Tag Archives: Bagram

Human Rights and Afghanistan

On Tuesday, 10/27, Habib Rahiab joined us as the first outside guest in YAF’s fall speaker series. Mr. Rahiab is a human rights activist who was forced to flee Afghanistan because of his work documenting human rights abuses and advocating that Afghan warlords implicated in past war crimes be brought to justice. He led Human Rights Watch projects to interview victims and prepare reports drawing attention to these issues (his report “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing For Us To Do” is here), and he now works with the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center in New Haven.

Mr, Rahiab spoke about his personal struggles growing up in Afghanistan, witnessing the atrocities committed by the Communist regime, the mujahideen and the Taliban, and how these experiences influenced him to become a human rights activist.

After the fall of the Taliban, some of his early work involved gathering testimony from Afghan and Pakistani ex-detainees from Guantanamo, Bagram and black-site prisons. He described the terrible psychological state of these men, and his disbelief upon first hearing stories of sexual abuse.

Peace Before Justice?

Mr. Rahiab described how the international coalition’s choice to have a “light footprint” in Afghanistan influenced the developments of the last eight years. The overall presence was small, compared to post-conflict situations such as Bosnia and East Timor, and responsibilities were divided among many nations. The decision was made to focus on peace rather than justice, overlooking past atrocities in the interests of security and a quick withdrawal.

Along with the failure to build state institutions came the failure to create economic development. Mr Rahiab recounted how, when expectations were high, Iranians joked that they would have to migrate to Afghanistan for jobs, instead of the other way around. However, people now find it easier to make a living by joining the Taliban. The insurgency can promise money in this life, and heaven in the next, while the government can promise neither.

On Security Forces:

Asked whether he was concerned about abuses in the Afghan security forces, he said that, while corruption and incapacity are widespread, there is respect for the official forces, and that they do not pose the human rights issues that private militias do.

The use of private security by international groups is also a serious problem. It undermines structures of accountability and creates inequality in protection. It is fundamentally unjust when private contractors turn a blind eye to robberies taking place around them because only foreigners can pay to guard their property.

On the Current Decisions to Be Made:

Mr. Rabiab supports holding the run-off election. The election is important not for Karzai’s legitimacy, but the legitimacy of the democratic project. Something must be done to restore faith in elections as a system after the fraudulent first round of voting.

His suggestion for today is to focus the most money on the provinces that are stable enough for it to do some good. If Kabul were a model of order and prosperity, it would demonstrate an incentive to stop fighting the government. As it is, people in the north and center of the country feel like they should set off bombs in order to get attention and development.

On the Shia Family Law

The question period ended with a discussion of the Shia family law, which came under fire last year for legalizing marital rape. According to Mr. Rabiab, the law must be seen in the context of the political maneuvering surrounding the election. It was drafted by the most conservative clerics, and is not representative of the actual lived rights of Shia women. However, it enjoys broad support because for the first time the law establishes Shia as an official religion. Hazara generally defend the government because they have the most to gain from the new system.

Our deep thanks to Mr. Rahiab, and to everyone who attended.


Week in Review, 9/12-9/18

The wrangling continues over the outcome of the Afghan presidential election and what steps, if any, can be taken to salvage the government’s legitimacy. The completed count of the first round of voting left Hamid Karzai with 54.6% of the vote and Abdullah Abdullah with 27.8% of the vote; remember, this count isn’t “final” until the Electoral Complaints Commission finishes its work. So far, the ECC has ordered a recount at about 10% of all precincts–about 2,500–at which some 850,000 ballots were cast, a disproportionate number for Karzai. This would be a massive undertaking that would likely push a runoff election into next year, since winter weather would make voting completely unfeasible from about mid-October through April.

So can the process be sped up? Daoud Ali Najafi, head of the Independent Electoral Commission, suggests that the ECC base its recount on random samples rather than counting all 850,000 ballots. But a limited recount almost certainly wouldn’t satisfy Abdullah’s team, which had argued that a much larger number–20-25%–of the ballots were fraudulent, unless of course the limited recount left Karzai with less than 50%. It’d be easy to write of Abdullah’s views as self-interested, but several independent observers have also suggested that the IEC and the ECC are only scratching the surface of the fraud problem. The EU observer team, for example, calculates that 1.5 million votes are “suspicious“, 1.1 million of which were cast for Karzai. If all of those votes were excluded, Karzai’s share would fall to about 47%, forcing a runoff.

In fact, the UN mission isn’t even unanimous on how to deal with the elections, as became evident this week when Peter Galbraith–the top American diplomat at UNAMA–left the mission temporarily over a dispute with his superior Kai Eide. Eide was out of the country when the vote-rigging allegations came to light, and Galbraith was apparently behind the IEC’s decision to hold off an announcing the results of large numbers of ballots from Karzai-backing provinces. Now Eide is clamping down on talk of massive fraud and trying to forestall a complete recount, which Galbraith supports. Galbraith’s position seems consistent with the U.S.’ other actions, especially if this report from The Times of London is accurate when it claims that Richard Holbrooke’s staff were proactive in leaking fraud reports in an attempt to discredit Karzai’s victory.

