CANBERRA — Whatever Washington’s expectations, Afghan President Hamed Karzai is certainly instituting what he has called “Afghan-style democracy.” His inclusion in the government of some individuals who in the past had been highly criticized as “warlords” might be prudent under present circumstances, but is double-edged. Will it pay off?
Karzai, chosen in Afghanistan’s landmark presidential election of last October, is indeed engaged in a very difficult and complex task of national reconstruction.
Afghanistan has historically been a socially and politically divided polity, which partly contributed to the conflict and bloodshed that engulfed the country for 23 years prior to the U.S.-led military campaign that started following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. The American intervention proved instrumental in dispersing the al-Qaeda network, toppling the theocratic regime of the Taliban and opening the way for the Karzai administration to take over.
But Afghanistan remained fragmented and awash with weapons, with many local power-holders claiming control over various parts of the country. The country very badly needed national unity, security and rebuilding.
Backed by the international community, most importantly the United States, Karzai’s approach to nation-building has been based on consensual politics. He has aimed at recreating what suited Afghanistan best during its longest period of peace and stability — from 1930 to 1973 — when an effective alliance existed among the central government, religious establishment, and tribal and ethnic leaders with influence in various parts of the country.
He has sought to be politically as inclusive as possible and as accommodating as required. Although initially some of his ministers, who had returned from exile, raised the specter of “warlordism” dominating Afghanistan — and this threatened the best interests of many local power-holders — Karzai has continued to find a politics of inclusion more appropriate.
No doubt he has had two influential supporters in this: former Afghan King Zahir Shah (1933-1973), who has been given the title of “father of the nation,” and the shrewd Afghan-born American ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Pursuing such politics, Karzai has steadily managed to accommodate in senior governmental positions a number of “warlords,” including the former governor of western Afghanistan, Ismail Khan (who is included in the Cabinet as minister of power) and Gul Aqa Sherzai, who was reappointed as governor of Kandahar.
Karzai’s latest edition to the list is the most controversial: Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum. While Ismail Khan has had a relatively unblemished record, the same cannot be said about the other two: Gul Aqa has been credibly accused of associating with drug traffickers, and Dostum has been repeatedly condemned by various Afghan and international groups for brutal human rights violations.
Karzai and Khalilzad have even issued an amnesty to “moderate Taliban” and invited them to join the government. It is reported that some Taliban leaders have taken up the offer.
Karzai’s nonconfrontational approach is understandable. He and his U.S. supporters have good reasons to be optimistic about the prospects for its success. But at the same time, it does raise some concerns about the direction that Afghanistan’s transition is taking.
Although a great majority of Afghans have welcomed the return of relative peace to their country in the expectation that there will hopefully be an improvement in their living conditions, they also want the process of national reconciliation to have a justice component.
The appointment of Dostum as Karzai’s personal military chief of staff, and the possible inclusion of well-known Taliban figures in the government, could send a shocking signal to many inside and outside Afghanistan. Many Afghans cry for justice against those who committed crimes against humanity. This issue is often articulated by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission as well as its international counterparts. This problem must ultimately be addressed.
Otherwise, the danger is that it could leave such deep scars on the Afghan psyche that it would seriously undermine Afghanistan’s stability and transition to a workable democracy in the long run.
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