Amnesty Law Draws Criticism, Praise
The new amnesty law places the burden of proof in war crimes trials upon victims rather than on state prosecutors.
Bill Amended And Passed
The law recognizes the rights of war crimes victims to seek justice and to bring cases against those alleged to have committed war crimes. But in the absence of a complaint by a victim, Afghan authorities are now banned from prosecuting accused war criminals on their own.
The lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, approved the bill after President Hamid Karzai revised an initial bill that had been approved by both chambers of parliament that gave amnesty to all Afghans involved in war crimes during the last three decades of fighting.
Afghanistan's highest body of Islamic clerics criticized the initial draft legislation, saying parliament cannot issue a blanket amnesty from war crimes because only the victims of war crimes can forgive the perpetrators.
Mulavi Mohammad Musa, an Islamic scholar in Afghanistan's northeastern Nuristan Province, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he agrees with other Islamic clerics who think the amnesty damages the prospects of national reconciliation.
Protecting War Criminals?
"We think it does not benefit the nation. It benefits those people who committed war crimes," he said. "And it inspires others to commit the same kind of crimes. We elected President Karzai and the parliament to safeguard our rights. But to the contrary, these people are pardoning those who are violating our rights."
A lecturer at Kabul University who specializes in law and political science, Wadir Safi, says a lot of Afghans are angry about the amnesty because many lawmakers are alleged to have committed war crimes themselves.
"Let us say that passing this legislation was not within the powers of the lower house of parliament," Safi said. "This means that the representatives of the lower house shouldn't be the judges of their own deeds."
The revised resolution grants a general amnesty from prosecution to all groups -- rather than individual members -- who led the anti-Soviet resistance in the 1980s and then plunged the country into a civil war that killed tens of thousands.
Among the alleged war crimes, it is claimed that thousands of civilians in Kabul were killed by indiscriminate shelling and rocketing from 1992 to 1995.
Government Officials Accused
Even some members of Karzai's government have been accused of committing war crimes and human rights abuses.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch says Afghan Vice President Karim Khalili and army Chief of Staff Abdul Rashid Dostum are among those who should face trial before a special court for alleged war crimes.
In a report last year, Human Rights Watch also listed Energy Minister Ismail Khan, Karzai's security adviser Mohammad Qasim Fahim, lawmaker Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani as among the "worst perpetrators."
Still, the amnesty law has its supporters. In February, more than 20,000 Afghans attended a rally at a Kabul stadium that was organized by parliamentary sponsors of the legislation. Sayyaf was among the speakers at that rally.
"The aim of this gathering is to support the decision of the parliament, and to gather people together for the unity, solidarity, and support for peace and stability, and to honor the mujahedin and martyrs," Sayyaf said. "That is why we have organized this gathering."
Some Afghans interviewed by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan agree with lawmakers who say the amnesty is the best way to advance the process of national reconciliation and prevent the country from slipping back into civil war. Among them is Hafizullah, a medical doctor who lives in Kabul.
"All citizens know that national reconciliation will benefit this country," he said. "It is also clear that the entire nation welcomes this pardon as part of reconciliation."
But Sayid Zainabidin, a resident of Maimana in northwestern Afghanistan, says he thinks the amnesty law would not be approved by Afghan voters it were subject to a referendum.
"I think the best way [to settle] the issue of the reconciliation law is to seek the viewpoint of the people," he said. "And that means conducting a public referendum."
Victims Protest Angrily
Meanwhile, at a prison in Afghanistan's western city of Herat, detainees have started a hunger strike to protest the amnesty.
Ghulam Nabi Hakak, head of the Herat office of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission, met with the striking prisoners this week to discuss their demands.
"When we first learned about their protest, we went to the prison," he said. "The prisoners submitted their demands, saying the parliament has pardoned people who have committed crimes but taken no action in their cases."
Hakak says the hunger-striking prisoners are poor Afghans who did not have the chance of a fair trial or even access to an attorney when they were convicted.