This kind of public scrap is the last thing UNAMA or the ISAF nations need right now. Karzai’s current position is to acknowledge that the election was imperfect but insist that Western observers are being irresponsible to cast doubt on the results or suggest a runoff; as Aunohita Mojumdar of EurasiaNet notes, Western disunity strengthens Karzai’s hand and threatens to make “anti-foreigner rhetoric” the cornerstone of his government’s credibility. For example, check out this headline from Kabul’s Noorin TV: “Analysts say the verbal tussles between UN SRSG Kai Eide and his deputy Peter Galbraith show that western diplomats are working on the basis of their own country’s interests.” That’s certainly the image Karzai wants to project.

The obvious way out of this quandary would be a coalition government of some kind. David Miliband floated that idea last week, and speculation has increased as the recount situation has deteriorated; Declan Walsh of The Observer and Matthew Green of the Financial Times, among others, reported that Karzai was coming under increasing pressure to cut a deal–though it’s not clear who is pressuring him, or what kind of deal would be cut. The IEC was quick to shoot down Miliband’s suggestion, though, and Spencer Ackerman cites an American diplomat claiming that Abdullah wouldn’t want a position in a Karzai administration anyway. Ajmal Samadi of Afghanistan Rights Monitor proposes another alternative: a new “transitional authority” to run the country until the election process is finished. Josh Foust endorses the idea, and adds that he hopes that a transitional authority could be a step toward a new constitution with a parliamentary (as opposed to a presidential) system, which might be a way to prevent future dilemmas like the one Afghanistan faces now.

As though taking divergent lines on the election weren’t bad enough, the ISAF nations aren’t exactly showing strength of resolve on the military side of things this week, either. At least two of the U.S.’ allies are demonstrating increasing discomfort with their role in Afghanistan. Yukio Hatoyama, the newly-elected prime minister from the Democratic Party of Japan, announced the appointment of Toshimi Kitazawa as Defense Minister; Kitazawa was an Iraq war opponent, and his appointment “suggests that [Hatoyama] will follow through in his election promise to withdraw from the Nato-led Afghanistan campaign”, according to the Times of London. The DPJ is more like an opposition alliance than an ideologically coherent party, but everyone associated the formerly-ruling Liberal Democratic Party with a close relationship with the United States, so the DPJ represents the opposite, at least in the minds of some voters. Japan has no troops in Afghanistan, but provides refueling support to the U.S. in the Indian Ocean.

Italy, however, DOES have some 3,100 troops in Afghanistan, and is apparently reconsidering that role after a suicide car bombing in Kabul that killed six of its soldiers as well as ten civilians. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s response was quick and unambiguous: ““We are all convinced that it would be best for everyone, whoever they are, to remove our conspicuous presence from Afghanistan quickly.” Berlusconi’s coalition is less unified in its support for the war than Chancellor Merkel’s in Germany; it’s safe to say that every Italian death in Afghanistan makes their presence there a bigger liability for Berlusconi, who has plenty of other domestic political problems.

So, in summary, the political dynamics of the West are interacting with the political dynamics of Afghanistan to put both in a bad spot. I’ll have more to say about how commentators and (more importantly) the Obama administration think we should manage the situation, but I wanted to highlight an important story that flew under the media radar this week: the announcement of new procedures for the detainees at Bagram Air Force Base. The announcement is a kind of preemptive step as the government prepares to appeal federal judge John Bates’ ruling that prisoners captured elsewhere and transferred to Bagram are entitled to habeas corpus. Detainees will now be provided with a representative–though not an attorney–who will have access to the evidence against the detainee, which the detainee still won’t be allowed to see. From a Washington Post editorial: “A three-officer military panel will review a detention decision within 60 days after the prisoner arrives, and new panels will reassess the detention every six months thereafter if the detainee continues to be held.” As David Remes of Appeal for Justice observes, this system sounds a lot like the Combatant Status Review Tribunals of Guantanamo–ruled insufficient in Boumediene v. Bush–and likely means a protracted legal battle. And, as that Post piece I linked above notes, the new guidelines don’t make any provision for the 30-odd prisoners at Bagram who weren’t captured on the battlefield, but were flown in from abroad.

While the news on the national and international levels is grim, it’s worth remembering that the situation in the provinces isn’t getting much better, and three great pieces from the past week emphasize that fact. First, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Post writes about the resurgent Taliban in Kandahar and the redoubled NATO efforts to secure the city, including intensive operations by Marines in Arghandab and an increased Canadian presence. Apparently, the Canadians have had some success with development projects in nearby Dand, which encouraged the local Barakazai elders to take a strong line against the Taliban. Unfortunately, this kind of operation on the city fringe is all our current troop levels will support, according to the NATO official quoted in the piece. Second, Josh Foust chronicles Ghazni province’s slow descent into Taliban control; the disappearance of a popular anti-American cleric there prompted a round of rioting in Ghazni city last week. Third, IWPR reports on a spate of abductions of business-owners and traders in Balkh province, where tensions between governor Atta Mohammed Noor and the central government have made law enforcement all but impossible.

