Afghans still dying as US uses Loya Jirga to legitimise its plans for the country

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Afghanistan’s US-imposed and supported "president", Hamid Karzai, said on December 24 that he expected the country’s tribal Loya Jirga (grand assembly) to complete its work within a week (after Crescent press time) and that he was confident that it would agree to his preferred presidential model for a new constitution. Other Afghan leaders taking part in the Loya Jirga, such as Jama’at-e Islami leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, had advocated a parliamentary system. Karzai’s confidence is not surprising, considering the efforts the US has taken to ensure that its political plans for Afghanistan are not derailed by the continuing resistance to its military occupation of the country or the resurgence of support for its former rulers, the Taliban. There was a massive security operation surrounding the Loya Jirga meeting when it finally got under way on December 13 after twice being postposed for security reasons, amid tight security in Kabul, and few observers missed the deep irony of this assembly of so-called representatives of the people needing such massive protection from foreign troops to meet to discuss the future constitution.

The Jirga was really a side-show enacted to prove that representatives of the Afghan people (how they were elected and selected also came in for criticism) were debating and discussing the issues confronting Afghanistan. All the main decisions had already been made by Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US ambassador to Kabul, who hovered over the proceedings like a vulture over a carcass. The representatives can talk as much as they like, but ultimately they have little option but to rubber-stamp the decisions the Americans had already reached. This is what Khalilzad had done in December 2001; the former king, Zahir Shah, was allowed to deliver a speech, but then Khalilzad announced to the delegates that the king had agreed to Karzai’s appointment as interim leader. The king had done no such thing; Khalilzad had decided that this was what would happen.

It was also lack of security that affected the convening of the Loya Jirga; it was postponed twice. Because of increasingly daring attacks by the Taliban and a warning from Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a former prime minister, that anyone cooperating with the American-sponsored Jirga would be considered an enemy of the Afghan people, and therefore killed, many delegates were reluctant to come. Huge bribes were paid to get them to Kabul.

There was also confusion about what the Jirga was supposed to achieve. Karzai demanded a quick agreement on a new constitution that was unveiled in November, with a strong presidency to guide the country to its first elections in June. His rivals in the Jami’at-e Islami, led by ambitious warlords such as defence minister Mohammed Qasim Fahim, pushed for a strong prime minister and parliament. Fahim expects to become prime minister and retain the Tajik minority’s stranglehold on power. Not surprisingly, the committee headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and a Tajik, was the last to give its report to the full assembly. There were 10 such committees to discuss various articles of the constitution. Delegates also criticized the draft constitution, saying that it had been drawn up without adequate consultation. One delegate, who wished to remain anonymous, was quite blunt: "Ultimately, the Americans will get what they want, either through bribes or by exerting pressure." But he also made it clear that such tactics will not work in the long run.

If they are not convinced that the constitution will help them sort out their problems (security, food, water, employment and so on) the Afghans may agree to it under pressure, but then they would start to undermine it. One of the contentious issues has been the role of Islam. Afghanistan is a deeply religious society, and several delegates said that the constitution’s religious stipulations were too vague. Others, under the influence of the West, wanted no role for Islam but demanded a greater role for women, including the ‘right’ to go about without hijab. The recent participation of an Afghan woman in the Miss World beauty contest is an example of the type of freedom the Americans want to give Afghan women. There were threats against some women delegates who started to take their role too seriously. While the Americans and Western agencies are encouraging women to challenge established norms, they will not be able to protect them from the deeply conservative Afghan society; imposing western values and standards will not work.

In an interview with Reuters news agency on December 15, the UN special representative Lakhdar Brahimi had predicted a "difficult" debate in the Jirga; it certainly was. He also said that unless the security situation improved substantially, it would be difficult to hold elections next June. He called for postponement if security remains precarious. There is little likelihood that it will improve. The Taliban are getting better organized, thanks to the deteriorating plight of the people; with warlords on the rampage the Taliban can only get stronger. Since there is no other redress from the warlords’ oppressions and injustices, people are turning to the Taliban, whom they are beginning to view as saviours, in increasing numbers. It is a remarkable turnaround in a country where the Taliban were much maligned only two years ago.

