Afghanistan: Journalists Face Increasing Government Pressure
International media rights groups such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists in Brussels condemned the arrests of the Afghan journalists and demanded their release.
The Afghan National Security Directorate (NSD) did not say why radio journalist Kamran Mir Hazar -- who was released on bail on July 8 -- was arrested in the first place.
The security service continues to hold Asif Nang -- the editor in chief of the government publication "Peace Jirga" -- who was arrested on June 30.
No reasons have been given by the NSD for either reporter's arrest.
Mir Hazar is also chief editor of the political blog kabulpress.org, and his detention has been linked to articles published on his blog website.
Some of the articles criticize Afghan officials and accuse others of espionage.
After negotiation with security officials, Afghanistan's National Journalists Union was able to get Mir Hazar release on bail.
Criticism Not Taken Well
Union head Sayeed Agha Fazil Sanjaraki said he cannot confirm the alleged link between Mir Hazar's articles and his arrest. However, Sanjaraki says that Afghan officials do not usually tolerate journalists who criticize the government.
"Criticizing the Afghan government brings strong retaliation," he said. "The government does not tolerate criticism and it expects the media to exaggerate the government's achievements instead of disclosing the government's internal problems, its corruption and ineffectiveness, and criticizing its inabilities."
It seems that the alleged pressure from authorities is not the only problem Afghan journalists have been facing in recent months.
Sanjaraki says reporters face growing pressure and security threats as the security situation worsens in Afghanistan amid increased attacks from the Taliban-led insurgency.
He says that journalists -- wary of possible retaliation for an unfavorable news report -- are forced to censor themselves in trying to avoid criticizing powerful politicians, drug dealers, or warlords. Additionally, religion, family, and tribal traditions still remain taboo subjects for Afghan journalists and hardly anyone would dare challenge the words or actions of religious leaders.
Female Journalists Killed
Afghanistan's female journalists face additional pressure from their families and because of the practices in the country's conservative society.
Two women reporters -- Zakiya Zaki, the head of Radio Peace in Parvan Province, and Shakiba Amaj, a Shamshad TV reporter in Kabul -- have been killed this year for practicing their profession.
Manizha Bakhtari is the editor in chief of the magazine "Parniyan," based in Kabul. Bakhtari says security threats and self-censorship have become a "harsh reality of the day" for her colleagues.
"My colleagues face such problems every day and they face threats," she said. "So many times they [could] have criticized someone or disclosed a government secret or, sometimes, they got caught up in conflicts between the government and its opponents. [In such cases our journalists] were forced into self-censorship and had to remain silent. They were threatened."
Expert Questions Election Validity In Conflict AreasJuly 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Jarrett Blanc is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow and a visiting scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, where he is researching elections conducted amid civil conflict. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with him about the challenges of conducting elections in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Iraq or in postconflict environments like Kosovo.
RFE/RL: Is it possible to have free and fair elections in conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan?
Jarrett Blanc: No. The idea is almost necessarily paradoxical for a few reasons. One is that elections are necessarily dependent on the rule of law. They are legal institutions. And so, where the law does not exist or the law is not enforceable, then elections are quite limited in what they can achieve. And from a security perspective, you have to expect that if a government is unable to protect its citizens on the average day, it is going to be unable to protect its citizens on the especially tense election day.
RFE/RL: If it's not possible to have free and fair elections in conflict zones, this suggests that the very nature of the election would be empowering one or another faction that is involved in the conflict. So does this mean that elections in conflict zones contribute more to the conflict than to conflict resolution?
Blanc: I'm not sure that it necessarily contributes more to conflict as opposed to conflict resolution. I think, though, that your question is leading in exactly the right direction -- which is that you have to think about the election within the broader context of the conflict and not imagine that you can recreate the political dynamics of a country simply because you're going to have an election. The people who are armed -- who are fighting the war -- are still going to be there. And if you haven't strategized about how the election is going to either contribute to terminating or contribute to worsening the conflict, you're probably not going to have a particularly good strategic outcome.
RFE/RL: Let's take a step back and look at sources of insecurity in elections within conflict areas. Perhaps we can divide them into three different categories. There are ongoing conflicts -- that is, combat situations. There are postconflict situations. And then there is insecurity that comes from the failure of the rule of law. How does each of these different sources of insecurity hamper the goal of fostering democracy through the ballot box?