Finally, since I regret that this blog has focused so heavily on the military-political side of things, I’d like to direct everyone to the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team’s brand new blog, which is a great source for updates (with pictures!) on province-level development in Afghanistan.

Week in Review, 3/29-4/4

The most important piece of domestic news from Afghanistan this week broke right after I posted last week’s review. President Karzai will remain in office after his term expires on May 21 through the August elections. I have no idea how constitutional this is–the court’s decision refers to the “interest of the Afghan people and state”. In any case, I doubt many people would dispute that this is a better situation than having the UN recognize a “temporary president”, which had been seriously discussed.

Ashraf Ghani seems okay with the decision but calls for some kind of civil society mechanism to make sure that Karzai doesn’t deploy state resources to boost his chances. The National Front, on the other hand, continues to maintain that Karzai’s government will no longer be legitimate after the 21st. Karzai had promised to call a loya jirga to resolve the dispute “if we see there are problems and there is no general agreement”; I can’t find a statement from him since the ruling came out. Meanwhile, former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah seems likely to be the National Front’s candidate for president. Abdullah was a top official in the Northern Alliance and is presumably a strong candidate–with ties to the both the Pashtun and Tajik communities–though I have no idea how visible he has been among the population at large.

Meanwhile,  NATO partners have apparently committed an additional 5,000 troops in advance of the August elections, including increases from Germany, Spain, and the U.K. Absent, however, are pledges of combat troops; the focus is on training and what Chancellor Merkel refers to as “Afghanisation“. The United States has announced an additional commitment of $40 million in election aid, which Secretary Clinton portrays as the opening salvo in Obama’s new course in Afghanistan. That $40 million sounded much better until I read that the UN is facing a “$100 million shortfall…in fund-raising for the August elections.”

The other big Afghan political development this week was much, much less hopeful. President Karzai’s signing of the Shia Family Law has garnered a great deal of international attention, and for good reason; the law makes forced consent to marital sex binding on Shia women, along with stripping women of custody rights and even the right to leave their homes without permission. Read the details; it’d be an understatement to say that this law poses a big problem for Secretary Clinton’s promise to include women’s rights in our foreign policy agenda. Apparently Karzai is playing to the Shia clerics–the article I just linked to quotes an MP saying this will also “curry favor among the Hazaras”, but the Hazaristan Times claims that Hazaras have traditionally had a more liberal attitude towards women and that prominent Hazaras have criticized the law. I don’t know enough to arbitrate.

The Guardian was already speculating about Afghanistan being the “downfall of NATO” before this story broke, and the Family Law has certainly sucked the air out of the summit. Gordon Brown, President Obama, and NATO’s secretary general are among those who claim to have given Karzai a lengthy talking-to; Karzai says he will “review” the law to make sure it’s consistent with the constitution and with Sharia. That’s not much of a walkback. And not surprisingly, commentators abroad are beginning to ask whether this is a government worth sacrificing lives for–Canada, U.K., etc. Joshua Foust, however, claims that the law is essentially institutionalizing a situation that already exists. That isn’t a defense, of course, but Foust claims that we should understand that this “is not materially different from the experience of rural women anyway”.

Since Karzai is garnering a fair number of comparisons to the Taliban this week, now’s a good time for a review of what they’ve been up to lately–that’s Christian Bleuer on their use of children as targets. Naturally, the Taliban are rejecting the idea of negotiation as loudly as possible–though of course this leaves the question of whether the “moderates” exist unanswered. (Here, the Telegraph profiles a “Pashtun tribal leader” running against Karzai on a platform of negotiation. This is apparently going to be a campaign issue.) Additionally, the AP has a report on the Wardak experiment–often described as “arming the tribes”–attempting to recreate the success of the Sunni Awakening in Iraq. OxFam protests the risk of “infiltration, co-optation, and subversion” of the militias while the provincial governor defends the force as “formal, well-equipped, and trained”.

Aside from the Shia Family Law, the Afghanistan-related news item that got the most domestic coverage this week was U.S. District Judge John Bates’ ruling that prisoners at Bagram Air Force base can challenge their detention in civilian courts. This has generated a great deal of hysteria in some circles, but it’s important to note that the decision explicitly does not apply to those captured on the field of battle in Afghanistan–only those transported there from abroad. (And Bates is hardly a left-winger–he was the judge who dismissed Valerie Plame’s lawsuit.)

Some miscellaneous links:

A coalition of NGOs on the need to de-militarize aid.

The Center for American Progress praises the new approach to Pakistan aid.

Russia is willing to discuss supply routes. Uzbekistan has also agreed to discuss the transit of non-military supplies.