November 15, 2009

Abdullah doesn't see failure, but a new beginning

Published: 13 November 2009

NRC Handelsblad International Edition

Abdullah, a former foreign minister and presidential candidate who dropped out of the runoff vote in Afghanistan, is setting up a political party to lead the opposition against president Karzai.

By Aunohita Mojumdar in Kabul
Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai’s main challenger, had just returned from a weekend in the Panjshir valley. He went there after he withdrew from the second round of the presidential elections in Afghanistan which should have taken place last Saturday. The run-off was subsequently cancelled and Karzai was named the winner, despite the accusations of large scale fraud against his campaign team.

"Winning and losing depends on what you stand for," Abdullah told NRC Handelsblad. "It was the right decision for me to run, and against all odds. I knew what the government and the IEC [Independent Election Commission] were about. People are more hopeful now. I consider this a new beginning rather than the end of a process, for my views and goals and visions for the country.”

Abdullah didn't get much rest while he was away. Supporters have been beating a steady path to his door ever since the election and this has not diminished since the declaration of Karzai as the ‘elected’ president by the country’s IEC.

'Careers are not based on a long shot'

As Karzai struggles to meet competing and often contradictory demands from his political supporters and the international community, Abdullah is quietly laying the ground for a new political party that will function as an opposition to the Karzai government. Though administrative power in Afghanistan is centralised in the hands of the president, the opposition - mainly through parliament - can play the role of spoiler to some effect and block the government. Parliament, for which elections are planned next year, has to approve ministerial appointments and new legislation.

In his house in Kabul, Abdullah denied the the elections were a defeat for him. "I don't think so, political careers are not based on a long shot. I think this movement will continue with more vigour."

Asked about the possibility of anti-election protests turning violent or people joining the Taliban in his home province of Panjshir, Abdullah said: “I am aware of the feelings and emotions in this regard, not just in the Panjshir valley, but in different parts of the country. It is not just about the outcome; even during the campaign a lot of people saw it was not a level playing field. Then the elections. And then the fraud. And then the way the announcement was made by a body which did not have the mandate and also lost its credibility during the elections. For a lot people it sounds like unfinished business.”

Movement should develop into party

"When the final illegal decision was made, I received calls from many parts of the country. People were ready to take action. Of course I strongly rejected all those ideas. Later I heard people were prepared to make a second round impossible, if elections had gone through with just one candidate. That would have been a big setback to the democratic process. I was very clear that I didn’t ask for a boycott and I said it was for the citizens to judge it. Unfortunately we are in this situation that people cannot express their view even through non-violent, legal actions."

Abdullah himself is currently engaged in discussions with a wide variety of political leaders. His movement will “eventually” become a party, he said. "Towards the end of the election process the movement started gaining momentum and filled the vacuum which has been there for some years.”

He agreed that there are some amongst his supporters who may want to join the government for positions of power. “It is possible, but the number of people who want to join the movement will be much greater.”

He ruled out joining the current government or even advising it. Instead he will “call for reforms, for upholding rule of law. We need an independent election commission, we need an independent judiciary, we need changes so faith of the people in the process has to be restored.”

'Leadership which proved itself change-proof'

Abdullah is critical of recent charges of foreign interference by Karzai's supporters. Without naming any group or individual he called it “a dirty game which is being played here”. The international community, according to Abdullah, “did well by standing by the [electoral] process to the extent possible". However, he said, it missed the point on May 22, when Karzai's term ended officially but no interim-government was called for. Abdullah said that made it possible for Karzai's supporters to use government means for his campaign and voter fraud.

"The international community had the opportunity to stand by the people of Afghanistan. The legitimacy of the process could have been assured. Apart from that, there was very little the international community could have done. Now there is a dilemma: calls for change and a leadership which proved itself change-proof.”

“I think the international community is in a difficult position. I do understand the dilemmas, but the problem is we do not have another five years to deal with it like when M. Karzai was elected last time. In only two or three years it will be decided whether the deteriorating course will continue or be stopped and reversed.”

Interview: Abdullah Abdullah

November 12/ Al Jazeera

By Aunohita Mojumdar in Kabul

Abdullah Abdullah says the international community faced a dilemma in backing democracy and the electoral process despite fraud and discrepancies [EPA]

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and presidential candidate who quit the Afghanistan runoff vote, says he will stay out of the government but will capitalise on his increased political leverage to launch a new political party.

Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared Hamid Karzai the winner of the elections following Abdullah's withdrawal on grounds of fettered and unfair polling conditions.

Abdullah had insisted that the IEC chairman, viewed as a Karzai loyalist, be replaced as a pre-condition for his participating in the runoff.

In the following interview, Abdullah tells Al Jazeera that the international community has committed mistakes in Afghanistan but also lambastes the "dirty game" of populist anti-foreigner rhetoric.

Al Jazeera: Was the withdrawal from the runoff vote and the IES declaration of Karzai as a winner a political defeat for you?

Abdullah Abdullah: I don't think so. A political career is not a long shot, but is mainly based on what you stand for. Winning and losing depends on that. So absolutely not.

It was the right decision for me to stand [in the elections] and against all odds. Now, I consider myself on the verge of a new beginning from this stage rather than the end of the process for my own goals and vision for the country.

I think this movement of my supporters will continue with even more potential, more energy, and even more vigour toward the betterment of life for the people of Afghanistan and the country.

Will this movement become a party?

Eventually, yes; this movement did not reach its peak potential during the elections.

How do you assess the international community's role vis a vis the elections and what changes they seek in Afghanistan?

Karzai retained the presidency despite the end of his mandate in May 2009 [EPA]

There is a sort of debate ... and one has to be careful about it and assess whether it is a genuine debate or playing games.

One such example of playing games is the practise of putting all the blame on the international community for what happened in the elections.

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) stood by the process. I think it was created for that purpose – the purpose of having an independent body looking into the complaints and then to give it another stamp of approval.

But then saying 'oh it was foreigners, foreigners, foreigners', this is part of that dirty game that is being played here in Afghanistan. I think the international community did well by standing by the democratic process to the extent that it was possible.

However, I think they missed the point on May 22 (when Karzai's term ended according to the constitution, thereby leading to calls for an interim government to be put into place until the elections). That was an opportunity to uphold the Constitution of Afghanistan and the rule of law.

The international community had the chance, the opportunity to stand by the call from the people of Afghanistan and to take the risk of supporting an interim arrangement.

Things would have been over by now and the legitimacy of the process could have been ensured. This would have been the right foundation for the future of the country. That was an opportunity missed.

What could the international community have done?

I think there was very little the international community could have done apart from what they did. Now there is a dilemma. They have called for change from the same system and the same leadership which has proved itself in the past to actually be change-proof.

That's the sticking point. On the other hand, they have to deal with the situation, the status quo, and give it legitimacy by recognising the electoral process and the election outcome.

Furthermore, the international community faces calls from their own public opinion for change in Afghanistan and the merit of their engagement in the country.

I think the international community is in a difficult position. I do understand these dilemmas. The problem is we do not have another five years like we had when Mr Karzai was elected the last time.

In the next two to three years events will decide the future of Afghanistan - whether the deteriorating course will continue or it will be halted, reversed and back on track toward development and democracy.