Hakak says one prisoner in Herat has sewn his lips together as a protest against the amnesty law.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)
Amnesty Bill Places Karzai In Dilemma
The explosive debate over the bill could lead to a constitutional confrontation.
Tens of thousands of Afghans rallied at a Kabul stadium today to show support for the measure -- many of them carrying placards of prominent warlords and former mujahedin -- indicating the highly charged nature of the topic.
The Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders) passed the controversial "National Stability And Reconciliation" resolution by a 50-16 majority on February 20. That vote came three weeks after the lower house -- the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) -- approved it on January 31, sparking calls at home and abroad for Afghan President Hamid Karzai to reject it.
What It Says
The 12-point resolution contains four primary clauses dealing with the amnesty issue.
First, it calls on all "opponents who fought each other for different reasons in the last 2 1/2 decades" to forgive each other and consider the Karzai-backed national-reconciliation process. Such "opponents" technically include communists, mujahedin, and the Taliban antagonists and their allies. They are then offered immunity from any "legal or judicial" proceedings. Also, those involved in the jihad or resistance to protect Afghanistan's religion or territorial integrity are to be lauded by Afghanistan's "history and people." The draft law goes on to prescribe that such people "should not be subjected to any criticism."
Second, the resolution rejects reporting by the New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW). HRW has recommended that Afghan authorities hold accountable a number communist and mujahedin figures accused of major human rights abuses since 1979. The draft calls HRW reports "inaccurate" and based "on malicious intentions."
Third, the resolution invites "all parties that are against the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan" -- without exception -- to join the national-reconciliation process by abiding by constitutional and other laws. If they did that, all "opposition parties and armed groups" would be granted the blanket amnesty.
Fourth, the resolution appears to attempt to circumvent Afghanistan's international obligations. It says that following the establishment of the Afghan National Assembly in 2005, "all laws and international principles should be compared with constitutional and other" Afghan legislation to avoid local norms being superseded by Afghanistan's international obligations. Those obligations include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The clause also stipulates that laws approved by the National Assembly should be respected by the government of Afghanistan -- perhaps a subtle hint to Karzai not to oppose the current bill.
Shielded From Criticism
The sweeping resolution not only grants blanket amnesty from prosecution -- or even criticism -- to all parties and individuals involved in gross human rights violations; it also extends a similar reprieve to the current groups who are terrorizing parts of Afghanistan.
Karzai faces a thorny dilemma over the resolution. On the face of it, he must approve it -- thus making it part of his country's laws -- or reject it -- inviting opposition from powerful elements within and outside his own government.
The Afghan Constitution (Article 94) says a bill becomes law after approval by both houses of the National Assembly and endorsement by the president "unless the Constitution states otherwise." If the president rejects a bill approved by the National Assembly, he "can send the document back with justifiable reasons to the Wolesi Jirga" within 15 days. The lower house (Wolesi Jirga) can override presidential objections with a two-thirds majority vote. But if the president takes no action on a bill for 15 days, the document becomes law.
The New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice noted in a press release on February 3 that Karzai has endorsed the recommendations of a 2004 report by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission that urged the prosecution and removal of "war criminals from positions of power."
HRW, whose work is attacked in the new resolution, said in a brief on December 12 that the Karzai administration signed on to a 2005 "Action Plan On Peace, Reconciliation, And Justice." The group added that the plan pledged five "key actions" to implement and complete a transitional justice process by 2009. They include publicly commemorating public suffering during the three decades of war, vetting the civil service to exclude serious human rights abusers, documenting past events to establish accountability, promoting reconciliation and national unity, and establishing a mechanism for justice and accountability.
After the Wolesi Jirga approved the amnesty bill, presidential spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi told reporters on February 6 that Karzai had sent the document to legal experts for review. Rahimi did not say how Karzai planned to act on the bill, but he said that Afghan and Islamic law dictate that no one has the right or authority to forgive a criminal, apart from the victim or others harmed by the crime. Rahimi went on to "assure [the public] that the president will not take any action against the constitution."
