin may push for reinserting religion -- their prerogative --into the politics of the country. The technocrats, women, and the leftist camp may try to liberalize the society, which in turn would push the mujahedin closer together.

Many elected members of the Wolesi Jirga have fought in opposing groups and have committed atrocities that still haunt the Afghan people. Whether the past bloody memories can be forgotten is another test for the new parliament. As a related issue, Karzai would be placed in a compromising position if, as expected, some members of the Wolesi Jirga who have voiced concern about the crimes committed against the Afghans by some of their colleagues, try to debate past human rights abuses.

The 4 December killing of Esmatullah Mohabat, who was elected to the People's Council of the Afghan National Assembly on 18 September, has reopened questions regarding politically motivated killings in Afghanistan and the effectiveness of the country's disarmament program. It has also forced the Afghan authorities to suspend the current electoral law.

Mohabat was a warlord in Laghman Province, east of Kabul, and was captured after clashing with U.S. forces in neighboring Nangarhar Province in 2004. He spent time in U.S. detention, suspected of having links to the neo-Taliban, before being released a few months prior to the September 2005 elections, in which he won one of four seats allocated for Laghman. Mohabat officially participated in the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) in order to become eligible to appear on the ballot.

President Hamid Karzai has appointed a commission to investigate Mohabat's killing, but the circumstances surrounding the murder remain murky.

While Afghan officials have indicated that Mohabat was trying to confront a "businessman" who had captured one of his men when he was killed along with his bodyguard, his brother Hajji Naqibullah blamed "enemies" for attacking Mohabat's vehicle while he was traveling to their sister's home.

Protests In Mehtarlam

Following Mohabat's murder, authorities reported the arrest of Mohammad Sardar, whose relationship with Mohabat was not elaborated, on suspicion of involvement in the killing. However some of the slain parliamentarian's supporters took the law into their hands and on 8 December set fire to Sardar's house in Mehtarlam, the provincial capital of Laghman, and implicated governmental officials -- including Laghman Province Governor Shah Mahmud Safi -- in the case. The protestors hurled stones at government buildings in Mehtarlam and demanded the resignation of a number of security officials and Safi's dismissal.

In addition, the protestors demanded that Mohabat's seat in the People's Council be transferred to his brother Naqibullah.

Naqibullah blamed his brother's murder on the DDR process, telling the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on 8 December that "on several occasions we asked the authorities to provide weapons to Mohabat so he could protect himself." However, he added, these requests were rejected.

Not The First

Mohabat is the second parliamentarian-elect to have been killed under mysterious circumstances since the September election. Mohammad Ashraf Ramazan, elected to the People's Council from northern Balkh Province, was gunned down with one of his bodyguards on 27 September as he drove from a vote counting station in Mazar-e Sharif, Balkh's provincial capital. Posthumously, Ramazan was certified as having won one of the province's 11 seats in the lower house.

Following Ramazan's killing, many of his supporters accused Balkh Province Governor Ata Mohammad Nur of involvement in the assassination. Protesters, reportedly as many as 1,000 people, tried to block the main road linking Balkh and points south, include the capital Kabul, prompting the central government to send a unit of rapid-reaction troops to Balkh. The protestors in Balkh, like those in Laghman, demanded the removal of officials and that Ramazan's brother, Ahmad Shah Ramazan, be allowed to occupy the seat that his slain brother seemed poised to win (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 14 October 2005).

Electoral Dilemma

The killings of two members-elect of the People's Council has opened a debate among Afghan commentators and media outlets on whether the electoral law as it stands has encouraged the killings by rival political groups hoping to occupy the vacated seats. The law stipulates that if a candidate is not able to take his or her seat in the lower house for any reason, the seat will be allocated to the candidate of the same gender who received the next largest number of votes.

These concerns have prompted the Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB) to keep Mohabat's seat vacant while apparently awaiting either changes to the law or intervention by the government. The Afghan cabinet in a meeting held on 12 December suspended the clause regarding replacing slain members of the legislature. However it is not clear what specific steps the government has recommended for filling Mohabat's seat in Laghman. According to the information on the JEMB's website, Ramazan's seat in Balkh has been taken over by Sayyed Zaher Masrur, who was the next qualifying candidate in the province. In Laghman, Mohabat is still identified as one of the representatives from that province.

Meanwhile, Karzai appointed Ramazan's brother Ahmad Shah Ramazan as one of the 34 members of the Council of Elders -- the upper chamber of the National Assembly -- that the Afghan Constitution requires be appointed by president.

An ad hoc measure may also be taken in the case of Mohabat's brother to satisfy his supporters. But the larger and long-term question of reforming the electoral law remains unanswered. Moreover, a more through investigation of Mohabat's murder may reveal the extent to which DDR-process requirements were actually abided as regards candidates who officially gave up their military assets to become Afghanistan's future lawmakers. Unless these cases are pursued with vigor and preventive measures are put in place to prevent politicians from becoming targets or themselves targeting their opponents, lawlessness may prevail among those who will make Afghanistan's laws. (Amin Tarzi)

With the certification of the vote count for the 18 September Afghan National Assembly's People's Council and Provincial Councils on 12 November, Afghanistan came closer to having its first parliament in place since 1965. With most of Afghanistan's 34 Provincial Councils having completed their local elections and sent members to the National Assembly's Council of Elders, the National Assembly is ready to convene on 19 December.

