June 08, 2010

Afghans talk, Taliban shoot

Asia Times June 3, 2010
By Aunohita Mojumdar

KABUL - The three-day peace jirga (council) that began on Wednesday is being projected by the international community - at least officially - as a critical moment in Afghanistan's history. The Taliban, it seems, also gave the event priority, launching a three-man suicide squad armed with rockets at the opening ceremony.
Two blasts and sporadic gunfire were heard in the air-conditioned tent as Karzai delivered his opening address, while a third took place just 200 meters from the venue. "Sit down, nothing will happen," said the Aghan president. "I have become used to this. Even my three-year-old son is used to it."
The attackers, armed with rifles and rocket launchers, had explosives strapped to their bodies under the women's burqas they had worn to slip past security staff. Two were reportedly killed and no delegates were hurt, according to local officials.
After calming delegates, Karzai said it was the Taliban's insurgency that was keeping the international occupiers they resent in the country.
"You should provide the opportunity for the foreign forces to leave," Karzai told the conference, according to the Associated Press. "Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here. As long as you are not talking to us, not making peace with us, we will not let the foreigners leave."

Senior officials of Western donor countries have expressed hope that the jirga, the first concrete step in the process of "reconciliation" with armed opposition groups, including the Taliban, would provide the political impetus to bring the protracted conflict to an end. But these pronouncements smack of desperation, as the international community scrambles for the next big solution that will turn the situation around.

The three-day consultative mechanism may produce very little resolution to the insurgency. With between 1,400 to 1,600 participants expected to attend, criticism of inclusions and exclusions of participants and dissension within the government itself, an unclear agenda and threats of boycott, the peace jirga may be little more than a political endorsement mandating President Hamid Karzai to move forward toward the goal.

Najib Amin, a deputy on the meeting's organizing committee, said the jirga will aim to ''identify mechanisms based on which we can negotiate, identify categories of opposition with whom we can negotiate, mechanism on how to approach them, identify people who are not negotiable and what the government should do with them".

Any declaration would also likely to be shorn of real details in order to accommodate disparate views. Whatever process is set in motion this week, it is also likely that several major sections of the insurgency will remain outside the ambit of any reconciliation since they are ideologically opposed to the values represented by the incumbent government.

However, the real goal thrown up by the "reconciliation" plan is one that appears to have taken place already - rapprochement of the international community and the Karzai government.

Tired of the long military engagement, both have latched onto "reconciliation and reintegration" as the next big plan, and appear willing to subsume their differences to find a way out of the morass.

The panacea, however, is yet another refrain of the old song that a military solution alone cannot work. That song has been sung to different beats for several years now, though earlier versions included development, governance, rule of law and accountability as necessary measures to complement military achievements.

Now, apparently, those goals are being sidelined as the international community chooses to further curtail its ambitions regarding Afghanistan, reconciling itself with existing realities even when they subvert the goals of nation-building.

The goals, now pared down, are to ensure that Afghanistan does not pose a threat to Western nations, either as a staging post of international terrorist strikes or as a sanctuary for anti-Western groups to take hold.

While these aims have always been core to the Western intervention for a number of years, there was an understanding that in pursuit of those aims Afghanistan could and would be rebuilt with a new state structure, since this represented the best bet of making sure Afghanistan became a stable state, and not one vulnerable to being subverted by terrorist groups.

The safety of Afghans and internal cohesion within Afghanistan were therefore seen as being coterminous with the goal of security for the West. However, somewhere along the way the goals have diverged as the costs of the intervention have steadily risen in Western capitals.

These costs have not been inconsiderable. Ever growing casualties among Western forces, billions of dollars diverted to Afghanistan (which seem more questionable at a time of Western recession and job losses) and political prices, ranging from ministers losing their jobs in Germany, to the fall of a government in the Netherlands over the issue of Afghanistan. In the midst of this chaos, reconciliation has emerged as a way to match Western goals with existing realities in the Asian nation.

The reconciliation plan has halted, for the moment, the spectacular unraveling of relations between Karzai and the Western compact. Whatever misgivings Western nations had earlier regarding the viability of Karzai as a trusted partner - and a spate of stories in the Western media testify to this - these have now been shed in the mutual warm embrace of the reconciliation strategy. In a matter of weeks Karzai has gone from being a weak, indecisive, incapable leader burdened by an unscrupulous family to the man who will bring together the disparate interests of Afghans with exemplary leadership.