The friends of Afghanistan should be pressing for those reforms but the voice from the international community should not be the only voice. It has to be Afghans in the lead in this because we know that again those dirty games could be played, such as the populist slogans pitting foreigners versus Afghans and Afghans versus foreigners.

The unfortunate reality of today is that in the past eight years we have not built enough strength in the system to the point where we can survive without foreign support. To make it look as if the Afghans are more unworthy of support is not of service to this country.

But unfortunately we see these sorts of games being played. It is a challenging time for everybody.

Barack Obama, the US president, is mulling a new strategy for Afghanistan, one which would require more US troops to be deployed, especially to population centres.

More troops are needed based on every military assessment in this country. But is this the cure for all the problems that we have in this country? The main part of the answer will depend on the Afghan partner.

Key questions that should be addressed include how legitimate the government is in the eyes of the people, how legitimate its actions are. Can it deliver to the people, and change the political environment for the better? These are the things which will have an impact on the success of any military strategy.

What of talk about reconciliation with the Taliban?

As long as we know what we are talking about. If such reconciliation efforts reach out to the people of Afghanistan and work to isolate those who want to fight and bring the state down at any cost, by any cost and with any cost - well, such efforts are fine.

However, if tomorrow there is a situation whereupon we call on the Quetta Shura [alleged seat of Taliban leadership in Pakistan, just south of the border with Afghanistan] and say 'why not make peace, lets do it' - well, that's a bit illusionary.

It is too simplistic to expect that those who are working with al-Qaeda to turn in their arms and come and work as carpenters or for vocational training.


Eurasia Insight:

Aunohita Mojumdar: November 2, 2009

In Afghanistan, the loser of the presidential election may end up the winner, and the victor may be the one who reflects on the result as a severe political setback.

The election end-game began November 1, when the challenger, Abdullah Abdullah bowed out of a run-off scheduled for November 7. On November 2, Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission formally declared incumbent Hamid Karzai as the election winner. The ruling brought to a close two-plus months of political turmoil stoked by widespread vote-rigging that marred the first round of the presidential election on August 20. The tainted voting weakened the Afghan government, as well as undermined the democratization process, at a time when Kabul and the international community are confronting an increasingly confident insurgency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The key to Afghanistan's stabilization prospects may well be whether Karzai can restore his administration's legitimacy. But it is Abdullah who stands to play the most crucial role in restoring the population's trust in its government, some experts believe. "Today the whole process and its legitimacy depend on him [Abdullah]," said Haroun Mir, the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS).

Speaking with EurasiaNet minutes after Abdullah's withdrawal announcement on November 1, Abdullah-supporter Wali Masood, the brother of the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Masood, appeared buoyant. "We are a force to be reckoned with for any government in this country," he asserted. "They [members of the Karzai administration] cannot continue without taking us into consideration."

Heading into the August 20 election, Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, stood virtually no chance of winning the election -- whether outright in the first round, or in a run-off -- because of his inability to muster a united opposition. Given his previous political roles, most notably as Karzai's foreign minister until 2006, Abdullah lacked a strong and cohesive political base to support his candidacy. Even the ethnic-Tajik opposition failed to unite around him. A key Northern Alliance ally, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, campaigned for Karzai. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Nevertheless, Abdullah emerged as the man of the moment. His skillful campaigning caused his popularity to surge, said Mir. "He had lost touch with the ordinary people as foreign minister. Now he has emerged as a national leader," the political analyst said.

Ironically, Abdullah's prestige is now probably higher following the first-round vote-rigging scandal than it would have been had August 20 balloting been deemed largely free and fair.

As allegations of fraud came to light after the voting, Abdullah pushed hard for a second round. His persistence helped keep the pressure on the international community to investigate fraud claims. Most analysts agree that Abdullah's stance was designed primarily to gain greater political leverage, which, from the start, he wanted to use to force Karzai into making political concessions. His decision to withdraw from the race before the run-off thus was consistent with his overall political game plan.

John Dempsey, head of the United States Institute of Peace office in Kabul reckons Abdullah never anticipated the process would go this far. "He did not expect to become the president, and I doubt if he wants to be the president. He is using his candidacy to secure some concessions from the government and to boost his name," Dempsey contended.

Some observers believe Abdullah now has enough influence to promote a rebalancing of power, shifting authority to the legislative branch and to the regions. Or he could use his influence to place political allies in positions of authority as cabinet ministers or governors, as well as gain more say in how billions of dollars in foreign assistance are allocated.

"He is realistic," says Dempsey. Abdullah "realizes he has more bargaining power now than he may ever have. This is the best time for him to make a deal."

If he does not use it effectively, Abdullah's influence could dissipate as quickly as it has surged. Much of his ability to shape this leverage will depend on the international pressure on Karzai. The international community is clearly tired of Afghanistan's electoral process, yet the United States and European Union still want the government to be viewed as legitimate. Whether Abdullah can force Karzai to share power and to what extent depends largely on the international stamina.

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.


Eurasia Insight:
October 26, 2009

Although Afghanistan's key political players have acknowledged the need for a second round of presidential voting, a crisis of legitimacy continues to grip the electoral process, with the Independent Election Commission (IEC) disregarding some decisions issued by the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC).

The ECC is the ultimate authority on electoral irregularities, while the IEC is a government-appointed body responsible for the holding of elections and, most importantly, the counting of the ballots cast. Three out of five ECC members are appointed by the United Nations, while members of the IEC are appointees of incumbent President Hamid Karzai, a fact that has raised questions about the electoral body's independence.

Karzai's challenger in the looming presidential run-off, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, is highly critical of the IEC's performance so far in the election process. On October 26, Abdullah demanded that the agency's chairman, former Karzai advisor Azizullah Ludin, be removed before the November 7 run-off. "One of our conditions is the immediate removal of Ludin because he has no credibility before the people," Abdullah said in widely distributed comments.

In an interview October 25 with Fox News Sunday, Abdullah seemed to hold out the possibility that he would boycott the runoff unless substantive changes in the electoral format, the ballot-counting process in particular, were implemented. "It will be a very serious situation if we are up against the same sorts of conditions that we went through in the first round elections," Abdullah said during the interview.

Preliminary IEC election figures put Karzai over the 50-percent threshold needed to avoid a second-round of voting. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But after widespread irregularities came to light, pressure mounted on the ECC to investigate discrepancies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The ECC eventually threw out the results from enough electoral districts that Karzai's share of the vote fell beneath the 50-percent mark.

According to Democracy International, an independent international observer group, by the established ECC criterion, Karzai would have received 48.29 percent of the vote with 31.54 percent going to his closest challenger, Abdullah.

Under established guidelines, the ECC's findings should have been binding on all parties involved in the presidential election. But that has not been the case in practice. The IEC has not implemented all ECC decisions, issuing a statement on October 20 that noted "some reservations regarding the decisions of the Electoral Complaints Commission."

When the IEC issued its final vote tally on October 20, Karzai had 49.67 percent of the vote, roughly 1.5 percent higher than estimates based on ECC criteria. Ludin, the IEC chairman, has consistently refused to provide any explanation about the IEC's reservations with the ECC report. Ludin has likewise declined to explain how the IEC arrived at its final tally.

The only sure thing is that somewhere between the release of the ECC's report on irregularities and the hard political bargaining that resulted in Karzai accepting a second round of polling, the IEC came up with a different, and higher vote total for the frontrunner.

