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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.

Marjah is the district in Helmand in southern Afghanistan where, mid-February, McChrystal launched “Operation Moshtarak” a new-style counter-insurgency initiative designed to quickly “build” and “hold” after the initial phase of “clearance” or ridding the place of fighters. McChrystal’s “government in a box”, the rapid infusion of district administrators, police and other government personnel, was still in vogue. McChrystal’s “bleeding ulcer” description of this faltering operation had not yet hit the headlines.

The elders were eloquent in describing the ramifications of Operation Moshtarak on the lives of farmers and their families in Marjah. They had no interest in being the object of a "hearts and minds" campaign. They disdained an operation that claimed to be helping them, but, from the perspective of the elders, was doing the opposite.

To illustrate their view that things had gone wrong since 2002, they told a story: A farmer hires a shepherd to take care of his sheep. When several sheep are missing a few weeks later, the farmer gets angry and threatens to fire the shepherd. The shepherd points to the farmer’s two dogs. They have grown enormously fat. In Afghanistan, corrupt officials, and international consultants are getting fat while ordinary Afghans are unable to protect themselves. The story has an added meaning: in a traditional Islamic setting, dogs are seen to be alien and impure.

Afghans have an innate sense of justice. They have a strong sense of dignity and self-worth. Every time anyone has bothered to ask, Afghans have “voted” overwhelmingly for a just peace. More than 75 percent of respondents in a 2005 survey conducted by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission underlined the need for accountability for a long list of human rights violations.

Afghanistan’s human rights defenders led the challenge to a blanket amnesty law that came to light earlier this year. This law effectively green-lights impunity and sends the message that perpetrators have nothing to fear. Importantly, Afghanistan’s partners have, essentially, ignored this law. It needs to be repealed, as does another recent piece of legislation, the Shia Personal Status Law, as it reinforces the de facto second-class status of women and girls.

The distance between the rhetoric surrounding the situation of Afghan women and girls and the reality on the ground is apparent in the latest dominant narrative of Afghanization. The basic idea is that the capacity of Afghans will be strengthened so that the U.S.-led drawdown can take place on schedule by the middle of next year. But the danger is that many of the Afghans and institutions that benefit are a threat to those who want justice and the rule of law.

U.S. largess is being used to finance private security companies and local militias that are essentially a re-grouping of “the men with guns” who held sway in the past. The CIA is funding power brokers such as the President’s own brother, a major architect of the dysfunctional governance that now imperils Kandahar. What we are seeing is a replay of the U.S.’ past history in Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, warlords such as Hekmatyar profited handsomely from U.S. support although his tactics included throwing acid at women. Nowadays, Hekmatyar is on a U.S. wanted list, but he is already positioning himself for another round of deal-making and power-sharing.

The failure of the agenda for justice is central to the overall lack of success in Afghanistan over the last nine years. This is evident in the growing disconnect between the Afghan people and the Karzai regime, which grew out of the Bonn state-building project. The relationship between widespread disillusionment and the deepening crisis needs to be acknowledged and remedied.

The absence of justice is a critical driver of the insurgency and needs to be understood in terms of realpolitik. The Taliban are actively exploiting the justice deficit. They will continue to do so as long as counter-insurgency and other strategies purport to prioritize the protection of civilians while simultaneously propping up a predatory regime that fuels a vicious cycle of violence and insecurity.

Traditionally, the minimum that Afghans expected from a ruler was to be a good Muslim and to provide justice and security.

Afghans today are no less keen to be free of oppression. What they and their country need is a transformation that puts an end to a long pattern of human rights violations and the injustices that egregious crimes entail.

Afghans want peace and a reconciliation process that reflects what the term implies, namely a process that is geared to healing the wounds of a brutalized and fractured society. In other words, peace-making and not deal-making between abusive power-holders.

Part of the real, as opposed to the concocted, narrative of the war in Afghanistan is that Afghans desperately want an end to violence. They want an end not only to armed violence but also to the structural violence that enables contemporary warlordism to flourish.

Given the history of the past nine years, a “Bonn II” is needed to negotiate a new, inclusive, and equitable political framework. This requires switching gears and facing up to the realities that encourage violence. It requires that all the major stakeholders — all those who literally and figuratively call the shots — acknowledge that injustice is no less a strategic concern than corruption or bad governance. There can be no short or long-term peace while the vast majority of the Afghan people are held captive to home-grown as well as external injustices.

Norah Niland was the chief U.N. human rights officer in Afghanistan until a few months ago. She also worked with the U.N. in Afghanistan promoting human rights during the Taliban regime period.