Along the way the international community appears to have swallowed several of its goals and professed commitments. Whatever the jirga may or may not discuss - it is already clear what will not be included in the discussions.

Jirga czar Farooq Wardak told a gathering of civil society representatives that "justice" and "human rights" were not on the agenda and would not be discussed. Despite the shock of the participants, Wardak was at least being honest. The issues had been sidelined long back.

Earlier this year it became clear that the government had passed an amnesty law that protected all those engaged in hostilities in the past and the present from prosecution. The law makes no distinction about the kind of crimes, whether war crimes, crimes against humanity or rape. It also makes no mention of a cut-off date.

The law was passed with scarcely a murmur from the international community even as it violates Afghanistan's commitments to international treaties, according to the country's Independent Human Rights Commission, and treads on the millions of Afghan citizens who have been victims of brutality and war crimes while also strengthening the culture of impunity.

The same international community had kicked up a fuss when the law was first introduced in 2007, but in the changed climate, the law was accepted since it had been projected as a necessary first step in the process of reconciliation.

Representatives of the millions of Afghanistan's victims have come together with the commission to present a united demand for the implementation of the transitional justice plan, under which the perpetrators of crimes - including those in the government and in powerful positions - would be held accountable.

In its eagerness not to antagonize the government and Karzai further at this juncture, the international community has failed to endorse the plan and also subverted its own proclaimed goals of strengthening Afghan institutions. The same international community, following the controversial 2009 presidential polls, had predicated its support to future elections on the government carrying out necessary electoral reforms.

However, not only were reforms not carried out, but the president introduced a new electoral law that further erodes the independence of the electoral mechanisms. While the international community had sought an independent appointment mechanism for the Independent Election Commission to prevent electoral malpractices, in actuality Karzai's new law also subverted the independence of yet another body, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which was the only institution that stood up against the electoral fraud in 2009.

Focusing purely on the international members of the ECC, the international community led by the United Nations, put all its weight behind securing the UN's right to nominate two members to the commission. This right, won through hard negotiations, was presented as an achievement but no mention was made of the fact that the new law also took away the right of independent Afghan institutions, namely the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court, to appoint members to this body.

Moreover, it institutionalized the right of Karzai, as president, to appoint members to this body, thus compromising an independent appointment mechanism. Despite the clear challenge to the process of institutional building to which the donor nations committed themselves, they accepted this erosion of independence and the forthcoming parliamentary election has received the requisite funding from the international community.

While building of institutions, rule of law, governance and support for human rights are processes which require time, resources and energy, the international community's accommodation of political expediency is not limited to this. Senior officials of the donor nations and international organizations are now saying publicly and repeatedly that they cannot afford to challenge the existing power structures in Afghanistan but must work with them.

Tackling the power structures would necessitate that the international community remain in Afghanistan for the next 20 years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization senior civilian representative Mark Sedwill stated last month, while expressing hope that individuals with power and influence would support the endeavors of the government and the international community.

This hope, however, overlooks the fact that the international community, through its practice of delivering aid without adequate checks and balances, has enriched a small section of people by allowing them to acquire power disproportionate to their role, authority and legitimacy within Afghan institutions and within the community.

Sufficient levels of well-documented data have established clearly that commanders, leaders of armed militia and power-brokers have been empowered through contracts worth billions of dollars given by the international community in exchange for security, land, services and goods provided to the international community.

Moreover, the bulk of aid distributed for development and humanitarian purposes has also been channeled without sufficient oversight allowing some of its distribution to be mediated by power-brokers.

In doing so, the international community has created a clear conflict of interest. Many officials and politicians in roles of authority have profited directly from the ongoing conflict and have a direct stake in its continuation, an interest that conflicts with their expressed commitment to building a secure and stable Afghanistan.

This contradiction has been encouraged and even utilized by donor nations who, in their own domestic arena, take a dim view of a conflict of interests and have legal redress.

However, rather than tackling the contradictions, donor nations are now reconciling themselves to the existence of structural and institutional imbalances of power that they have either introduced, allowed or ignored. If that represents a contradiction between their professed word and deed, the reconciliation strategy is certainly a good way of subsuming all inconsistencies.

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

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Afghanistan peace jirga's unlikely critics: victims of war crimes

By Aunohita Mojumdar, Correspondent / June 3, 2010

Christian Science Monitor

As the Afghan government’s peace jirga meets for a second day to discuss how to reconcile with insurgents and end years of violence, an unlikely coalition is lobbying against the effort: victims of previous wars, who say their demands deserve to be heard alongside the belligerents’.