While some observers feel the change in the tally is insignificant, especially since the principle of a second round has been accepted, others suggest that the alteration damages the ECC as a mechanism for redressing complaints about electoral fraud. "This [fraud] is the real issue today, not the fact that a second round has been accepted," said a Western official closely associated with the electoral process who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The IEC's action appears to set a dangerous precedent, under which the ECC's decisions are opened up to interpretation. This could have a significant impact on the results of provincial council elections, which were held August 20 in conjunction with the presidential poll. The provincial council results are expected to be certified in the coming days, and the IEC would seem to have carved out for itself arbitrary authority to determine some close and disputed races.

Finding itself embroiled in an intense political controversy, the ECC has stepped back from the public arena. It now eschews regular press briefings and, instead, has taken to issuing opaque statements. In a bid to assert its authority, the ECC issued a statement on October 22 (two days after the final results were announced), emphasizing that the IEC was obliged to implement the ECC decisions before certifying the final results.

"Under the electoral law, the decisions of the ECC are final and binding. Once the IEC has complied with all the terms of its decisions it may proceed with the certification of the results," the ECC said. The IEC has not responded to the ECC statement.

The ECC has not attempted to publicize the IEC's failure to follow procedure. But several ECC officials working remain irate over the IEC's willful disregard of the law. Speaking to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity, ECC officials expressed anger with the international community for not calling the IEC on its transgression. ECC decisions need to be implemented, they explain, to strengthen the commitment of Afghans to the rule of law.

For the moment, however, political expediency appears to be taking precedence over principle. In its eagerness to ensure a second-round of voting, the international community seems to be willing to ignore the fact that the rule of law is being flouted.

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.

For whom the Afghan poll tolls

Asia Times, October 21, 2009

By Aunohita Mojumdar

KABUL - Whatever the August 2009 elections in Afghanistan were to begin with, they have, in the weeks since the polling day, turned into a completely different beast.

Based initially on the premise that Afghans needed to have a voice and say in political participation, the fraud, allegations, counter-allegations, poor management and even poorer leadership have now brought the entire exercise to a state where the only way to validate the elections is to ignore the elections altogether and revert to some pre-electoral system of power-sharing.

On Monday, after weeks of investigation, the United Nations' Electoral Complaints Commission said that many of President

Hamid Karzai's votes would have to be declared invalid as a result of fraud. This would most likely bring the total number of his votes below the 50% mark, which he needs to avoid a run-off against the second-placed candidate, Abdullah Abdullah. Latest reports indicate Karzai is ready to accept that he fell short of the votes needed to win an outright victory, which would set the stage for a possible power-sharing deal with Abdullah.

Initially, the elections were seen as a means of validating a fast unraveling compact on Afghanistan. The elections were a necessary component for the international community which needed a signpost of progress in the midst of a rapidly deteriorating security situation and bad governance, a symbol that would justify "project Afghanistan" to the increasingly critical domestic opinion.

At the outset, therefore, the elections were treated by the international community as a component of the "war against terror" and the Taliban-led insurgency. Just the exercise of voting was treated as an end in itself, with Afghans feted for having come out to vote against the insurgents.

In the event, the ballot was neither for nor against the insurgents, but rather a victory for the efforts of Afghans to exercise their rights to choose elected representatives, something that was almost ignored in the hurried efforts to claim victory over the Taliban.

This rush proved counter-productive. Clear evidence of widespread fraud began to emerge even in the hours after polling, giving rise to the appearance that the internationals had endorsed a flawed election. It took several days for the international community to drop its stance that it was for Afghans to determine the credibility of the elections.

While a section of the international community tried to regain its credibility by going to the other extreme and declaring immense fraud had taken place, another section, which had little appetite for a second round of polling, tried to push for a limited procedure to deal with complaints.

The message was that while Afghans could aspire to polling, the logical continuum, whether of thorough investigations or re-polling or a run-off, was far too much of a luxury and one to which a conflict-ridden country should not aspire, even if it were constitutionally mandated.

It became clear very quickly that the international community had made no preparation for dealing with the anticipated fraud, having failed to coordinate even their public responses within their respective organizations, let alone their approaches. The result was an unprecedented public display of disarray, compounded by exhibitions of bad behavior, large egos and hubris.

It would be easy to dismiss the clash as one of personalities, except for the fact that the spectacle, displayed most evidently in the fallout between the United Nations' top man in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and his deputy, Peter Galbraith, was allowed to carry on for several weeks unchecked.

While the UN acted relatively quickly for a massively bureaucratic organization, by first removing Galbraith from Afghanistan and then dismissing him, the United States appeared paralyzed, refusing to rein in Galbraith until well after the damage was done. European nations appeared to be mute spectators, apparently either unwilling or unable to exercise their influence to stem this hemorrhage.

There is speculation that the entire performance was well-choreographed from the beginning, to force an electoral outcome that would necessitate a second round of polling, thus weakening Karzai and making him more pliable.

However, the price for this has been steep, weakening the international community's influence in general and the UN's neutrality in particular, while eroding the credibility of the electoral exercise. Moreover, the internationals have, over the past few weeks, found themselves completely outmaneuvered by brilliant tacticians within the Afghan polity who have used the unfolding events and the international community's disarray to spectacular advantage.

Karzai and his supporters have used the anti-foreigner card as a pressure tactic, completely ignoring the ground realities which do not conform to a Afghan-foreigner divide, but rather to internal divides both between Afghans and within the international community. A section of the internationals has backed the president, while another section backs Abdullah.

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has used the elections to reposition himself, thus getting enormous mileage for his anti-Taliban Northern Alliance colleagues who have been out in the cold in recent years. Though the current political system in which the winner takes all would ensure that Abdullah would gain nothing from a second round of polling - it would most likely endorse Karzai - the allegations of fraud and the reluctance of all players to go for a second round have helped provide enormous leverage to Abdullah.

He alone is now in the position of validating the credibility of the results that are declared and of forgoing the dreaded second round of polling in lieu of a share in governance.

Lost in the midst of all this politicking is the oft-mentioned Afghan voter: the same Afghan voter whose name was evoked to justify the necessity of holding elections, despite the conditions which suggested that a free and fair franchise would not be possible, and the same Afghan voter whose bravery was lauded as the raison d'etre of declaring the polls a success.

With a division of the spoils underway to paper over the seminal problems of the electoral exercise, the Afghan voter's right to a democratic exercise now seems far and away the least of considerations, leaving a number of questions unanswered: how many Afghans were excluded from voting by poor management and insecurity? What of the women voters whose votes were either cast for them or whose identities were stolen to perpetuate fraud? What of the millions of voters who did go and vote against the odds, only to find backroom deals among Afghan and international decision-makers replacing their right to choose?

While most Afghans may have expected Karzai to be reconfirmed as their president, they would probably have liked their votes to be counted accurately, just as Republican voters in the US would, despite the overwhelming landslide victory that Democrat Barack Obama received. Afghan voters might, not unsurprisingly, also want their simultaneous votes for electing provincial council members, where victory margins can be as slender as one or two votes, not to be vitiated by fraud.

