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Kamran Mir Hazar        Letter to Editor

Democracy in Afghanistan

Why Taliban and warlords are able to participate in Afghanistan's democratic process?

Wali Shaaker

The parliamentary and provincial elections held on September 18, 2005 were among the first, organized since the decade of constitutional monarchy in Afghanistan (1963-1973).  As a result, 249 members were elected to represent the Afghans at the Wolosi Jirga (the lower house of the parliament).

What is astonishing is that warlords, including four former high-ranking officials of Taliban's oust government, comprise at least half of the house's members.  International human rights groups have accused most of these men of narcotics' production and trafficking, as well as committing atrocities against the people.  Civilians claim to have fallen victim, or witnessed crimes committed by them since as early as the beginning of the Afghans' resistance against the Soviet invasion (Kolhatkar and Ingals 1).

Thus the question is:  Why has the current administration allowed warlords and Taliban to participate in the recent parliamentary elections?  To explore possible answers, it is important to note that the newly established government of President Karzai, organized these elections with the economic and political support of the international community (lead by the United States).  Moreover, it is appropriate to study the Afghan government's guiding principles, and the U.S. policy makers' perception of, and convictions in regards to the role of warlords and former members of Taliban leadership in the current political process. 

Assessing the scope of government's economic and law enforcement capacity, in addition to the analysis of the U.S. foreign policy affecting domestic affairs of Afghanistan, one could formulate the following argument:  Members of the Taliban elite and warlords succeeded to participate in the current political process because the Afghan government has chosen to undertake the policy of reconciliation and appeasement.  Based on careful calculations, it has deliberately adopted this policy in an attempt to maintain its own control of power at the center.  This is due to two main reasons.  First, the current administration lacks the economic muscle and the military might to keep warlords and former Taliban elite subordinate to its own authority.  Secondly, when the U.S. policy of Afghanistan's democratization comes into conflict with its policy of the war on terror, it is clear that for the Bush administration success in the war on terror policy takes precedence.  Subsequently, many U.S. foreign policy framers view Afghan warlords, and even cooperating former Taliban members favorably.  Not surprisingly, since the defeat of the Taliban's government, warlords have continued to cooperate with and support, the U.S. military in its quest for destruction of Al-Qaeda and hostile Taliban forces.

Who is back in power?

Many did not expect that the Afghan government allow the former leaders of Taliban's administration to participate in parliamentary elections - one of the main cornerstones of democratic process.  However, the unexpected indeed has occurred.  A total number of six high-ranking Taliban officials managed to run in September parliamentary and provincial council elections.  Subsequently, at least two were elected in the people's council, Wolosi Jirga, of the national assembly.

Mullah Abdul Salam Racketi is one of them.  He is the former commander of military unit No.1 in Nangarhar province during the Taliban era.  Currently, Racketi represents the southern province of Zabul in the parliament.  Another prominent Talib participant is Maulawi Mohammad Islam Muhammadi.  The governor of the central Bamiyan province (The province in which Taliban destroyed the 157 foot statue of Buddha) during Taliban's era, Muhammadi has secured a seat in Wolosi Jirga on behalf of Samangan province.  Although he did not get elected, Taliban's former foreign minister Mawlawi Wakil Ahmad Mutawakili also had the opportunity to claim candidacy in the Western Kandahar province - the power base of the Talib movement (Radio Free Europe 2005).

One might expect that the significance of the power position that these former Taliban leaders had held in the past could easily serve as grounds for holding them accountable for the human rights abuses and crimes that the Taliban government is accused of committing.  However, not only the government has failed to press charges against these men, it has given them the opportunity to participate in the electoral process, and rise to prominent power-positions within the very administration that forcefully replaced them four years ago.  Interestingly, members of the Taliban political elite are not the only individuals that have enjoyed the opportunity to freely participate in the recent parliamentary and provincial elections.  Many warlords, who belong to various radical and militant political factions, have also taken great advantage of the current political process.  They have participated and won in the recent parliamentary elections.

In addition to international human rights organizations, a large number of Afghan civilians hold many of these former Mujahedin and militia commanders responsible for the physical destruction of the country.  They also hold them responsible for killing, and various human rights abuses of the innocent civilian population. 