After hours of discussion Thursday, Afghan tribal elders agreed that this peace meeting had to produce an overture to the Taliban insurgents because NATO and Afghan forces weren't able to bring security to the people.

Victims say that they too want lasting peace for Afghanistan, but argue that it requires accountability, not amnesty. The lack of justice only encourages further violence, they say.

But in a country that’s seen countless factions battle brutally and shift alliances for three decades, they acknowledge that any peace deal is more likely to bury the past than try to assign blame for the suffering and deaths of millions.

Victims’ jirga
Still, surviving family members, along with a coalition of 24 NGOs called the Transitional Justice Coordination Group gathered in Kabul last month ahead of the three-day government jirga, or council, to make their point with a “victim’s jirga.” More than 100 attendees from around the country met for two days, where they recounted personal tragedies and war crimes under various regimes, and visited a suspected mass grave at Pul-e-Charki, on the outskirts of town near the country’s largest prison.

“I am like a butterfly hovering over the grave of my sons… I have a broken heart… my children, my flowers, why did you go away from me?” lamented Taj-e-Nissa, reading a poem she had composed.

The middle-aged woman, who goes by one name, lost two sons, a daughter, father, and brother to rocket attacks during the 1990s civil war as mujahideen factions, having beaten back the Soviet Army, now battled one another for power. During the Taliban era that followed, her husband, accused of opposing the regime, was imprisoned and tortured.

Amnesty law
The war victims’ lobby had hope a few years ago that the government would heed their call – in 2005 it adopted a Transitional Justice Action Plan that called for the acknowledgment of suffering, removal of war crimes perpetrators from senior positions, and documentation of human rights abuses, among other requirements. But it was never implemented and instead expired last year.

In January it came to light that the government had adopted an amnesty law in 2007 and kept it under wraps. The law protects all belligerents, past and present, from prosecution. It passed without much comment from the international community.
“Accountability, not amnesia for past and present crimes is a prerequisite for genuine reconciliation and peace in Afghanistan,” the TJCG said in a statement criticizing the amnesty.

The law prevents virtually all investigation or prosecution of war crimes, crimes against humanity, rape, and torture, they pointed out. It has no cutoff date, thus allowing armed groups to continue to act with impunity. Though it allows victims to seek prosecution for war crimes, critics point out that individuals cannot realistically take on a warlord.

Two other independent groups – the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) – have also criticized the law. They point to Afghanistan’s international treaty obligations, which calls for the prosecution of certain serious crimes.

“It is questionable whether measures that ignore the rights of victims, promote impunity and undermine accountability contribute to stability and reconciliation in the long run,” they said in a joint statement in February.

Some survivors, though, recognizing how improbable their call for justice is, say they would settle for simply an acknowledgment of their suffering. Says Arab Shahi, whose brother was tortured to death by government forces under the Soviet regime even though he worked as an official in the Ministry of Education, “We don’t want revenge. We do not want an eye for an eye…. [But] the perpetrators should at least apologize.”

‘Not our reconciliation’
Others, like Engineer Niamat, wish they could find out exactly what happened to their missing relatives.

After his brother disappeared in 1978, Mr. Niamat, a teacher at the police academy, tried desperately to find him. Years later his family learned the brother had been killed, but his body was never found.

Niamat, who lost five other brothers in conflict, gathered last month with dozens of others at the site of the suspected mass grave. For him, that visit held more hope for him than the government’s peace jirga.

Asked about the official gathering, he is dismissive.

“This is the reconciliation of the government,” he says. “This is not our reconciliation.”


Afghan Reconciliation Jirga Set to Convene amid Skepticism

June 1


The checkpoint at the entrance to the Loya Jirga complex in Kabul highlights the challenge facing President Hamid Karzai as his administration strives to reconcile with moderate Taliban elements. Security at the Jirga is perhaps heavier than at a major Western airport, with all vehicles and equipment being swabbed and checked for evidence of bomb-making residue. The government’s fear of a car bombing appears to be just as great as its desire to win insurgents back over to its side.

The three-day loya jirga, or grand council, which will mull Karzai’s reconciliation and reintegration plan, is scheduled to open June 2. Taliban representatives have not been explicitly invited to participate in the debates, said Najib Amin, a deputy on the meeting’s organizing committee. But, Amin added, the Taliban will have sympathizers among the participants who can represent the Islamic militants’ interests. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].