The entire exercise raises the question as to why elections were held at all if there was no appetite or capacity to see the electoral exercise through to its logical conclusion by ensuring political participation, a credible complaints process, the space for a second round and mechanisms for an acceptable interim arrangement?

At a nascent juncture in efforts to build the Afghan state, where increasing violence makes it even more important to convince Afghans of the need for peaceful democratic means of power-sharing, decision-making and transfer of power, the vitiated election Afghanistan has just completed can be ill-afforded.

The cost of an election which was not inclusive and spectacularly marred by perceptions of fraud and cover-ups will be paid for in the future by the loss of faith of ordinary Afghans in their government, their leaders, the state-building exercise and democratic processes. However, for those with their eyes focused on short-term fixes and exit strategies, this has never been the fundamental issue.

Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who has reported on South Asia for 19 years and currently lives and reports from Kabul.


Eurasia Insight:

Aunohita Mojumdar: 10/19/09

Afghanistan's political deadlock deepened October 19 as the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) announced that it had invalidated a large number of the ballots cast in the August 20 presidential poll. The commission did not specify an exact number, but many experts now believe the ECC's action will require a run-off between the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, and his top challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which will make the final decision regarding the election, has received the full findings of the ECC. IEC officials indicated that an announcement on the final election results would be forthcoming within 36 hours. Unconfirmed reports indicated that the final results would leave Karzai with less than the 50 percent-plus-one-vote total needed to avoid a run-off. Sources suggest that hectic back room negotiations on a power-sharing deal between Karzai and Abdullah were continuing. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

Meanwhile, the sense of political discord in Kabul was reinforced October 19 by the unilateral decision of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) to release an election-monitoring report that had been jointly prepared with the United Nations. In making its findings public, the AIHRC ignored the plea of the UN's top official in Kabul, Kai Eide, to delay the report's release until the completion of the electoral process.

The report was released without public fanfare on the AIHRC's website, a manner of publication that suggests the UN's authority and prestige in Afghanistan is eroding. The widely respected Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission is considered an independent body with strong critics in both the Afghan government and the country's parliament. Some Kabul officials dislike the commission for its emphasis on human rights and for calling to account those responsible for war crimes.

The UN and the AIHRC collaborated on two out of three monitoring reports that covered this year's electoral process. While the third was due to be made public earlier in October, the release was reportedly held up amid the ongoing controversy over fraudulent votes and the international community's role in the electoral process. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].

The October 19-released report, the third in the series of monitoring briefs, scrutinized the Afghan election process, covering the period from August 1 to October 5. It focused on four issues: insecurity and violence; participation of the Afghan people, with a particular focus on women; electoral irregularities; and freedom of expression. "Allegations of ballot-box stuffing are of a serious nature, considering that if proven true and given the extent of the problem, the integrity of the elections results could potentially be severely affected," the report states. It went on to note that the overwhelming number of complaints received by the UN and AIHRC pertain to ballot stuffing.

In response to a question at an October 11 news conference, Eide said the release of the third report was being delayed and went on to express a clear preference that the report cover "the final stage that we are in - it is a critical stage." He maintained that by waiting and examining late-stage developments, the report would enable officials and experts to "learn lessons that we can draw on for subsequent elections."

"I think that's important," Eide stated. The leadership of the AIHRC clearly thought differently. The commission's unilateral action means that the report contains no late-stage analysis. It also indicates that the AIHRC and UN may have been having trouble reaching consensus on how to interpret the most recent developments. Some observers note that the UN over the last few weeks became enmeshed in allegations and counter-allegations concerning electoral fraud and the handling of the vote count. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. AIHRC representatives may have felt that the UN's direct involvement in the controversy might influence the UN's monitoring of the final stage. While the UN is likely to push all interested parties to accept the ECC's decisions, the joint monitoring report notes that this may be no easy task. "It remains to be seen whether the methodology agreed upon by the IEC and the ECC to address the complaints of fraud will pave the way to the certification of results that will be acceptable by all parties, and above all the Afghan people," the report concludes.

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.

' New battleground in N Afghanistan?

Al Jazeera, October 19,2009

By Aunohita Mojumdar in Mazar-e-Sharif

At the fourth security checkpoint outside the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, a security guard cracks open almonds in a bag to check whether they are fake and possibly carrying some kind of dangerous substance.

At another checkpoint further down the road, a young Afghan constable rummages through luggage as an older officer helps him identify unfamiliar gadgets.

All travellers have to pass through seven security checkpoints to reach the airport outside this city in the north which, until recently, had been considered one of the safest and most stable regions in Afghanistan.

"But those days are gone. There is no peace any longer," one of the older constables says.

"We cannot rely on this," he says, pointing and tugging at his own uniform.

The rapid decline in security in the northern provinces is becoming the fastest changing story in Afghanistan and often one of the most under-reported.

General Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of the Balkh province, has raised alarms about the deteriorating situation in northern Afghanistan.

Noor earned his spurs fighting in the ranks of legendary fighter Ahmed Shah Masood, the late Tajik leader of the Northern Alliance – once bitter enemies of the predominantly Pashtun Taliban – who was assassinated by al-Qaeda operatives in 2001.

"I was a commander. I know the situation is becoming worse. For three years I have been telling the government about the Taliban and they don't listen. I warned them three years ago and the government did not attend to it. War will come home by home in the northern provinces," he says.

Northern troubles brewing

Noor has been warning the government of increased Taliban presence in the north
Compared to the rest of the country, the Balkh province remains stable but is surrounded by pockets of insecurity. There have also been numerous reports that Taliban activity has increased in the region.

"Today my area is safe but the Taliban have come up to the adjacent Samangan, Kunduz and Baghlan provinces," Khalilullah Khalil, a local police commander in Tashqurghan in Balkh province, told Al Jazeera.

"We are not sitting idle, we are [formulating] a joint strategy," he says.

His forces have jurisdiction over 140 villages in the Kholm district, which formed the frontline during decades of successive wars for the Soviets, the mujahideen and the Taliban.

Khalil says one of the most pressing challenges for his forces is the "porous", poorly-secured border, straddling three former Soviet republics, which has allowed drug and gun smuggling to finance the insurgency.

There are also fears among many in the security forces stationed in the north that they are not equipped for counter-insurgency campaigns.

Khalil and other local commanders have appealed to the government in Kabul and Nato forces to re-focus security efforts in the northern provinces.

Supply routes

In the face of increasing attacks on its supply convoys in southern Afghanistan, Nato has been looking for alternative routes from the north transiting through Russia and Afghanistan's northern neighbours.

One of the main routes connecting Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to Afghanistan runs through Balkh province.

Neighbouring Kunduz province provides an alternate route into Tajikistan via the Tajik border town of Sher Khan Bandar.

However, the alternate route has provided a new target for armed groups, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who operate out of bases in Tajikstan and are known to be active in northern Afghanistan.

Thomas Ruttig, of the Afghan Analysts Network, says the routes have contributed to deteriorating security in the Kunduz province, but believes that "this [insecurity] has not happened overnight but over two to three years."

If insecurity in Kunduz increases, Balkh may become the main route for supplies. This worries Noor, Balkh's governor, who believes the use of northern supply routes will lead to a spike in violence but also believes that the convoys are not, in themselves, the root cause of the insecurity.

Increasing instability, Ruttig says, is linked to the insurgency in the south but fighters have found more accommodating conditions in the minority Pashtun pockets in the north.