Blanc: If we start with your first category of ongoing conflict, we need to remember that civil war and elections are essentially political activities with the same aim -- which is control of state power. And so, the way that an ongoing conflict hampers the objective of an election in a broad sense is that it is trying to achieve the same thing. The armed combatants are trying to take control of state power. And chances are they are not going to respect the results of the election. They are going to respect the results of the conflict.
RFE/RL: Would you define Afghanistan as an ongoing conflict or as a postconflict situation? How does that threaten future elections and the establishment of democracy there?
Blanc: Afghanistan is complicated partially because the different regions of the country are so different. But I would say that altogether it is still a conflictive situation. I think that in terms of the number of battle deaths per year, it meets most academic definitions of a civil war. And there hasn't been a recognized termination of the war. In other words, the majority of the combatants have not agreed to end the war on certain terms. And so I think that, for that reason, it is probably still a conflict situation or an ongoing civil war.
RFE/RL: In the case of Iraq, there have been elections which were hailed as a success because of a large voter turnout. But in the aftermath of those elections, there hasn't been any breakthrough on power sharing. What are your thoughts about the possibility of those elected officials in Iraq coming together on some kind of a power sharing agreement?
Blanc: It's possible but I don't think it is particularly likely. I think that if you look at the dynamics of the civil war in Iraq, the bad news is that, comparing it to other similar conflicts, the chances are that we are going to see a civil war that escalates -- gets worse and probably increases its regional component -- before you see the level of exhaustion that would be necessary to come to a negotiated solution. In theory, could the elected members of the [Iraqi] parliament, representing their communities [and] representing the armed factions to which they are close, come to some kind of an agreement and then hope that the armed factions will abide by and enforce that agreement? It is possible. But I don't think it is particularly likely.
RFE/RL: What criticisms do you have about the U.S. approach to democratic transition in Iraq?
Blanc: The U.S. strategy of benchmarks is misguided. And it is misguided because the benchmarks describe a political settlement that seems just and equitable to us. But we don't have direct contact with virtually any of the combatant forces in Iraq. We don't talk to Ayatollah al-Sistani. We don't talk to the military leaders of Sadr's armies. We don't even know who the Sunni military leaders are, let alone talk directly to them. The idea that a solution that seems equitable to us necessarily addresses the red lines of the combatants, I think, is very naive.
RFE/RL: How does the security situation on the ground in a postconflict environment like Kosovo impact the goal of establishing democracy?
Blanc: It really varies a great deal on what was the conflict and how was the conflict ended. For example, in Kosovo, where the conflict ended with both a fairly general agreement and with an overwhelming international peacekeeping force, you are able to conduct reasonably good elections where the outcome of the election is not necessarily determined by the military strength of the combatants. Where the postconflict situation, or the postconflict settlement, is more tenuous -- and I'm thinking here, perhaps, of Lebanon -- then the best you could hope for is probably some kind of power-sharing arrangement that is sealed by the election as opposed to a genuine expression of popular sovereignty.
RFE/RL: How does the failure of the rule of law impact democratic transformation in countries that are recovering from recent conflicts? And what impact can the election laws themselves have?
Blanc: In a way, we're mixing two problems. One is the failure of the rule of law from a perspective of election security -- and whether elections can be genuine expressions of popular sovereignty. There are instances here -- for example, a number of instances in Africa, in Nigeria, in South America, in Guyana -- where the state simply doesn't have good control over the security situation. And so, party-based violence or election-based violence can end up corrupting the result of the election. That's one set of problems. Another set of problems are the specifics of an election law and whether an election law is designed in order to produce a genuinely representative result.
RFE/RL: If we look at Afghanistan in this same way, the language of the electoral laws -- particularly with the parliamentary elections -- what we see happening in the Afghan parliament is that some members of parliament who are alleged to be war criminals have been declaring amnesty for themselves. There is a lot of frustration among ordinary Afghans about the idea that people who should be put on trial for war crimes are now lawmakers who are giving themselves immunity from prosecution. There also are questions about tribal voting blocs in Afghanistan that support strongmen of their ethnicity, or even from different clans within ethnic groups. What are the lessons that Afghanistan and the international community can learn from the way the Afghan elections have been conducted?