He added that the "government will never surrender to pressure in implementation of the constitution," Pajhwak News Agency reported.
Karzai now has less than two weeks to influence the fate of a resolution that appears to run counter to the wishes of the Afghan public and the country's international obligations.
Karzai can choose to reject the bill based on constitutional grounds -- which his experts can arguably find in Article 7 and in Article 6, which obliges the state to create a society "based on social justice, protection of human dignity, [and the] protection of human rights." HRW Asia researcher Sam Zarifi has noted that international law prohibits the extension of national amnesties to genocide or war crimes.
Basing a rejection argument on Afghan law, experts could conceivably turn to Islamic jurisprudence -- under which neither the state nor its organs has the right to forgive the perpetrator of a crime like murder.
Karzai's rejection of the bill would surely alienate some in his immediate circle, including powerful members of both houses of the National Assembly. And in the end, the Wolesi Jirga might muster enough votes to overturn his veto, further eroding the president's public standing.
Former warring parties have tried to flex their muscles -- including through today's rally by tens of thousands of supporters of the controversial bill.
The "amnesty" bill and the ensuing presidential quandary are ultimately a result of expediency measures -- endorsed by Karzai himself -- that allowed individuals accused of gross rights violations to escape accountability and even assume positions of power.
The bill is based on just one of the five key points of the Action Plan that Karzai's administration endorsed -- namely the "promotion of reconciliation and national unity."
Karzai might do well to remind the resolution's backers of the other four key points of that plan -- and fulfill his 2005 pledge to implement them.
Some would argue that as the head of a Muslim state, Karzai's first responsibility is to uphold justice. That suggests that the temporary loss of support among a few powerful individuals might be outweighed by the gains of defending the rights of victims of past violence and the broader public.
Karzai must be wondering whether such an approach could turn the amnesty dilemma into a presidential panacea.
NATO Killing Of Civilians Stirs Controversy
Officials of coalition forces in Afghanistan say that militants often make their attacks against international forces in populated areas, therefore ensuring civilian casualties in firefights.
A large protest was held today in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where hundreds of students took to the streets chanting anti-U.S. slogans.
In Washington, White House spokesman Tony Snow sought to explain the difficulty of avoiding civilian casualties when Taliban insurgents deliberately stage their attacks in populated areas in order to cause the deaths of noncombatants.
"In a time of war you can never fully -- if somebody tries to hold innocent civilians, put them in harm's way -- it's very difficult to at all times avoid unfortunate circumstances," he said.
Snow went on to firmly reject any notion that the behavior of U.S. troops can be compared with those of the Taliban.
"Any attempt to draw a moral comparison between terrorists who kill innocents as a matter of policy and the United States, which is trying to save innocents as a matter of policy, is utterly unwarranted," he said. "There is no moral parallel between the two."
Greater Care Urged
But rights groups and analysts say the United States and other NATO forces must try harder to avoid civilian casualties if they want to keep the Afghan population on their side.
Brad Adams, spokesman of the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), says coalition forces do not have "carte blanche" to respond to insurgent attacks with indiscriminate fire.
The first incident to arouse public anger came on March 4, when insurgents attacked a convoy of U.S. Marines with a bomb and gunfire as it was passing through a populated area in the Batikot district near Jalalabad. The troops replied with defensive fire but, according to witnessesat the scene, kept firing after the insurgents had fled. By official count, 10 civilians died.
In Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued a statement calling for a full enquiry into the incident. Karzai's credibility is at stake in such events. Hundreds of demonstrators who staged a protest in Jalalabad later the same day chanted slogans calling for Karzai's death.
The HRW's Adams also expressed concern that the U.S. military apparently attempted "to control information" at the scene of the Jalalabad ambush.
AP reported that troops took cameras from a photojournalist and two television camera operators and deleted images. The Paris-based media freedom group Reporters Without Borders has condemned that alleged action.