The approximately 1,600 delegates to the National Consultative Peace Jirga will aim to “identify mechanisms based on which we can negotiate, identify categories of opposition with whom we can negotiate, mechanism on how to approach them, identify people who are not negotiable and what the government should do with them,” Amin said.

To keep the proceedings manageable, delegates will be divided into 28 groups. Technical facilitators have undergone training in order to keep debates efficient and orderly. At the end of the three days of discussions, it is hoped that the entire jirga will be able to produce a declaration of intent. However, distilling the decisions of the 28 groups into one common position promises to be difficult. Local Afghan media outlets in recent days have highlighted policy differences among the country’s top leaders, suggesting that the jirga could be contentious and have trouble harmonizing disparate views.

Regardless of the jirga’s outcome, its decisions and declarations will be non-binding on the government. The word “consultative” was added to the jirga’s official title after members of parliament criticized what they saw as an administration attempt to circumvent legislative authority. As a result, all jirga decisions will require the endorsement of either the cabinet or the legislature.

On the eve of the jirga, there remained the possibility that a significant number of MPs would boycott the event. Legislators had demanded that Karzai fill out his cabinet before the convocation of the jirga. Already, Abdullah Abdullah, the main opposition leader and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2009, has announced he will stay away from the gathering, contending that it will not be adequately representative of the Afghan nation. “This jirga started with the government, and will end with the government,” Abdullah said during a news conference.

Since Karzai unveiled his plans during a donor conference in January, the reconciliation idea has faced skepticism from several Afghan constituencies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Human rights activists have expressed concerns that Karzai was willing to make sacrifices on Afghanistan’s democratization in order to cut a deal with moderate Taliban elements. “Reconciliation should not be a reconciliation behind curtains, just a political reconciliation,” Nader Nadery, a commissioner on the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told a gathering of civil society groups who have been working together to demand transitional justice.

An essential factor for securing a stable future for Afghanistan is an honest accounting of past actions during the country’s past 30-plus years of strife. Those who committed atrocities must be held accountable, Nadery has asserted, adding that the implementation of Karzai’s reconciliation plan could become an obstacle toward this end. In early May, some rights advocates organized their own “victims’” jirga, during which they questioned whether reconciliation without justice could bring peace.

Also skeptical about the reconciliation initiative are women’s advocacy groups. Amid intense lobbying in recent months, approximately 20 percent of the jirga’s delegates will be women. Originally, only 30 women had been slated to participate in the debates. While women will still be vastly underrepresented at the gathering in relation to their percentage of the population, observers view the expansion of female delegates as a significant development. How influential the female delegates will be in defending women’s rights remains to be seen. Some advocates worry that the small gains made in recent years in the sphere of women’s rights will be rolled back. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. While reconciliation as a means of shortening, or even ending the war has been supported by most donor states publicly, many Westerners in Kabul express doubts in private. “The Karzai government’s plan does not seem like a political plan at all,” said a Western diplomat. “It resembles a project proposal.”

To many Western policymakers, the reconciliation route seems to be the best option among an array of unappetizing choices. Perhaps the top priority should be improving the Afghan government’s responsiveness to popular needs and concerns. But many international observers emphasize that bringing about such a transformation would take decades. “We can’t reconstruct Afghanistan’s power structure from scratch, so we have to co-opt the power brokers by making clear that their only future lies in becoming part of the solution,” NATO Senior Civilian Representative Mark Sedwill said recently. Sedwill added that an attempt to remake the power structure would require an international community presence in Afghanistan for perhaps the next 20 years.

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.

Jirgas and jirgas; Reconciliation without the victims?

June 3, 2010 in NRC Handelsblad

Aunohita Mojumdar in Kabul

No one wants to play the role of the Talib. The group of women gathered in a dusty courtyard in the poor neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi in Kabul city, are all victims of the years of unrelenting violence in Afghanistan. Successive regimes saw murders, torture, looting and rapes as opposing factions fought their way into power. Most of the women had lost family members- fathers, mothers, brothers, husbands and children. Many had themselves suffered vicious violence. Now, through participatory theatre, (adapted from the pioneering work by Augusto Boal in Brazil), the women are coming to terms with their past. Enacting short skits recreating scenes from their own lives, the women intervene by adopting one of the roles in the skit and play it differently in order to transform the scene, a symbolic gesture that allows them to take control of their lives and change it.