In the coming days the main issue of contention will likely revolve around who will be the chairperson of the Wolesi Jirga and thus become the speaker of the National Assembly. The jockeying for this position may shed a little more light on the future political trends of the parliament. Rabbani's elevation to the post may give further power to the conservative religious camp at the expense of the more liberal forces in the National Assembly.

The Contenders

Prior to the September elections, Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, head of the New Afghanistan Party and the unofficial leader of the National Understanding Front -- a loose bloc but the largest opposition political coalition -- was considered the most likely candidate for the highest post in the National Assembly. While Qanuni still remains one of the frontrunners for the speaker post, his position as favorite is being challenged by former Afghan President and Jami'at-e Islami (Islamic Society) head Burhanuddin Rabbani and the leader of the Islamic Unity Party of the People of Afghanistan, Mohammad Mohaqeq.

Rabbani -- like Qanuni -- is a Tajik, while his son-in-law Ahmad Zia Mas'ud is currently the first vice president of Afghanistan. These two factors may have a negative impact on Qanuni's bid to occupy the top job at the National Assembly. In addition, while Qanuni has been championing the rights of the former mujahedin, Rabbani's credentials as the head of one of the major resistance groups to which Qanuni once belonged may cost the him considerable support among the mujahedin.

It is not entirely clear whether Mohaqeq has officially announced his candidacy to be speaker, but he has not ruled it out. Mohaqeq's party is part of Qanuni's coalition and has been regarded as the number two in the opposition bloc to President Hamid Karzai's government. But Mohaqeq handily beat Qanuni in percentage of votes won in Kabul Province with 13.8 percent compared to 8.2 percent for Qanuni. In fact, with 52,686 votes Mohaqeq received more than any other candidate in Afghanistan. However the election of Mohaqeq, an ethnic Hazara, to the National Assembly's highest position may upset the Tajiks, who constitute Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic group after the Pashtuns and may regard the post as theirs.

An Ally For Karzai?

If either Rabbani or Mohaqeq manages to become speaker, then Qanuni's political coalition and his personal political fortunes may be weakened.

The three aforementioned Wolesi Jirga members are not the only candidates for the speaker post, however the chances of the other contenders, including a third Kabul representative, Shokria Barakzai, do not seem very promising.

Of the three leading candidates for the speaker position, Rabbani is the most likely to work with Karzai's government, but Rabbani's elevation to the post may give further power to the conservative religious camp at the expense of the more liberal forces in the National Assembly. (Amin Tarzi)

NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on 8 December formally endorsed an expansion of NATO's peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan has welcomed the move, doubts remain in Kabul about whether a NATO-led force can effectively deal with the insurgents in restive southern Afghanistan.

The revised operational plan for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) -- known as "Stage 3 expansion" -- provides strategic guidance for increased NATO support to the Afghan government in extending and exercising its authority and influence throughout the country.

The next stage of this plan will be the expansion of ISAF in 2006 to six southern and central Afghan provinces: Daikondi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Oruzgan, and Zabul. As part of the expansion, ISAF's strength -- which presently is about 9,000 troops from 26 NATO and 10 non-NATO countries -- is expected to increase to 16,000, with most of the additional forces coming from Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Thus far NATO does not have pledges for upward of 7,000 additional troops that are needed for its planned expansion of ISAF next year. Moreover, even among the three NATO member states promising to share the main burden of providing the additional troops, there are concerns about the rules of conduct that could create obstacles for some to send troops or hamper operational procedures.

In the Netherlands, for example, there is growing concern about the fate of captives once they are handed over to the Afghan authorities, which must happen within 96 hours, according to NATO rules. While Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly addressed these concerns, promising that detainees handed over to the Afghan government will be treated humanely, the concerns of some important Dutch lawmakers remain unanswered.

According to information provided by NATO, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) "will continue to be at the leading edge" of the organization's efforts in Afghanistan and as part of the Stage 3 expansion four PRTs in Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul, which are currently under U.S. command, will become NATO's responsibility.

Militarily, ISAF is mandated to conduct "stability and security operations" in coordination with Afghan national security forces and to provide support to Afghan government programs to "disarm illegally armed groups." However, it is not clear whether ISAF is authorized to use force if such an approach is adopted by Kabul.

NATO clearly has decided to steer ISAF away from active counternarcotics operations such as poppy eradication, destruction of drug-processing facilities, and military action against drug traffickers or producers.

The long-standing U.S. hope to combine the commands of ISAF and the U.S.-led coalition forces known as Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was not accepted by NATO, as major member states such as France and Germany objected.