The second incident came March 5, when NATO aircraft bombed a house in Kapisa Province, north of Kabul. Afghan officials said nine family members and three insurgents were killed. The raid came after insurgents fired a rocket from the area at the nearby U.S. military air base at Bagram. The U.S. military said the insurgents were using civilians as human shields.
A student protester named Habibullah today spoke with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, saying foreign troops had often been wrong.
"This protest is about [the NATO-led] ISAF's attack on innocent people in the Batikot district [in Nangarhar Province] on [March 4] and also in Kapisa Province," he said. "Foreign troops in Afghanistan have done a lot more against Afghanistan's customs, traditions, and culture, especially the incident in Batikot is a very big mistake and atrocity against innocent people. They killed innocent people."
Afghans say the U.S.-led coalition should concentrate on helping rebuild the country, as was originally foreseen when the troops arrived, but which has proven difficult because of the poor security situation.
UN Monitor Cites 'Rapid Deterioration' As Drugs Spread
The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) concludes in its annual report that iIlicit opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached record levels in 2006.
It adds that, apart from exporting narcotic substances, Afghans are themselves falling victim to drug dependency.
The INCB also says a full one-third of the Afghan economy is based on the production of narcotics, and that this is contributing inexorably to the corruption gripping the country.
Message For Kabul
The Vienna-based board says it is "seriously concerned" at the deterioration in drugs control. It also calls on the government of President Hamid Karzai to urgently address this problem with the help of the international community, particularly donor countries.
The report says that the production of opium, the raw ingredient of heroin, has grown by almost half in the past year.
"Illicit opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has reached record levels -- the highest level in history in 2006 -- and this is a main concern of the board," INCB spokeswoman Liqin Zhu tells RFE/RL.
The opium crop is estimated at a massive 6,100 tons, making Afghanistan by far the largest producer of opium in the world.
Afghanistan is more than just the source of much of the heroin flooding into North America and Europe. It is itself falling victim to drug consumption. The board says a nationwide survey of drug abuse in Afghanistan in early 2006 revealed that the country has 1 million drug users -- 60,000 of whom are children under the age of 15.
Meanwhile, the use of other illicit or controlled substances in Afghanistan is growing. The INCB cites in particular the synthetic substance acetic anhydride. It says the absence of proper drug-control regulations means that, for instance, shops are selling such substances over the counter.
Growing Regional Problem
And not only Afghanistan is suffering. The neighbor countries of the Middle East and Central Asia are being drawn into the web of addiction.
"More than half of the world's heroin abusers live in Asia, and the highest level of opiate abuse occurs along the main trafficking routes originating in Afghanistan," spokeswoman Zhu says. "Therefore the situation in Afghanistan definitely has a great impact on the neighboring countries."
Iran, for instance, is estimated to have 1.2 million opiate abusers, while Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are also hard hit. There are around 50,000 drug addicts in Kyrgyzstan -- 12 percent of whom are under 18-years old, according to figures cited in Bishkek today by Timur Isakov, an adviser to the director of Kyrgyzstan's Drug Control Agency.
James Callahan, who is based in Tashkent for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), tells RFE/RL's Turkmen Service that the northern route through Central Asia from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe probably accounts for at least 20 percent of the drugs that are trafficked out of Afghanistan.
"The impact of that in Central Asia is that there has been a significant increase in drug abuse, particularly of heroin," Callahan says. "And along with the drug abuse comes HIV/AIDS because of sharing of needles and other unsterile equipment by injecting drug users."
He says that additionally -- because of the large amounts of money available in drug trafficking -- public officials are tempted to take money from drug traffickers in order not to prosecute them.
Callahan urges all the governments in the region to cooperate with one another to combat the drug-trafficking problem because the drug traffickers themselves don't pay any attention to borders.
Taliban Attacks Signal Start Of Spring Offensive
NATO officials say the Taliban has concentrated forces in at least five southern and western provinces of Afghanistan -- Helmand, Kandahar, Farah, Uruzgan, and Ghor.