Blanc: You've identified a couple of very interesting problems with the Afghan process. Some of them probably could not have been addressed. And some of them could have been addressed a little better than they were. The one that I think could not have been addressed is this issue of the failure to disqualify people who are warlords or have committed war crimes. The international community and the government of Afghanistan simply do not have the kind of security control, military control of the territory, that would make those kinds of disqualifications possible. We could do that in Bosnia[-Herzegovina]. We could do that in Kosovo because there was an overwhelming international military force to enforce the decision and make sure that protests didn't get out of hand. If you tried to disqualify these actors in Afghanistan, you simply would have thrown the entire political process off track. So if you want to have that kind of control -- if you want to be able to completely reshape who are the leaders of the country -- you need to invest the sort of military force that makes that possible. And that is something that has never happened in Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: What problems do you see with the way Afghanistan's election laws have been written?
Blanc: The Afghans chose a fairly unusual system of representation called a "single nontransferable vote." Suffice it to say that it is not particularly widely used in the world. And one of the reasons that it is not particularly widely used is that it has a strange paradoxical effect. On the one hand, it makes party formation difficult. And on the other hand, it very strongly rewards parties that do manage to organize themselves and get a little bit better organized than their competitors. And I think that you are seeing that now in the assembly. They simply do not have the level of party discipline. Each individual member is an independent actor. That makes it very difficult to get policy through. And it makes it very difficult for the voters to hold individual representatives ideologically accountable -- have you done what the party platform said you were going to do? One very unfortunate result of the system of representation that they chose is that about 70 percent of the votes cast in the parliamentary election went to candidates who didn't win. So only 30 percent of the votes went to winning candidates. And it is not hard to understand why people might be frustrated, or feel unrepresented by a parliament that is made up of winners with only 30 percent of the popular vote.
RFE/RL: Your criticisms about Afghanistan's election laws and the way they were implemented suggest that rather than contributing to conflict resolution, Afghanistan's elections could be enhancing conflict between paramilitary factions or militia groups.
Blanc: In principle, I don't necessarily agree with the idea that simply because the leaders or people who are linked to armed groups are in the assembly, that the assembly or the election cannot contribute to some sort of pacification process. In a way, I think it is the opposite. So long as you don't have the military force to address the militia problem, it might be -- at least in some situations -- better to have people inside the tent than outside of the tent. If you don't have the leaders of the militia in the assembly, it is quite possible that the assembly just doesn't mean anything.
RFE/RL: Any final thoughts about the lessons of the elections in Iraq and what impact the democratic process can have on the future of the conflict there?
Blanc: For the people of Iraq, the only thing that we can all have is the greatest of respect at the repeated courage they have shown in going out to vote in the face of tremendous threats -- and great sympathy and regret for the fact that the elections were not, to my mind, better designed strategically to contribute to a termination of the conflict. At this point in the conflict, I'm not convinced that a political process like an election can mean very much. Probably, it is going to take a little bit of time -- either some sort of negotiated solution or, unfortunately, an exhaustion of the civil war, before we can meaningfully start talking about what elections can contribute again.
RFE/RL: What final advice would you give to Afghanistan about the way the next elections are conducted there?
Blanc: In Afghanistan, I think the situation is more ambiguous. Over time, we might see that Afghan governments -- including [those empowered as] a result of the [last] elections and the result of future elections -- might be able to slowly negotiate improved conditions and a reduction in conflict. I think you've seen that in parts of the country already. I hope that the Afghans will consider whether some of the technical decisions they made in the first set of elections should be revised before the second set. This issue that I mentioned earlier about the system of representation would be one of them.
Is Talk Of IMU Aimed At Courting Outsiders?
The announcement is the latest warning of radical Islamist activity in Central and South Asia.
In neighboring Tajikistan, authorities detained 10 suspected IMU members in late June as a trial there continued of 14 others facing similar allegations.
Tajik and Uzbek defense officials warned last week of "increasing threats posed by terrorist and extremist groups" in Central Asia.
But could the region's leaders be inflating the threat posed by extremist groups in order to portray their countries as the front line against terrorism and boost their leverage ahead of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)?