To name a couple, Hazrat Ali, and Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf serve as prominent examples among more than one hundred and twenty warlords that have successfully been able to penetrate into the legislative branch of the government.  Hazrat Ali, allegedly linked to narcotics trafficking and human rights violations, is among the election winners in the eastern province of Nangarhar (46).  Under the current administration, he served as the police chief of four provinces Nangarhar, Konar, Noristan, and Laghman.  Some attribute his success in elections to his strong tribal base, and his ability to spend lavishly during his campaign.  In regard to the allegations of his ties to narcotics production and smuggling, Ali insists that he utterly dislikes cultivation of poppies because Islam does not allow their use, and that he would not hesitate to take serious measures within his jurisdiction to curtail it (Baldauf 2).  However, farmers in the province tell stories that contradict his claims.  They maintain that Ali's men constantly make sure that the farmers continue the cultivation of opium (Baldauf 2).  In addition to reports by human rights organizations, such news stories lead one to believe that Mr. Ali is most likely linked to illegal drug industry.  Another warlord's name certainly worth mentioning in connection with human rights violations is the newly elected lower house representative Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.  According to Council on Foreign Relations, men in his army have been responsible for the numerous killings of Afghan civilians, and committing crimes such as rape, and torture of ordinary citizens in the past.  Sayyaf's forces are based right outside Kabul city in Paghman (Baldauf 2).

In early march 2005, President Karzai made the surprising announcement of Dostam's selection as the Chief of Staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces.  Abdul Rashid Dostam is a notorious warlord, also blamed for widespread abuse of power.  In addition to the bombing of Kabul during the 1992-1995 civil war, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission holds him accountable for similar violations mentioned above (Duparcq 1). 

It is reasonable to expect the newly elected government, founded on democratic principals, to take legal action against Taliban high officials, and warlords such as Dostam, Raketi, Ali, and Sayyaf in order to implement justice.  On the contrary, the current administration not only has failed to bring such individuals to justice, it has even raised their position of power within the institutional framework of the government.  The state has provided them with ample opportunity to strengthen their political influence and economic muscle by using the democratic political process to their advantage.  Not only the lack of appropriate action, but also the action in reverse of the current U.S. backed government in seeking justice, and creating a fair institutional framework within which the political process could take place is puzzling.   


The Afghan government's approach

What is the current administration's policy objective in regards to warlords and Taliban, and why has it chosen to follow this particular path?  To avoid further conflict and bloodshed, the government has no choice but to choose a strategy that stems from the frail capacity of the center to secure its power on the periphery.  Therefore, in many parts of the country, as it is incapable of subordinating warlords' military forces to that of it's own, it elects to follow the policy of appeasement and reconciliation.  In addition, the United State's foreign policy in Afghanistan, its relations with, and favorable treatment of warlords (including former cooperating Taliban officials) has seriously influenced the domestic policy decisions of the Afghan government.  The U.S. military and economic support of private armies has contributed to the weakening of Afghan government's authority relative to that of the warlords.  Consequently, it has made a carefully calculated decision to compromise, and to avoid major conflicts with their opponents in order to stay in power.

It is easily demonstrable that the government has not yet established the economic and military power necessary to challenge the authority of highly influential warlords and even some of the Taliban's high-ranking officials.  President Karzai's base of power rests primarily among educated and moderate Afghans with secular political tendencies.  They constitute a small segment of the population with little or no economic and military resources that could hardly match those of the warlords.  Also the Afghan government is at great economic disadvantage compared to the warlords, whose primary source of income is comprised of revenues obtained from drug cultivation and trafficking.  A brief comparative glance at the income generating capability of the two could plainly exhibit this point.  The domestic revenue of the Afghan government in 2004 was two hundred million dollars.  On the other hand, the heads of the private armed forces collected revenues in a multibillion-dollar illegal industry.  One needs not to be a mathematician to comprehend the severity of the state's economic position in comparison to the economic power of well-funded warlords.  By means of narco-dollars warlords keep their armed forces loyal, and buy peoples' vote during the elections campaign (Ruben 2).