NATO spokesman Colonel Tom Collins says militants in those areas are preparing to carry out attacks in those provinces as part of an "expected spring offensive."
Offensive Under Way?
But Taliban commanders say they began their spring offensive on February 2 when militants seized the town of Musa Qala in Helmand Province.
Militants continue to control Musa Qala, which is about 25 kilometers from a key reconstruction project in southern Afghanistan, the Kajaki hydroelectric dam.
Meanwhile, correspondents at Kajaki report that several hundred British Royal Marines have been fighting on a daily basis to keep the Taliban far enough from the dam so that reconstruction work can continue.
Security analysts say operations near the dam are likely to be the major focus of fighting throughout the spring.
Meanwhile, in the western Farah Province, several hundred Taliban fighters seized the remote district of Bakwa on February 19. It was the second time this month that the Afghan government has lost control of a district.
Within 24 hours, however, the Taliban vacated Bakwa, the district's administrative center. That allowed 200 Afghan troops to be deployed in the town unopposed the next day. But scores of Taliban fighters are thought to have spread out across the remote district.
Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Islamic militants and author of the book "Taliban," tells RFE/RL that simultaneous mass attacks by the Taliban could pose a serious threat to NATO forces in the months ahead.
"The Taliban last year fought positional warfare, trying to hold ground and hold territory in three provinces: Oruzgan, Helmand, and Kandahar," he said. "The danger this year is that they may try and launch heavy guerrilla attacks -- with perhaps 200 men at a time -- not just in three provinces but perhaps in six or seven provinces. Even in western Afghanistan. If they do that, NATO is going to be very stretched. That restricts NATO's ability to counter a widespread Taliban offensive."
As fighting raged in the provinces of Helmand and Farah this week, the Taliban simultaneously launched a series of smaller attacks in other parts of the country.
On February 19, in the eastern Kunar Province, U.S. troops engaged Taliban fighters near the border with Pakistan in a clash that killed one U.S. soldier.
Using Guerrilla Tactics
Also on February 19, militants in the southern part of Oruzgan Province ambushed Afghan and NATO forces as they tried to dismantle a roadside bomb.
Then, on February 20, a Taliban suicide bomber disguised as a doctor injured seven U.S. soldiers when he blew himself up at a hospital in the southeastern Khost Province.
Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, says the Taliban's guerrilla tactics can give them an advantage when they carry out small isolated attacks.
"The insurgents in Afghanistan, they are able to pick the time and place of their attacks," Kemp said. "And that is always going to give them an advantage. The NATO forces are going to be dispersed throughout the country. And they are going to be hard pushed to protect a number of high priority installations."
Kemp says the main goal of the Taliban offensive is to undermine the confidence of ordinary Afghans in NATO-led and Afghan government security forces.
Thousands Of Insurgents
"What the Taliban is trying to achieve by this series of attacks -- as widespread as possible -- is to divert NATO efforts across the country," he said. "The Taliban knows that NATO cannot spread its troops throughout the country. And they are hoping to undermine confidence among the Afghan population -- both in NATO and in the ability of the Afghan security forces -- the police and the Afghan National Army."
But Kemp say Taliban fighters make a fatal error when they mass together in large numbers to hold a town or strategic territory.
"Often the pattern we see is that the Taliban launch an attack and then are able to say that they've retaken a town," he said. "But often the Taliban then fade away within a day or two before NATO has had an opportunity to counterattack. The NATO commanders on the ground actually prefer it if the Taliban take a village and stand and fight -- because NATO is able to deploy air power, to deploy artillery. It's able to deploy well-trained infantry. Certainly, what is more difficult, is when the Taliban stage an operation and then disperse."
Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah told Al-Jazeera television on February 22 that 6,000 Taliban fighters are now deployed across Afghanistan and are ready to carry out more guerrilla and suicide attacks.
Last year, Taliban-led militants carried out about 140 suicide attacks in a wave of violence that made 2006 the bloodiest year of fighting in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.