Away from the theatrics at the Loya Jirga, real action has been under way in Eastern and Southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban and their supporters are giving the American occupiers a tough time. Unable to beat the resurgent Taliban and al-Qa’ida fighters, who seem to be able to attack American forces at will and then melt away among the people, the Americans have resorted to indiscriminate bombing. On two consecutive days (December 5 and 6) the Americans killed 15 children in two separate incidents. Six children died when the Americans fired rockets and used tanks to crush a mud wall near Khost in eastern Afghanistan as part of Operation Avalanche, which involved 2,000 troops. A day later, in a village near Ghazni, the Americans used A-10 attack planes in broad daylight to destroy mud houses, killing nine children and one adult. The second attack was ostensibly made to kill Mullah Wazir, a former Taliban commander, who, according to villagers, had left the area two weeks earlier.

Typically, the Americans first denied that any children were killed, insisting that the attack was aimed at a Taliban supporter; later they said that a commission would be set up to investigate the incident, without giving details of the air attack. Karzai also said for the umpteenth time that the Americans should be "more careful." There have been more than 400 civilian casualties since last May from US bombing raids. At least 48 people were killed in July 2002 when American planes fired on a village where a wedding party was in progress. In another incident, 11 people from one family were killed when a bomb landed on their house near the Pakistani border in Paktika Province. On October 30 American planes bombed a village in the northern province of Nuristan, killing six members of one family, most of them women and children, and two students in the village mosque. The US military refused to confirm that its planes were in the area that night.

Operation Avalanche was launched to coincide with Rumsfeld’s visit to Kabul and Mazaar-i Sharif and create the impression that US forces were going after the Taliban to restore order and provide security, yet it had exactly the opposite effect. In much of eastern and southern Afghanistan the Taliban operate virtually unchallenged. American operations simply confirm that the Taliban are still a credible force. Interior minister Ahmed Jalali has also been forced to concede that the Taliban control at least 12 districts. Even in Kabul the security situation is precarious; a few hours after Rumsfeld left the city on December 5, a rocket landed near the heavily-guarded US embassy. Karzai remains a virtual prisoner in the presidential palace. The UN has withdrawn almost its entire staff, and other non-governmental agencies have also scaled down operations. Even the World Food Programme admitted on December 19 that its food distribution programme had been severely affected by lack of security. On December 20 the Americans confirmed that poppy cultivation had increased by 60 times in a year. In 2003 more than 152,000 acres of land were cultivated for poppy crop; in 2001, the last year of Taliban rule, it was only 4,210 acres.

Even more disturbing news came from the New York Times on December 18. "The governments of Serbia and Montenegro," wrote Nicholas Woods, "have offered a contingent of 700 troops and policemen to work alongside NATO soldiers in Afghanistan." No doubt raping and murdering the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosova are considered appropriate experiences that qualify troops for duty in Afghanistan, another Muslim country with a population that the Americans are unable to subdue. Equally revealing was the fact that "the Serbian offer, first made in July and explored in September at [the US] Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, is in abeyance pending the outcome of parliamentary elections in Serbia on December 28."

Not all Serb politicians are enthusiastic about deploying troops alongside NATO, whether in Afghanistan or in Iraq, but general Goran Radosavljevic, the commander of the Serb gendarmerie, is preparing to send at least 250 of the 700-member contingent, calling them "volunteers"; mercenaries would be a more apt description. Some of its most recent recruits include 80 former members of the Red Berets, a paramilitary police unit that was disbanded in early 2003 after some of them were implicated in the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the late Serbian prime minister, last March. They are currently on trial in Belgrade.

That the Americans would even consider the Serbian offer is preposterous; those who rape and murder are not fit for any duty, but one should not be surprised at the Americans’ behaviour. The two Afghan warlords among a host of others–”the Uzbek general, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Tajik general, Mohammad Atta–”with whom US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld consorted on December 5 in Mazaar-i Sharif, are no better than the Serbian thugs. The epithet "warlord" is used rather selectively in Afghanistan: those opposed to the US are branded as warlords; supporters of American occupation, no matter how unsavoury, are considered "moderates" and described as "working for democracy" in Afghanistan. That explained the presence of so many strange characters among the 502 delegates at the Loya Jirga. Some of them were not even sure why they were there; when given a chance to speak about various articles of the constitution, several delegates lamented the lack of crop seed or water in their areas.

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