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Opinion: Justice is missing from Afghanistan

What Afghans need is a transformation that ends a long pattern of human rights violations.

Afghan child
A burqa-clad Afghan woman holds a child as she walks with other women in Kabul on July 7, 2010. (Shah Marai/Getty Images)

GENEVA, Switzerland — President Barack Obama describes the departure of Gen. Stanley McChrystal from the command of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan as a change in personnel, not policy. But Gen. David Petraeus is unlikely to succeed if Afghan policy stays the same and persists in ignoring the ramifications of a long list of injustices that continue to pile up in Afghanistan.

Afghans have little confidence that they will ever obtain justice under the current regime in Kabul. The absence of justice is a key driver of instability that is largely ignored by the major players. However, the justice deficit is well understood and exploited by the Taliban. A growing surge of disillusionment with the Karzai regime, and its international backers, can be traced to a long list of injustices that are systemic as well as systematic.

Injustices are built into a political system that rewards abusive power-holders whether in or outside government. Examples include a parliament that is dominated by warlords thanks to an electoral system that works to the advantage of those with cash, influence and a history of thuggish behavior.

Private security companies that help maintain the supply line for NATO troops are, effectively, a law unto themselves. Funded by U.S. and other taxpayers, they buy-off insurgents to secure unhindered passage and profit greatly from a $2 billion industry. They thrive on lawlessness and insecurity.

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The Kandahar Strike Force, a militia associated with the Karzai family, exemplifies the problem. They were involved in 2009 in a gun battle with the Kandahar police chief, Matiullah Qateh, after the local prosecutor refused their demand to release one of their associates held on theft charges. The police chief was killed but those involved in his killing were relocated away from Kandahar; they were never prosecuted nor held to account.

Injustices attributed to non-Afghans, especially the international military forces, are also a huge bone of contention. A botched night-time raid, in February in Gardez in southeastern Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of three women, two of them pregnant, and two men, a local policeman and a prosecutor. Initially the dead were described as insurgents. After a lot of angst and protest, a U.S. military investigation found that the dead were civilians and apologized for the raid that was conducted on the basis of erroneous information.

This is not infrequent in Afghanistan. The lack of impartial, public scrutiny and accountability for such incidents is widely seen as contempt for the rule of law and of Afghan lives. The situation of the hundreds of detainees at the Bagram Detention Facility, that rivals Guantanamo, given the total absence of due process, is another source of festering contention and resentment. Coupled with night-time raids and civilian casualties, Bagram puts into question the ability of Afghanistan’s partners to build credible and trustworthy rule-of-law institutions.

Afghans are astute analysts of changing political winds, and they see that change is on the way.

“Afghanization” — the euphemism for handing over to Afghans the accumulated mess of recent years as the United States winds down its engagement — is the newly minted narrative for a transition that is utterly different from the one that was promised in the heady days of 2002. The international community knows that Afghan institutions are too weak to stand on their own, but in the rush to leave that is not likely to make much difference.

In discussions surrounding the Bonn Conference, held at the end of 2001 as the Taliban regime was routed, Afghans were promised the moon or, at least, a semblance of justice, democracy, honest officials, and the prospect of a better future for their children. Women were going to emerge from the dark days of Taliban rule and enjoy the novelty of being treated as human beings; and the government headed by Hamid Karzai would make good on the promise of respect for their human rights.

As different policy gurus, think tanks and politicians scramble to re-work strategies that are failing, Afghans today can find little comfort in having their initial skepticism proved right.

From the onset of the B-52 campaign in October 2001, just a few weeks after 9/11, Afghans from different walks of life expressed the need for a break with the policies of the past. Afghans wanted an end to policies which excluded those individuals and groups eager to build a new political culture based on the rule of law and to create the framework for a stable and democratic state.

But in the weeks leading up to the Bonn Conference that provided the road map for Afghanistan’s future, the very people who had created the chaos that was responsible for bringing the Taliban to power were resurrected and "rehabilitated." These included the northern warlords. Some of them were responsible for acts that could be classified as war crimes.

With a few isolated exceptions, the Afghans who were at the receiving end of discrimination and abuse were excluded from Bonn. The injustices that Afghans had suffered, and which are at the center of the current discontent with the government in Kabul, were not even on the agenda.

The reality was that global war on terror took precedence over the safety and well-being of Afghans. That continues to be the reality today. The Bonn state-building process effectively denied the political space that was needed to strengthen respect for core human rights and democratic values including dignity, non-discrimination, inclusiveness, accountability and respect for the lives of others.

“Bonn was wrong” and this was clear to many from the outset. But the juggernaut of the Bonn state-building project — a series of events and processes that served primarily to legitimize well-known, alleged war criminals — shaped the dominant narrative that democracy was taking hold. Voices that challenged the status quo were ignored or silenced.

Bonn failed to provide a framework for a durable peace. It was not designed to roll back the injustices that sustain violence. It was not a peace agreement but, rather, an arrangement that excluded a significant portion of those from the Pashtun belt. Bonn brought back and empowered the warlords who had earned the population’s hatred, and it ignored the urgent need to bring an end to a long pattern of the abuse of power.

Bonn also glorified a jihadist culture that is opposed to democratic values. Jihadists do not want to see the emergence of Afghan voices that denounce warlordism as well as corruption and predatory power structures.

Injustice in Afghanistan is pervasive and profound. It shapes the perspective of all those at the receiving end of zalem or cruel behavior. Political marginalization and manipulation of tribal differences are of major concern. Land seizures, unlawful evictions, arbitrary detention and selective poppy eradication are rife. Deeply entrenched prejudices and discrimination are compounded by domestic violence, including rape.

When victims seek help from the police or others, they are frequently further victimized. Presidential pardons are dispensed for convicted rapists and drug traffickers. Actions by international military forces, which are offensive and culturally inappropriate as well as deadly on occasion, reinforce deeply held feelings of being wronged.

Injustices are closely linked to poverty and powerlessness and the inability of many Afghans to carve out a dignified life. But it was the issue of impunity that arose most often in conversations I had with Afghans in all parts of the country. Immunity from prosecution or the ability of the powerful to operate above the law, without fear of having to answer for the harm inflicted on others, is corrosive and corrupting. It is central destabilization, the spreading insurgency, and armed violence.

Impunity is shaping and aggravating a political culture that is increasingly divisive, violent and predatory. It is the source of alienation and repulsion. It is a boon to the armed opposition.

A meeting, last March, with a group of elders from the contested district of Marjah was typical.