The IMU is regarded by U.S. and the members of the SCO as a terrorist group. Officials have in the past pointed to senior leadership and training ties between the IMU and Al-Qaeda.
At an SCO meeting in Bishkek on June 27, Tajik Defense Minister Sherali Khairulloev predicted that militant groups would be more active throughout Central and South Asia as the last of the current crop of opium poppies are harvested in Afghanistan.
"Al-Qaeda, Taliban, and IMU followers will intensify their activities starting from July," Khairulloev said. "As far as their impact on Fergana Valley is concerned, we are more concerned about the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. As you know, they are being financed by some foreign governments, and they have to justify their existence -- because if there is no activity, there would be no financing."
Speaking alongside his Central Asian counterparts, Khairulloev said that Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have sought to tighten their borders to intercept IMU members' movements.
Despite official warnings -- and prominent arrests and trials of suspected IMU supporters -- some observers say there is no evidence to support claims that militants are more active.
Critics accuse Central Asia's bullying governments of playing up perceived threats to justify crackdowns on dissent at home and to portray themselves as crucial to international counterterrorism efforts.
Michael Hall, head of the Central Asian project for the International Crisis Group (ICG), a nonprofit analytical and advocacy group, said authorities in the region are likely to issue more statements highlighting the IMU threat ahead of a major summit in August of the SCO.
Hall said he thinks officials want to show fellow SCO members Russia and China that they are valuable counterterrorism allies who deserve greater support.
Hall said that while there has long been some degree of threat in Central Asia, the IMU is actually weaker now than before the United States declared its "war on terror" in 2001.
"There probably are remnants of the IMU in Central Asia to this day," Hall said. "But to what extent they are linked to what is left of the IMU currently based in Pakistan -- to what extent they are connected with one another and to what extent they are capable of pulling off any major acts of terrorism -- I think it is very difficult to make any clear statement on that front. I think [that] in many cases the threat posed by the groups is certainly, to a certain extent, exaggerated."
Matthew Clements, Eurasia editor in the Country Risk Department for the U.K.-based Jane's Information Group, argued that if there is any danger of radicalism in Central Asia, it stems from authorities' pressure on religious and political freedom, as well as a lack of socioeconomic opportunity.
"I think the danger of this [situation] is that elements of this could become more radicalized -- and this is mainly due to government action [and] to the fact that these people feel that their socioeconomic well-being is being put second by the government," Clements said. "[They feel] that they are not being politically represented. And also because the populations are being cracked down upon by the governments. And these crackdowns themselves are likely to engender greater feelings of radicalism."
Hikmatulloh Saifullozoda heads the "Dialog" think tank in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, and is a prominent member of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) -- the only officially registered Islamic party in Central Asia. He said that while radical Islamic underground groups might have a limited number of followers in Central Asia, they don't enjoy much popular support. Saifullozoda questioned whether what he labels authorities' "unnecessary pressure" on religious freedom might help religious extremists win sympathy.
He also warned governments against provoking public anger by needlessly intervening on sensitive issues like conservative women's wearing of head scarves.
"If the authorities solve these social problems, and as long as they do not interfere in sensitive issues -- which could take an unexpected turn -- I think no one would support the radical groups," Saifullozoda said.
There is a general consensus among analysts that groups like the IMU currently are not capable of destabilizing the region on any grand scale. But that does not mean they could not try to launch isolated acts of terror.
Observers pointed out that democratic reforms -- fostering freedom of speech, religion, and political activities -- could reduce the risk of radical groups winning public support.
They also suggested that governments could help their own cause through efforts to raise living standards by creating jobs and battling corruption.
In poverty-stricken regions like Central and South Asia, these observers warned, social unrest can take on virtually any form. And regardless of the immediate threat they present, radical groups like the IMU have a lot of experience at harnessing public disenchantment.
Is Iran Sending Weapons to Afghanistan's Taliban?
U.S. and British officials say weapons crossing the border from Iran into Afghanistan are turning up in the hands of Taliban fighters.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said there is no evidence to confirm a direct role by the Iranian government in smuggling weapons to the Taliban. He says the Taliban could be using funds obtained from the illicit opium trade to purchase weapons from criminal groups. But Gates says Washington suspects the Iranian government is involved.