Reprisal and revenge attacks on Pashtuns after the fall of the Taliban, forcible seizure of lands and long-standing grievances have fomented ethnic tensions in the north.

While the fighting in southern Afghanistan is not affected by ethnic loyalties, any increase in violence in the north could potentially be more dangerous because it could pits one ethnic community against another, says a security analyst who did not want to be named.

Operational barriers

The north is under-equipped and insufficiently prepared for such deterioration in stability. Some Nato troop contingents, including those from Germany and Sweden, deployed to northern Afghanistan because it was relatively peaceful and allowed them to opt out of offensive operations.

Germany has adamantly refused to move its troops to the more volatile regions of the country despite repeated requests from Nato and US commanders.

Now, even though the war has been brought to them, the military presence of the two countries is still characterised by the defensive operational mentality.

Security experts based in the north say this creates an inability to initiate operations and a primarily focuses on troop protection that does not tolerate casualties.

"The Germans have an elaborate process that weighs them down even in the task of patrolling the area. The air strike in Kunduz - that killed many civilians - was a result of their inability to go beyond their current operating pattern which is risk averse."

For his part, the new German commander at the local Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), the civil-military outposts of the international forces, has said that operations to root out insurgent's activities in Kunduz and Takhar would be increased.

However, changing the force to an offensive posture, even if this receives a political mandate, will require more than simply rewriting the rules of engagement.

"Currently there is no force projection from the German PRT. They have not been proactive. They have not challenged the insurgents," the analyst says.

Political will

Currently, there is little pressure from the Karzai government for greater resources in the North.

Noor’s decision to back Karzai's main opponent in the elections, Abdullah Abdullah, has widened the chasm between central and northern Afghanistan. With governors appointed solely by presidential authority, Noor's own survival hangs in balance though he believes he has “the support of the people.”

The political divide coupled with the international community's preference to send their aid largely to the provinces where their troops are stationed, has also meant that the northern provinces like Balkh have been starved of development.

Incremental economic gains are also now at risk of being reversed as a crippling drought and lack of industry has left hundreds of youths unemployed.

For Balkh and other northern provinces, the economic deprivation is clearly linked to instability. That is something that even Noor’s political opponents concede.

Syed Nasruddin Mohseni, a senior leader of the Hizb-e-Wahadat-e-Milli which supported Karzai in the recent elections, says: “Youth are joining [the] Taliban because of unemployment. The province needs financial aid so that people can be given other jobs."

The province is poppy-free but analysts fear that this gain may also be reversed because of the lack of economic development.

Outside the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, on the main arterial highway, stands the Gorimar industrial park funded by USAID. Soon after Al Jazeera's report on it last year the park was inaugurated' with much fanfare.

A year later, however, it stands desolate with not a single functioning industry.

It has become a memorial of northern Afghanistan's long wait for economic and military resources which, when and if they do arrive, might be too little, too late.

Source: Al Jazeera


Eurasia Insight:

Aunohita Mojumdar: 15 October 2009

Widespread evidence of fraud marred Afghanistan's August 20 presidential vote and subsequently raised disturbing questions about the future legitimacy of Afghanistan's executive branch. It now seems that the country's leading political actors are exploring a way to restore the election's integrity. Ironically, it appears as though a back-room bargain, rather than continued reliance on the ballot box, may be the preferred way to solve the crisis of legitimacy.

What is encouraging competing Afghan factions to talk is the apparent likelihood that a large share of the vote for incumbent Hamid Karzai will be declared invalid, thus necessitating a presidential run-off. Instead of actually proceeding with the run-off -- a process that could drag out the election process into the spring - Karzai and his primary challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, may feel inclined to strike a bargain. Such a deal might preserve the incumbent in office, but with far greater checks on his authority than is presently the case.

A political accommodation would appeal to Abdullah since he would be hard-pressed to prevail in a run-off. In addition, the prospect of holding a second-round of voting in the winter is something the international community is desperately eager to avoid. The chief fear is that the logistical and security challenges of conducting the second round in cold weather would be impossible to surmount. Thus, the election could turn into a source of instability for Afghanistan.

In an interview with EurasiaNet at his Kabul residence on October 14, Abdullah appeared cagily open to the idea of resolving the legitimacy question through a bargain. His immediate priority, he emphasized, was to ensure a fair vote count from the August 20 poll. Beyond that, however, he seemed open to various possibilities.

"I will take it up from that point [i.e. the announcement of results]. It's a different environment. That means it might go to a second round. If it doesn't go to a second round, it is a different scenario," Abdullah said. "I am not ruling anything in; I am not ruling anything out. I am focusing on today. Post-announcement it is a different environment."

Speaking of the post-recount period, a close associate of Abdullah told EurasiaNet that "different scenarios can come into play at that stage." The source said the options being discussed included a government of national unity, a caretaker government or a loya jirga (grand council). The source, though, was careful to distance Abdullah's supporters from the last option.

In response to repeated questioning, Abdullah told a news conference on October 15 that he personally preferred a second round of polling and that he had not dismantled the infrastructure for renewed campaigning.

Results that necessitate a second round would presumably be advantageous for Abdullah. He would theoretically have more leverage to obtain political concessions in the event he opts to cut a political deal with Karzai. While Abdullah would be disinclined to join any Karzai-led government, a reconfigured power-sharing arrangement that reduced the powers of the presidency is one option that Abdullah might go along with. Abdullah is on record as favoring a constitutional rebalancing that gives the legislative branch more authority, at the expense of the executive.

Any process that transparently eliminates fraudulent votes from the August poll would also help the international community. The UN especially has lost credibility over charges and counter charges between the organization's top man in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and his deputy, Peter Galbraith, who accused Eide of trying to conceal fraud and favor Karzai.

While Kabul has long been rife with rumors about back-room political bargaining, the first signs of the broad contours of a deal became evident during a news conference October 11. During that event, Eide for the first time acknowledged widespread fraud. Eide's willingness to call fraud a fact, before the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) had completed its evaluation process, suggests he knew the ECC would eventually acknowledge widespread irregularities.

The second inkling of this likely scenario was Supreme Court nominee Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai's sudden October 12 resignation from the ECC on grounds that the organization was biased. Since Barakzai is considered a Karzai loyalist, his resignation suggested that the ECC recount, which is nearing completion, would not validate a first-round Karzai election victory.

Karzai himself then attempted to exert pressure on the process, telling ABC news on October 13, that the "resignation has cast a serious doubt on the functioning of the commission." This put pressure back on the Abdullah camp and the murmurs once again shifted to a scenario of a first-round Karzai victory.

Forcing the ball back into the incumbent's court at his October 15 news conference, Abdullah denounced Karzai's efforts to impugn the ECC. While indicating that he was not completely satisfied with the ECC's methodology, Abdullah told reporters he would base his judgment on the final ECC count and that he wanted an outcome where "the results are close to the real results."

Indicators suggest that the two contestants in Kabul would prefer to work out an agreement before the announcement of the oft-delayed final results, now scheduled for the weekend of October 17-18. Whether or not a deal can be reached will depend on a variety of variables, including the extent of pressure the international community is willing to exert.

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.