According to information provided by NATO, ISAF and OEF "will continue to have separate mandates and missions. ISAF will continue to focus on its stabilization and security mission, while OEF will continue to carry out its counterterrorism mission."

The Afghan government, including Karzai, has welcomed NATO's decision to expand the ISAF mandate. Privately, however, Afghan officials have expressed two concerns. First, there is unease that the expansion of ISAF is a prelude to a lessening of OEF military involvement, especially that of the United States. Second, some Afghan officials are not sure about ISAF's ability and willingness to confront the increasingly violent armed opposition and their terrorist allies, which are active in southern Afghanistan.

Beyond these concerns, there remains the potential for the emergence of operational difficulties arising from the two-command structure between ISAF and OEF in restive provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul, where the neo-Taliban and their allies are particularly active and where both forces will now be operating.

Also, there is growing evidence that the Afghan opposition and the narcotics industries are engaged in a mutually beneficial, though perhaps not always planned, cooperation. Thus NATO's decision to sidestep the narcotics problem may in fact hamper counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. (Amin Tarzi)

While a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes a 21 percent decline of areas for poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, it also finds that favorable weather conditions led nevertheless to a robust harvest. Overall, the report says, Afghanistan's raw opium production shrank by more than 2 percent in 2005. But the outlook for 2006 is troubling.

Antonio Maria Costa, UNODC's executive director, said on 23 November that the decrease in growth areas was based in part on opium farmers' fears over Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government initiative to eradicate opium plants.

Now, however, these concerns have to a large extent diminished. For the first time, the UNODC reports the magnitude of cannabis (marijuana) cultivation in Afghanistan. It says that with 30,000 hectares of cannabis, Afghanistan is now providing one-third of the world's supply of the drug -- and is second only to the number-one supplier, Morocco.

Some Encouragement

While the numbers for 2005 might be encouraging -- approximately one in five farmers, or 50,000 households, switched illegal for legal crops -- Afghanistan still produces 87 percent of the world's opium poppies. That represents 4,500 tons of the plants from which opium and heroin are derived.

Aside from farmers' fading concerns over the government's opium-eradication initiative, the UNODC chief says, free distribution of opium seeds and deterioration of security situation in certain parts of Afghanistan are seen as factors that might lead to an increase opium output in 2006.

"First of all we have news that in a number of provinces traffickers are distributing free of charge opium seeds, which may lead to a higher cultivation in 2006," Costa said. "Point number two is that the security situation is deteriorating in some of the provinces which were not cultivating large amount of opium last year, which may again lead to a higher cultivation at least in these provinces."

Afghan Effects

The changes in opium production vary widely throughout the country, the UNODC report says. The eastern Nangarhar Province, for instance, recorded a stunning 96 percent decline, while in the western Farah and northern Balkh provinces cultivation increased more than three-fold.

Annual gross profits to opium farmers, however, are some $1,800 per household, the report says, while traffickers grossed more than $2.14 billion. Most of the drug revenues presumably end up in foreign bank accounts of a few big drug lords and traffickers.

Prices for opium also significantly vary inside the country, the report says, with the highest over $140 for a kilogram of raw dry opium and the lowest $114 for a kilogram in northern Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan.

For the first time, the UNODC publishes its findings about the number of opium users in Afghanistan itself -- approximately 1 million people, or 3.8 percent of the population.

Ethnic Participation And Trade Routes

For the first time, the UNODC reflects in the report the disposition of Afghanistan's ethnic groups in the drug trafficking.

"About 10 years ago, 90 percent of the trafficking was run by Pashtuns. This year the Pashtuns are running just about half of the trafficking," Costa said. "More than a quarter is now run by Tajik minorities -- whether the minorities are on this side of the border, namely in Afghanistan, or that side of the border, namely in Tajikistan."

The report notes significant changes in the activity on drug trafficking routes. For instance, the trafficking through Iran increased dramatically -- from 40 percent in 2004 to 61 percent of overall Afghan drug trafficking in 2005. On the other hand, trafficking through the other routes decreased: Pakistan -- from 37 percent to 20 percent, and Central Asian countries -- from 24 to 19 percent.

"The amount of opium and heroine going through the Central Asian republics has declined from last year, [when] we estimated it at 24 percent; this year it has declined to 19 percent," Costa said. "Basically it means there's been a major readjustment in trafficking -- lesser through Central Asia and Russia, less through Pakistan and then through the Gulf, and more though Iran, the Kurdish region, Iraq, Turkey, Balkans, and so forth."

Isobel Coleman of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations told RFE/RL that widespread corruption in Central Asia is a major obstacle for President Karzai's government initiative to effectively fight drug cultivation and trafficking.

"The ability of drugs and the amount of money around the drug trade -- it's so easy to corrupt people -- poorly paid or even well-paid government officials," Coleman said. "They turn a blind eye to the drug trade because of their ability to so enrich themselves. You see that corruption in the Afghan government, you see it in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, you see it in the whole region, it's very debilitating on their countries." (Nikola Krastev)