Therefore, it is clear that the security challenges that warlords pose to the current administration are indeed greater than the government's scope of power.  Subsequently, their economic and military superiority forces the government to resort to a compromising position.  In fact, President Karzai has himself pointed out that warlords represent "the greatest threat to Afghanistan's security . . . more dangerous than the remnants of the Taliban regime (Pan 2).  What gives credibility to his statement is the fact that Afghanistan does not possess a military or police force capable of effectively disarming local power brokers and eradicating drug production.  A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) testifies to the fact that the Afghan National Army and police force lacks adequate training and equipment necessary to effectively implement law and social order.  The report also indicates that in the absence of a long-term integrated plan, especially between the German and American authorities, the future of Afghan security forces remains uncertain.  Furthermore, the number of embedded trainers within the army does not meet the need to sustain instructions at a rapidly progressive pace (GAO-05-575 June/05).  Undoubtedly, these shortcomings place the state at great disadvantage while trying to rebuild the basic institutional infrastructure for establishing a democratic system.

The U.S. foreign policy

What is the impact of the U.S. foreign policy on the Afghan government's choices of rules, and course of action that it elects to follow?  Let's not ignore the fact that the international community, lead by the United States, provides the current administration with significant political and economic support.  However, it is equally important to note that while the U.S. has remained supportive of the Afghan government, it has also provided the warlords, (regardless of their past history of human rights abuses) with considerable amount of economic and military assistance on consistent basis.  Ironically, the United States' support for private militant factions coincides with the slow process of establishing a national army and police force capable of effective enforcement of law and order. 

The Bush administration's primary aim of overthrowing the Taliban's regime was to destroy Al-Qaeda's base of operations through strong military action.  Consequently, the United States' foreign policy in Afghanistan, centered on the war on terrorism platform, has established a strong foundation for warlords' and even Taliban's participation in the recent parliamentary elections.  Warlords enjoy political support by many U.S. high-ranking officials and military elite who feel indebt for these private armies continuous assistance to the American military forces fighting against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.    As a result, following the oust of the Taliban government, the interim administration had little choice but to assign commanders of these private armies to positions of power and influence, trusting them with the control of the general population.  This in turn, has contributed to their hold on many key political positions.  Thus it is safe to conclude that the process of empowering the warlords is designed to serve United States' central foreign policy objective in Afghanistan - the war on terrorism.

From the inception of the U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Washington decided to use Afghan militant factions to provide troops on the ground as to minimize American casualties.  It is not difficult to realize that many of the U.S. policy decision makers maintain favorable views about these local strongmen. For instance, Dana Rohrabacher emphasizes the value of "the guys who sided with the United States . . . Dostam, Atta, Khan . . . The people who defeated the Taliban (Kolhatkar and Ingals 2)."  It appears that Representative Rohrabacher has not taken into serious consideration the accusation of horrific crimes committed by these "guys," whom have served as proxy warriors for the United States.  Similarly, deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz thinks that the United States must adopt the strategy of working with "Those warlords . . . to encourage good behavior (Kolhatkar and Ingals 2)."  It is not clear what he exactly means by saying "good behavior."  However, if it is meant to indicate obedience to the laws of the state, refraining from drug trafficking, and rights violations of innocent civilians, the U.S. does not seem to have been successful at encouraging this sort of behavior among warlords.  Sure enough, neither the news stories, nor the human rights reports from Afghanistan show that the warlords have been "contributing to stability" in any manner as Defense Secretary Donald Ramsfeld puts it (Kolhatkar and Ingals 2).  On the contrary, by competing with the center's authority, and in many areas of the country, by monopolizing the right of violence, warlords such as Dostam, Atta, Ali, Khan, and Sayyaf are serving the exact opposite purpose of what the U.S. foreign policy makers have predicted to achieve.  Evidently, policy preferences of the U.S. political elite, within the context of the war on terror, are of profound influence and consequences on the current Afghan administration's domestic policy.  Therefore, the state has not only chosen to show leniency toward warlords and former Taliban influential elites, it has even rewarded them with positions of power and the opportunity to participate in the political process.