Eurasia Insight:

Aunohita Mojumdar: October 7, 2009

Women have struggled to make their voices heard in Afghanistan. It turns out that many Afghan women's rights activists are ardent supporters of a strong US military presence in the country. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, might do well to broadcast their opinions amid the continuing debate over US war strategy.

At an October 2-3 meeting in Kabul organized by an Indian think-tank, the Delhi Policy Group, female Afghan attendees spoke out forcefully for a continued, robust foreign presence in the country. Some endorsed the idea of a sizable troop increase.

"We are suffering from terrorism," said MP Shinkai Karokhail. "We cannot say that troops should be withdrawn. ? The international troop presence is a guarantee of my safety."

Afghan women were particularly critical of a policy option advanced by US Vice President Joseph Biden to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan and redirect the mission to the destruction of al Qaeda networks.

"Demilitarization is not practical in the current situation," well-known activist Suraya Parlika said, pointing to the deteriorating security situation. "Look at what is happening in Helmand and Kandahar. Violence is now spreading to northern Afghanistan. At this time we cannot think of demilitarization. We have to first create conditions that pave the way for demilitarization."

The stance of the Afghan participants took other meeting delegations by surprise. The conference was ostensibly designed to promote a "peace trialogue" among women from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The widespread assumption heading into the meeting was that Afghan women would support the idea of an immediate withdrawal of foreign forces from the country. Indeed, the Afghan barrage of support for a continued strong foreign troop presence came in response to Indian participants' suggestions that Afghan women should call for a speedy withdrawal.

A visiting delegation of Code Pink, a US-based anti-war women's group, was also in Kabul to lobby local women to call for a fast American military exit. But following discussions with Afghan activists, Code Pink representatives admitted that their stance might need to be adjusted. Code Pink's Jodie Evans and Medea Benjamin said that while they still wanted the Obama Administration to work towards an exit strategy, they were reconsidering their calls for a two-year withdrawal timeline.

"We have been feeling a sense of fear of the people of the return of the Taliban. So many people [are] saying that, 'If the US troops left, the country would collapse; we'd go into civil war.' A palpable sense of fear is making us start to reconsider," Benjamin told EurasiaNet.

The opinions of Code Pink representatives were also influenced by analysis provided by the well-known activist and former Minister of Women's Affairs Masooda Jalal. When Benjamin asked whether Jalal preferred more troops or more financial aid, the icon of the Afghan woman's movement responded straightforwardly: "Both. It is good for Afghanistan to have more resources and more troops coming with the aim of building peace and [working] against war, terrorism and insecurity."

It would now seem that the worst fears of Afghan women won't materialize -- at least in the immediate future. US President Barack Obama indicated during an October 6 meeting with Republican and Democratic legislative leaders that the so-called Biden option, featuring a draw-down of US troops in Afghanistan, is no longer under consideration. Obama, however, hasn't signaled whether he will go along with Gen. McChrystal's request for as many as 40,000 additional ground troops in Afghanistan.

While none of the activists at the October 2-3 meeting suggested that international troops should stay indefinitely, Afghan participants agreed that foreign protection is needed until Afghanistan is able to build it own functioning security forces.

In an earlier interview, women's activist Wazhma Frogh told EurasiaNet that international troops were not the answer, but necessary for building the capacity of Afghan national forces. "Their presence is useful while there are warlords in power and the insurgency is going on."

Najiba Ayubi, Director of the Killid Media Group, which runs both television and radio stations around the country, echoed Frogh's assessment. "The troops have to leave one day. But now is not the exact right time. Because we know our country," she said, adding that a civil war would start without the presence of foreign troops.

"Islam has given us rights. But we have fear in our hearts that politicians will compromise our rights," MP Karokhail told EurasiaNet. "Nobody has consulted with us on negotiations with the Taliban."

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.

'Code Pink' rethinks its call for Afghanistan pullout

In Afghanistan, the US women's activist group finds that their Afghan counterparts want US troop presence – as well as more reconstruction.

By Aunohita Mojumdar | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the October 6, 2009 edition

Kabul, When Medea Benjamin stood up in a Kabul meeting hall this weekend to ask Masooda Jalal if she would prefer more international troops or more development funds, the cofounder of US antiwar group Code Pink was hoping her fellow activist would support her call for US troop withdrawal.

She was disappointed.

Ms. Jalhal, the former Afghan minister of women, bluntly told her both were needed. "It is good for Afghanistan to have more troops – more troops committed with the aim of building peace and against war, terrorism, and security – along with other resources," she answered. "Coming together they will help with better reconstruction."

Rethinking their position

Code Pink, founded in 2002 to oppose the US invasion of Iraq, is one of the more high-profile women's antiwar groups being forced to rethink its position as Afghan women explain theirs: Without international troops, they say, armed groups could return with a vengeance – and that would leave women most vulnerable.

Though Afghans have their grievances against the international troops' presence, chief among them civilian casualties, many fear an abrupt departure would create a dangerous security vacuum to be filled by predatory and rapacious militias. Many women, primary victims of such groups in the past, are adamant that international troops stay until a sufficient number of local forces are trained and the rule of law established.

During their weeklong visit here, in which they met with government officials, politicians, ministers, women activists, and civil society groups, the small team of Code Pink members had hoped to gather evidence to bolster their call for US troop withdrawal within two years, and capitalize on growing anxiety back home about the war.

While the group hasn't dropped its call for a pullout, the visit convinced them that setting a deadline isn't in Afghanistan's interests, say Ms. Benjamin and fellow cofounder Jodie Evans.

"We would leave with the same parameters of an exit strategy but we might perhaps be more flexible about a timeline," says Benjamin. "That's where we have opened ourselves, being here, to some other possibilities. We have been feeling a sense of fear of the people of the return of the Taliban. So many people are saying that, 'If the US troops left the country, would collapse. We'd go into civil war.' A palpable sense of fear that is making us start to reconsider that."

Code Pink says it will continue to oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan – a move facing heated debate in Washington – and advocate for more funding for aid and humanitarian projects instead.

The group's visit coincided with a "peace trialogue" organized last week by the Delhi Policy Group that brought together women of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Some participants of the meeting, who have traditionally seen demilitarization as a key to peacebuilding, also faced strong opposition from local activists when they tried to include demilitarization in a statement published at the end of the gathering.

"In the current situation of terrorism, we cannot say troops should be withdrawn," Shinkai Karokhail, an Afghan member of Parliament and woman activist, told them. "International troop presence here is a guarantee for my safety."


Eurasia Insight:

Aunohita Mojumdar: October 2, 2009

As the international community, specifically the NATO allies, wrestles with the need to develop yet another military strategy in Afghanistan, some domestic political leaders in the strife-ravaged country are starting to question whether a highly centralized government is the best system for the present, challenging times.

The recently conducted presidential election, a vote marred by widespread fraud, has helped catalyze the nascent constitutional debate inside Afghanistan. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Domestic critics of President Hamid Karzai believe the reports of massive vote-tampering on behalf of the incumbent shows that the strong-presidential system is detrimental for Afghanistan. They are calling for an urgent redistribution of power -- from the central government to the regions -- in order to prevent Afghanistan's democratization process from careening off the rails.