NGOs working with the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population and local human rights groups are using community-based initiatives to address the trauma of years of violence in an effort to empower victims and help them transform their own lives. The success of this initiative stands in stark contrast to the inability of such groups to impact on the political and decision-making processes of the Afghan government and the donor community.

When the three-day consultative peace jirga to opens in Kabul on May 29 to hold inclusive discussions on reconciliation with the Taliban, missing from the table will be representatives of the victims groups who have firmly opposed some of the first steps in reconciliation taken by the Afghan government, including the amnesty law and the quiet burial of the Transitional Justice Action Plan.

Najibullah Amin, the Deputy Director of the Peace jirga is unfazed by the criticism. “We are all victims of war. The 1600 people who will participate in the jirga are all victims. The whole nation is a victim.”

At this moment the peace jirga has 13 categories of representatives including members of parliament, religious leaders, provincial council members, traders, civil society, Kuchis, governors, women and community elders amongst others. While there is no ‘ban’ on the participation of the ‘opposition’ – members of armed insurgent groups- Amin says it appears to be a hypothetical scenario. The jirga has not evolved any mechanism that would guarantee them safe passage for that participation. The jirga, he says will focus on consulting the nation on how to reach peace; the mechanism by which this can be achieved; identify those who are reconcilable and those who are not, and direct the government to take certain steps.

While Amin’s contention of every Afghan being a victim is acknowledged by civil society groups which have come together under the banner of the Transitional Justice Coordination Group(TJCG), they argue that political decisions are being taken by the powerful elite in their own interests, ignoring the larger interests of the powerless majority. An example, they say, is the Amnesty law. The law provides amnesty not just to “all political factions and hostile parties who were involved in a way or another in hostilities before the establishing of the Interim administration” (Hamid Karzai’s government of 2001), but it also provides amnesty to those “still in opposition” to the Afghan government. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission(AIHRC) has criticized the law as has the International Centre for Transitional Justice(ICTJ). In a joint paper both argued that the law was bad because: it violated the Afghan government’s obligation to pursue prosecution of war crimes as a signatory to international human rights treaties; it provided a form of self-amnesty being passed and adopted by those who would benefit from it without wider consultation of the population; it also provided amnesty in perpetuity since there was no cut-off date, thus encouraging a culture of continuing violence and impunity.

Adopted quietly in December 2008, the law only ‘appeared’ in the official gazette in December 2009, a most propitious time for its acceptance, with the donor community having identified ‘reconciliation and reintegration’ as the way out of the conflict, a decision that was officially endorsed at the London Conference in January 2010.

Predictably, any international criticism was muted and confined largely to NGOs and non-state actors. Responding to a question on the law, the new European Union Special Representative Vyguadas Usackas says the international community “did not see what we wanted to see” in terms of the Amnesty Law and Transitional Justice. He however argued that it was up to “Afghan people to use their democratic processes in influencing and developing a participatory democratic culture.” That is easier said than done. It is the Peace Jirga, reconciliation process and the Afghan government which is getting the bulk of funding and political backing of the international donor community rather than civil society initiatives relating to this process.

Those arguing for the implementation of the transitional justice plan argue that they are not opposed to reconciliation initiatives, but rather, in support of a reconciliation which is sustainable. “Reconciliation must include the victims” says Nader Nadery, a Commissioner in the AIHRC. “It should not be a reconciliation behind the curtains. It should not be just a political reconciliation.”

Amin refutes the suggestion that the current form of reconciliation is only a means of sharing power. “All Afghans have the right to political power” The peace jirga, he says, is going to address the issues that block peace.

Women’s groups for one are enthused that they have been admitted in large numbers to the jirga. Their advocacy has helped push their numbers up from 30 to over 300, a number that they hope will enable them to voice their concerns, even if they cannot influence the proceedings.

There is widespread skepticism on whether the hardcore insurgents groups can be reconciled at all. Asked why no one took on the role of the ‘Talib’ character in the participatory theatre, women gathered there said it was futile, because “a Talib is unchangeable.”

While women’s rights groups fear that their hard-won rights might be reversed in compromises with an intolerant conservative ideology, victims groups fear the jirga is a means to silence their voices. To prevent this, a ‘victims’ jirga held on May 9, brought together victims from different parts of the country to share harrowing stories of their pain and suffering. One of those who suffered brutal violence and lost most members of his family is Ali Faizi who acknowledged the common past of the victims cutting across ethnic and geographical divides. “We have a common suffering. But if we do not treat this wound now, it will afflict future generations.”