Undoubtedly, the Afghan government has endeavored to minimize military opposition to its authority.  Therefore, it has made considerable political concessions to those accused of human rights violations, and the same forces it has sought to replace.  As a result, many warlords, and even some of the prominent members of the Taliban regime had the opportunity to participate in September, 18 Wolosi Jirga elections, and win many seats in the legislative body of the government.  This is a function of the current administration's reconciliation and appeasement policy.  According to this policy most former Taliban officials willing to cooperate with the government and the U.S. forces in the war on terrorism, not only escape legal action, but also enjoy the opportunity to strengthen their political influence and economic supremacy.  The embracing of this policy in the light of the United States' perception of the military value of warlords is of profound significance for democracy in Afghanistan.  Foreign policy decisions made based on calculations for immediate and short-term military gains on part of the U.S. political elite has greatly contributed to the legitimacy of cooperating Taliban and warlords' authority.  Reinforced by the relative military and economic weakness of the Afghan government, this has given those whom many view as criminals, the opportunity to take advantage of the newly democratic system and further their political and economic interests. 

Born in Kabul Afghanistan, Wali Shaaker is a poet and political analyst.  He has served as the president of The Society of Afghan Professionals in California (2001).  Shaaker's Dari poems are available at: www.afghanartist.persianblog.com.



 Afghan Security:  Efforts to establish army and police have made progress, but future plans need to be better defined, Report to the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives United States Government Accountability Office GAO-05-575 June/2005


Biswas, Soutik.  Puzzle of The Stay-Away Voters.  BBC News, Kabul  26 Oct. 2005.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/in_depth/south_asia/2004/afghanistan


Baldauf, Scott.  Afghan Military Tied to Drug Trade.  Christian Science Monitor 

4 Sep. 2003.  http://www.csmonitor.com/2003/0904/p06s01-wosc.html


Barnard, Anne. And Stockman, Farah.  U.S. Weighs Role in Heroin War in Afghanistan.  Boston Globe   20 Oct. 2004.  http://opioids.com/afghanistan/heroin-economy.html


Duparcq, Emmanuel.  Northern Afghan Warlords Hope for Ballots Not Bullets Ahead of Elections.  Daily Times 28 Mar. 2005. 



Gwertzman, Bernard.  Rubin:  U.S. Must Confront Warlords, Deal With Taliban.  Council on Foreign Relations 14 July 2004. http://www.cfr.org/publication/7191/rubin.html


Ingalls, James.  The New Afghan Constitution:  A Step Backwards for Democracy. Foreign Policy in Focus March 2004.  http://www.fpif.org/papers/2004afghanconst.html


Karzai Calls on Taliban to Join Reconciliation Process.  Swissinfo.org   12 Nov 2005.  http://www.swissinfo.org/sen/swissinfo.html?siteSect=143&sid=6233623&cKey=1131790816000


Karzai Picks Dostam to Command Army.  Daily Times  2 Mar. 2005.  http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=story_2-3-2005_pg4_16


Kolhatkar, Sonali and Ingalls, Jim.  Giving Democracy a Bad Name:  Afghanistans Parliamentary Elections. Foreign Policy in Focus 16 Sep. 2005.  http://www.fpif.org/fpiftxt/647


Multi-Multi-Party Democracy:  The New Parliament is a mixed Bag.  The Economist  22 Oct. 2005.  www.economist.com


News and Analysis:  Two Former Taliban Win Seats in Afghan parliament.  Radio Free Europe  25 Oct. 2005.  http://www.rferl.org/en/specials/elections/features/2005/10/5763D47B-235A-4699-B050-ACBA12A32967.ASP


Pan, Esther.  Afghanistan:  Karzai vs. the Warlords.  Council on Foreign Relations 15 Sep 2004.  http://www.cfr.org/publication/7791/afghanistan.html


Rodgers, Jimmie. Democracy and Terrorism.  AOL Journals 15 Mar. 2005.

            http://journals. Aol.com/bmiller224/OldHickorysWeblog/entries/2754


Rubin, Barnett R. and Armstrong, Andrea.  Regional Issues in the Reconstruction of Afghanistan.  Center on International Cooperation  Conflict Prevention Recovery and Peace Building.  http://www.cic.nyu.edu/pdf/wpj_afghanistan.pdf


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Salaam bar shomaa,

I really enjoyed reading Kabul Press on line.  Great work.  I would like to submit a paper for your consideration.  I hope you find it worthy of publishing in Kabul Press.

Best Regards,

Wali Shaaker



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