Not surprisingly those supporting the idea of devolving power from Kabul to the regions tend to be political opponents of the president. Among these critics is the governor of northern Balkh Province, Gen. Atta Mohammad Noor. Though originally appointed by Karzai, Atta was a strong supporter of the president's main rival in the presidential vote, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

"This is one of the reasons why I supported Dr Abdullah," Atta said during a recent interview with EurasiaNet. "If one man has too much power it is a totalitarian system, and not a democracy. Rights will not be given, liberty is in question and there is no balance and no justice."

The final election result has yet to be confirmed. Even so, Abdullah, in comments to EurasiaNet, talked like Karzai's reelection was not in doubt. Even if he didn't prevail in the election, Abdullah vowed to press ahead with an initiative to create more of a confederal system in Afghanistan.

While the fine points of Abdullah's vision remain vague, his general framework emphasizes a need for the decentralization of power, in particular the direct election of governors. He also expressed a desire to establish a commission that could resolve constitutional disputes. Abdullah is convinced that the existing system is overly centralized, and, therefore, prone to abuse of power.

"It is difficult", he said, "for a person who believes in democracy to go along with a system where everyone from the minister to the district governor works under the orders of the commander in chief."

The key for Afghanistan's future stability will be a system that deemphasizes the importance of the personality at the top of the political pyramid, and which instead stresses transparency and strengthens respect for institutions, he asserted. "Then it [wouldn't] matter so much who comes and who goes [via elections]. The system [would] be in place," Abdullah said.

Under Afghanistan's current presidential system, power is highly concentrated in the chief executive's office, leaving regional officials with little political, administrative or financial authority. Governors of provinces are appointed by the president. Provincial councils -- elections to which were held concurrently with the August presidential vote, but which have received scant media coverage -- have no powers and barely any role in the management of local affairs. District council elections have yet to be held.

The system may not be ideal, but now is no time to be tinkering, some prominent politicians say, including the governor of Wardak Province, Halim Fidai. In an interview with EurasiaNet, the Wardak governor said a strong presidential system offered the democratization process the best chances of success, given the current circumstances.

"A strong centralized government must be supported by the international community," Fidai said. "The problem is the international community is looking at Afghanistan from its own perspective and not the perspective of Afghanistan."

"People are criticizing a centralized system that has not yet been [fully] implemented," he continued. "A [confederal] system would disunite and disintegrate the country. It would create more warlords; unqualified people would be [elected] as governors."

Fidai's voice carries added authority because he is viewed as someone with whom the international military and diplomatic community can work. Wardak Province, thanks in large measure to Fidai's leadership, has emerged as a proving ground for pilot programs, including the controversial "AP3" project -- officially known as the Afghan Police Protection Force Program -- which seeks to arm communities to defend themselves.

An existing problem with the appointment of governors is that local interest groups have excessive influence, Fidai suggested. "The appointees should be picked by the president alone in accordance with criterion of qualifications for the post," he added.

Although emphasis should remain on the concept of centralization, Afghanistan's governing system could benefit from some decentralization. "The local governance systems should have the authority to make government officials accountable," Fidai said.

It is clear that the international community is disenchanted with Karzai's management style. Nevertheless, every indicator suggests that the United States and its European allies aren't about to support an effort to reform Afghanistan's political system at a time when an external threat, in the form of the Taliban insurgency, is eroding domestic security.

The United Nations' September 30 dismissal of Peter Galbraith, who had been the No. 2 UN diplomat in Kabul, suggests that the international community is coming around to the position of overlooking the massive fraud in the August presidential vote, and giving its blessing to Karzai's reelection. Galbraith's earlier efforts to adopt a hardline stance on the fraud issue, demanding a wide-scale recount, was apparently responsible for his dismissal. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The Galbraith incident suggests that the international community is circling the wagons around Karzai, perhaps because they see no better available options, and hoping for the best.

Editor's Note: Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 18 years.

For another's duty October 2009

By: Aunohita Mojumdar

Himal/Octo-Nov issue

In Afghanistan, foreign journalist Stephen Farrell was freed in a dramatic ‘rescue’ in early September. His interpreter, Sultan Munadi, is dead.

A guesthouse near the village of Astana has been a hideout of mine on several occasions in the past – a getaway from the mad pressures of Kabul, a city distorted by war, violence, immense population pressure and, in recent years, the influx of large amounts of money and the ubiquitous presence of foreigners, SUVs, armed men on hire and barriers separating out those who are in need of protection. In Astana, in contrast, the Panjshir River rushes swiftly past orchards sloping down from the guesthouse, the green grass shadowed by the branches of fruit-laden trees.

Until he died, I did not know that Sultan Munadi was from Astana. In fact, I did not know Sultan very well at all. He was another young Afghan journalist I would meet, on occasion, at press conferences and stakeouts while we waited for dignitaries to come and speak to us. As happens on such occasions, one whiles away long hours by chatting with colleagues, exchanging news and gossip, and berating the authorities for delaying the events. My interaction with Sultan was no more and no less – until early September, the week he died, while working as an interpreter for the New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell.

I had not seen him for many months. By a rare chance, I happened to be in the New York Times office and met him four days before the fatal kidnapping. Seeing an old colleague after so long always feels like bumping into a friend – even more so in Afghanistan, where roots are tenuous and the changeover of people very quick. I greeted him warmly and stopped to chat. I learned about his studies; that he had come to Afghanistan for a short break, and had been asked to help out with the New York Times at a time when the volume of news emanating from Afghanistan had meant that big media organisations were rushing in large number of staff writers to cover breaking stories.

I was curious about what he felt about Afghanistan after being away, and Sultan talked about how little had changed. He was critical of the lack of progress, saying he felt it was the same people in power who were failing to deliver. He had voted, of course, and had voted for Abdullah Abdullah, the candidate whose roots are from Sultan’s province. Whether it was ethnic allegiance or not, Sultan said he had voted with the hope of change. I asked what he was studying, and he mentioned public policy and good governance. I expressed the hope that these would prove useful when he returned to Afghanistan.

Days later, I awoke to the news report that a British journalist had been freed in an early-morning operation. The news that an Afghan journalist was killed was not in the headlines. I was not surprised. Years of journalism teaches you very clearly that some lives are valued more than others. I was not surprised, but I was angry. Angry about the double standards; angry that Sultan, who had been carving a different life for himself, had been caught in a chain of happenstance starting with his holidays coinciding with the elections in Afghanistan. I was angry too at the lack of information and the unwillingness of the establishment to part with the facts.

As Himal goes to press, we do not know whose bullet killed Sultan – the insurgents? The NATO rescuers? Who actually ordered the military operation, and what negotiations took place before the rescue attempt? The days between the kidnapping and the ‘rescue’ were marked by a news blackout. It was not the first one. Journalists working in Afghanistan have previously been asked to refrain from writing about the kidnappings of their colleagues. There was a marked silence around the kidnapping of New York Times reporter David Rohde, abducted in November 2008. Usually, the request comes from individual journalistic organisations, but it is also backed by international organisations such as the UN. The line of reasoning is always the worry that such reporting would endanger the victim’s life. Under the combination of peer pressure and emotional blackmail, most of the media has fallen in line.