Suspicious But Unproven
"I haven't seen any intelligence specifically to this effect, but I would say, given the quantities we are seeing, it is difficult to believe that it is associated with smuggling or the drug business or that it is taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government," he said.
Imad Jad, a Mideast expert at Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan today that the Iranian government appears to be aiding militants throughout the region.
"Iran has relations with the Hamas movement and is using the issue [of Gaza] for it's own regional vision," Jad said. "And also, for leverage in negotiations with Western countries in order to try keep its nuclear program. So there is an Iranian role in Gaza, indeed. And there is also an Iranian role in Lebanon through Hizballah. There is an Iranian role in Iraq and strong cooperation between Iran and Syria. So Iran is involved in more than one country in the region."
Ahmed Rashid, a journalist from Pakistan and author of the book "Taliban," has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1979. He tells RFE/RL that he is certain that Iran is also supporting factional warlords and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
"I have no doubt that Iran has been involved in channeling money and arms to various elements in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, for the last few years," he said. "They have long-running relations with many of the commanders and small time warlords in western Afghanistan. I think Iran is playing all sides in the Afghan conflict. And there are Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns who are being funded by Iran who are active in western Afghanistan. If the Iranians are convinced that the Americans are undermining them through western Afghanistan, then it is very likely that these agents of theirs have been activated."
Rahul Bedi, a South Asia correspondent for the London-based "Jane's Defence Weekly," says he thinks Washington has good reason to suspect the Iranian government is sending weapons to the Taliban.
"There is something to be said for this," Bedi said. "There are Iranian-made weapons that are turning up both in Iraq and in Afghanistan. And I think it is a sense of deja vu, because it is duplicating what the CIA did when the Soviets were occupying Afghanistan. A lot of the weapons that were given to the mujahedin fighters to dislodge the Soviet [forces] were sourced in third or different countries because of the element of deniability. In this case, I think the Iranians have probably learned from that experience of the CIA and the mujahedin and they are trying to duplicate, more or less, a similar operation."
Earlier this month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected allegations that the Iranian government was sending weapons to Taliban fighters in an attempt to destabilize his country.
"We don't have any such evidence so far of the involvement of the Iranian government in supplying the Taliban," he said. "We have a very good relationship with the Iranian government. Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today."
NATO spokesman James Appathurai also says the alliance cannot prove the Iranian government has been directly involved in smuggling weapons to the Taliban.
"The line that you have seen from NATO remains the same, and that is that ISAF and international forces have come across weapons that seem to be of Iranian origin in Afghanistan," he said. "There is, from the point of view of NATO and ISAF, no clear intelligence linking this to the active involvement of the Iranian government."
RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharafudeen Stanikzai has documented and photographed Iranian-produced land mines and other weapons that are being used by militants in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also announced this month that a powerful and sophisticated type of roadside bomb that is prevalent in Iraq has been discovered near a university in Kabul.
Until that discovery, suicide and roadside bombs in Afghanistan had never been as deadly or sophisticated as those in Iraq.
The so-called EFPs -- or explosively-formed projectiles -- are capable of penetrating armored vehicles. And the U.S. military has accused Iran of helping Iraqi insurgents to build and deploy EFPs.
Copying Iraqi Insurgents
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan by telephone from an undisclosed location this week that Taliban fighters are, indeed, studying and copying the techniques and weaponry used by Iraqi insurgents.
"We are studying which operations are the most effective on the ground," he said. "We will focus our future operations on Kabul because our enemy is concentrated there. Our enemy [and the enemy of the Iraqi fighters] is the same and we have the same goal. That's why we want to conduct the same kind of operations as the Iraqi mujahedin. The reason is that their operations have caused a large number of casualties to the enemy. They have been successful and so we are now following exactly the same tactics and structure of operations."
In May, Turkish authorities reportedly seized a cargo of machine guns and pistols hidden among construction materials on a Syria-bound train from Iran. Turkish officials say that discovery has led them to suspect that Iran is using Turkey as a transit point to send arms to Lebanon's Hizballah movement via Syria.
For its part, the Iranian government denies it has provided military support to militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian territories. But Tehran does admit sending what it calls political, moral, and humanitarian support to Hamas and Hizballah.
But even humanitarian support to those groups has led to criticism within Tehran from ordinary Iranians who say their government should be more concerned about worsening economic conditions in Iran.