But several questions have yet to be answered about such an approach. Does secrecy actually help to save the life of every kidnap victim? Yes, the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was killed in Karachi after a much publicised kidnapping; but the BBC’s Alan Johnston was rescued from Gaza precisely because of a well-orchestrated public campaign. Certainly, organisations may find that it suits their aims to maintain secrecy about such instances; but unlike most other cases, in which journalists will often work to expose the facts, in the case of journalists being kidnapped it is the media that has agreed to censor itself, a self-censorship without adequate logical basis.

It is time that journalists, their employers and other journalist bodies spent some time thinking about this, rather than reactively moving from episode to episode. This is certainly not an easy subject to write about, since it invites the charge that one is endangering colleagues in the lust for a story. So I write this at a time when the blood has already been spilt.

But Afghan journalists – do they have a choice?

Aunohita Mojumdar is a contributing editor to Himal Southasian.Comments

Eight years after 9/11, Taliban roils 80 percent of Afghanistan

The hijacking of a NATO supply truck and Stephen Farrell’s kidnapping have focused attention on rising insecurity in Afghanistan’s north, strikingly illustrated on a new map.

By Aunohita Mojumdar | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
from the September 11, 2009 edition

Kabul, Afghanistan - A retaliatory NATO airstrike that killed scores of civilians. The kidnapping of New York Times journalist Stephen Farrell. The deadly shooting of his Afghan translator and the death of a British soldier in a violent and controversial rescue operation days later.

The events of this week have drawn attention to the unraveling security in northern Afghanistan in a way months of the creeping insurgency had not.

Long considered one of the most stable and peaceful parts of the country, the northern provinces have seen rising violence as heavy insurgent activity has spread to 80 percent of the country – up from 54 percent two years ago. (See map.) Under increasing pressure in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, militants who have long sought to extend their reach have turned their attention to the north, where NATO has established a second supply route in the wake of debilitating attacks on its southern pipeline.

"[Militants] have been trying to widen the ground for the insurgency in Afghanistan and now they have got momentum," says Waliullah Rahmani, executive director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. "The militants are eager to target this route to prevent a smooth supply chain from northern Afghanistan."

Last week's airstrike targeted two fuel tankers headed to supply NATO troops in Kabul that had been hijacked by the Taliban. Up to 70 civilians who had gathered to siphon fuel from the trucks, which had become mired in mud in Kunduz Province, were killed in the strike.

Kunduz has seen a particular uptick in insurgent activity, says Thomas Ruttig, founder of the Afghan Analysts Network, which he attributes to pressure on insurgents in neighboring Pakistan. On Friday, Pakistan announced it had captured a senior Taliban leader, Muslim Khan.

"The IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] have been pushed out of Waziristan and the north has Uzbek minorities," making the area hospitable for Uzbek militants, says Mr. Ruttig. While Kunduz itself does not border Uzbekistan, the neighboring province of Balkh borders Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and could become the main supply route for NATO supplies if security continues to worsen in Kunduz province.

Frustrated Pashtuns sympathetic to Taliban

While the upsurge in violence is relatively recent, the conditions have been festering for some time, say Mr. Rahmani and Ruttig. The violence has been directly linked to districts with large Pashtun populations, whose grievances the government has long failed to address – making them sympathetic to the Taliban, who share their ethnicity and language.

"The districts which are turning violent are those which have had a very recent history of abuses against the Pashtuns. The government has allowed these conditions to go unaddressed and this is now being addressed by the population by giving shelter to the Taliban and other insurgents," says Prakhar Sharma, the head of research at the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies, an Afghan research organization.

Humanitarian groups concerned, but still operating

The growing insecurity is of particular concern to humanitarian and aid agencies which have been working in the more stable northern areas. Aid agencies like Oxfam, Care, and Save the Children have long argued that they are better able to deliver sustainable aid in these areas than in southern Afghanistan.

In fact many organizations have stopped working in the more insecure areas, not just because of the problems of access but also because of the conditions attached by donors who would like the development aid and humanitarian agencies to be used in pursuit of military goals. Aid groups felt that doing so would compromise their independence

While aid agencies approached by the Monitor said the growing insecurity had not stopped them from working in the north, they all expressed concern over the recent developments.

Ashley Jackson of Oxfam International says staff have had to change the way they work and pull back temporarily after the Kunduz bombing.

"So far we have not seen anything impacting on our work but we are definitely concerned," says Jennifer Rowell of Care. "We would like to make sure that the civil military guidelines are respected as are humanitarian laws and that we have access."

The militarization of aid has made it difficult for organizations like Care to engage in southern Afghanistan, says Ms. Rowell, and "we will have to be extra vigilant in the North."

Karzai leads Afghan vote, but election watchdog finds fraud

Christian Science Monitor

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Preliminary election results announced today put incumbent president Hamid Karzai firmly in the winning stable even while the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) questioned the legitimacy of the tally, setting the stage for what appears to be a messy political battle.

At stake will be not only the credibility of the electoral process and the legitimacy of the next Afghan government, but the relationship between it and the international community.

The ECC, a UN-backed electoral watchdog, said Tuesday it had found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud in a number of polling stations.” It ordered the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to conduct an audit and recount of ballot boxes in polling stations where there appeared to have been a 100 percent turnout, or where 95 percent of votes were cast in favor of one candidate.

The IEC, however, released figures giving Karzai 54.1 percent of the vote based on results from 91 percent of polling stations, saying that it could not complete the audits ordered by the ECC until all the preliminary results had been counted. It also challenged the ECC order on the grounds of an apparent error in translation.

Today’s events were the first sign of dissension within the electoral process. It is not clear whether the IEC will eventually follow the ECC’s order. Chief Electoral Officer Daoud Najafi said such an exercise would “take a long time.”

“The IEC is violating its own rules where conditions are set for which kind of ballots had to be audited,” says Thomas Ruttig, an independent analyst and founder of the Afghan Analysts Network.

Candace Rondeaux, of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says that “the response from the IEC was very disappointing. They have abdicated their responsibility and left the ball in the court of the ECC.”

Ms. Rondeaux, like other observers, was surprised at the robust stand of the ECC, which she said had taken “a more aggressive stand than was perhaps expected.”

Both the UN’s top official in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and the European Union Observer Mission (EUOM) issued statements referring to “irregularities” in the electoral process. The EUOM, in a hard-hitting statement, alleged that its findings had confirmed large-scale ballot stuffing, and that despite legal provisions on fraud detection and mitigation measures hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes were included in the preliminary results.

The international community was earlier criticized strongly for its rushed endorsement of the polling process and both Mr. Ruttig and Rondeaux today welcomed the change.

“I welcome that the international community is now standing up to reality. It is late but not too late,” says Ruttig, adding that the ECC now needed backing. Rondeaux also termed it “a more honest assessment” on the part of the international community.

In a short statement the US Embassy in Kabul said: “In this difficult process, we look to the Independent Electoral Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission to rigorously carry out their legal mandates to count all votes and to exclude all fraudulent votes. We call upon all candidates and their supporters to show patience as the process continues. The United States will await the results at the end of the process when ratified by the ECC, as well as the IEC, as set out in Afghanistan’s electoral law.”

The final results could still be weeks away, given the complexities of an audit and recount and the limited mandate and resources of the ECC to carry out its task. That could mean that a runoff election, if required, could go well into winter, causing consternation in a country where large parts of the mountainous terrain are inaccessible during the harsh winter months, making it impossible to conduct country-wide elections.