The inauguration of Afghanistan's new assembly on December 19 was a fairly accurate reflection of the country's present plight: Dick Cheney, dubbed vice president for torture in his own country, came all the way from Washington to preside over the bizarre event that nearly did not happen because three days earlier a bomb had exploded outside the building. The American warlord took no chances; he descended from a helicopter close to the assembly hall and, surrounded by a phalanx of American bodyguards, rushed into the building. There were brief scuffles with Afghan guards, who wanted to frisk the American guards, but eventually the foreigners prevailed, browbeating the Afghans into submission. Power talks; Cheney had come to oversee the warring Afghan factions come together under one roof.
The opening session lasted a mere two hours, just short enough to prevent members from flying at each other's throats. The badly fractured assembly was cobbled together after last September's election, which was marred by massive vote-rigging and intimidation of voters, according to human rights groups. At least seven candidates were assassinated. Some of the more serious contenders, especially independent-minded ulama, were barred from contesting the thrice-postponed polls. There were no elections in several provinces, including Qandahar (President Hamid Karzai's home province), Uruzgan, Paktia and Zabul, because of “security concerns”.
The 351-member assembly—249 in the Wolesa Jirga (Lower House) and 102 in the Meshrano Jirga (Elders' House)—is an odd assortment of warlords, drug barons, technocrats, women and Western-backed refugees, many of whom came wearing overflowing robes and enormous turbans on top of even larger egos. Everyone had his or her own agenda, and the first session of the two houses next day “provided a glimpse of democracy Afghan style, with the upper house ignoring the rules of procedure and the lower house getting bogged down in debate,” according to Carlotta Gall in the New York Times (December 21).
Karzai got an immediate slap on the face when Yunus Qanuni, the Tajik warlord who had opposed him for the presidency, defeated the official candidate, Abdul Rabb Rasoul Sayyaf, for the post of chairman of the Lower House. Qanuni secured 122 votes to Sayyaf's 117, amid shouting and verbal abuse. In the House of Elders, which is padded by 34 appointees of Karzai's, the situation was no less uncertain. Sibghatullah Mujaddidi, Karzai's choice for chairman, appealed to members to consider his old age in “selecting” him. “If you respected me, you would not have run against me,” he said to Bakhtiar Aminzai, in an attempt at emotional blackmail against the former university chancellor, who won only 27 votes but was poised to win in the second round by an alliance with another candidate. Mujaddidi also threatened to resign from the Upper House if a second round of voting took place, because he feared losing to Aminzai. Both Karzai and Mujaddidi spent a lot of money buying votes, but it would have been difficult to beat Aminzai in the second round because he had vowed to clean up corruption and nepotism: two issues that appeal to most Afghans. In the end, tradition won over democracy; Aminzai stepped aside at the urging of several elders.
Mujaddidi led the National Liberation Front of Afghanistan during the resistance to Soviet occupation; Karzai's father was a member of this small group. Mujaddidi became president of Afghanistan for a brief period in 1992 after the Soviets were driven out. Qanuni was a minister in Karzai's government after the removal of the Taliban from power in November 2001. The two fell out when Qanuni was transferred from the interior ministry to the post of education minister, and resigned. He went on to challenge Karzai for the presidency, but failed. Qanuni is from the Panjshir Valley, a stronghold of the Tajiks, who wield considerable influence in Kabul at present. His election as chairman of the Wolesi Jirga will create problems for Karzai because that body has the authority to approve appointments to the cabinet and other senior posts.
Even as the artificial US-induced excitement about the opening of the Afghan parliament was being broadcast globally, in the rest of the country it was business as usual: mayhem almost everywhere. There were demonstrations against the government in Laghman and the highway to Kabul was blocked for several days to protest the murder of Asmatullah Muhabbat, a member of the Elders' House. People burnt tyres, preventing vehicles from entering the province that borders Kabul. Muhabbat was a former commander of mujahideen, and his murder is blamed on general Gul Karim, a nephew of Hazrat Ali, a warlord in charge of Laghman. The uncle-nephew duo was appointed by Karzai to secure their loyalty. In an attempt to assuage people's anger, Karzai has promised to go after those responsible for Muhabbat's murder. However, because of his lack of support and inability to control or influence events in the country, he may not be able to do much, despite the fanfare surrounding the opening of parliament creating the impression that he is in charge.
In a statement released by the Taliban leader Mullah Umar and broadcast by the BBC on December 20, the new parliament was condemned as a “sham”. The Taliban also say that it is an attempt to tighten the US's grip on Afghanistan. Mullah Umar went on to assert that the Taliban will not allow this to happen. As if to underscore the point, three Italian soldiers were wounded when a suicide bomber blew up his car and himself next to a NATO forces' vehicle in Herat Province the same day. That night, nine policemen were killed and two wounded when the Taliban attacked a police post in Helmand province. In another attack on a police post in Zabul province, one policeman died and one was wounded along the Kabul-Qandahar highway, according to a spokesman of the interior ministry. Mullah Umar also asserted that most Afghans have now realized that Karzai and his gang have handed Afghanistan to the Americans. This situation, he said, the Afghans will not tolerate.
There are nearly 20,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan, along with thousands of NATO forces. Nobody has been able to explain why NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) troops are in Afghanistan. The Americans have announced plans to reduce their presence to 16,500 in 2006, to be replaced by British and Dutch contingents, although the latter are having second thoughts. On December 19 the Dutch cabinet deferred plans to send an additional 1,000 or 1,300 troops to Afghanistan to augment their existing contingent of 600. Canadian troops are also deployed in and around Qandahar, and with the Europeans balking at sending more troops, there are worries in Ottawa that the Canadians may be left holding the bag. There is considerable unease in Canada about Canadian troops being deployed in Afghanistan. Canadians regard it as a sop to the US because, under public pressure, the Canadian government refused to join America's war on Iraq in March 2003, thereby arousing Washington's ire.
Equally worrying is the enormous increase in the production of opium poppies. Afghanistan is the world's leading source of the poppies, accounting for nearly 80 percent of the world's heroin output. Poppy cultivation declined from 134,000 hectares a year earlier to 104,000 in 2005, but Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, warned that it is unlikely to decline further because of renewed insecurity, continued corruption, and free seed distribution by traffickers. The UN drug czar made an interesting observation: poppy cultivation in Qandahar province (which is not under government control) declined sharply, by 96 percent: elsewhere it has increased by as much as 350 percent. Similarly, 3.8 percent of Afghans are now addicted to heroin.
Although Costa is unable to say so, most of the drug barons are linked to the US. It is one of the most revealing aspects of Western occupation of any country, that no sooner do Westerners arrive than drug-production goes up. This happened in South East Asia during the Vietnam War and in Afghanistan under Soviet occupation. Americans—military as well as the CIA personnel—crawled all over Pakistan's North West Frontier Province during the nineteen-eighties, ostensibly to help the Afghans, but also to promote another agenda. A large number of opium-extraction factories opened up in the province, resulting in drug-addiction rising in Pakistan to some six million people over a 10-year period. The US also sent drug enforcement agents, whose main task was to ensure that the drugs stayed in Pakistan.
This is the sort of thing people get when their governments get too cosy with the Americans. The Afghans are just beginning to find all this out; no doubt the Iraqis will too in due course. There is also another “gift” the Americans have bequeathed the Afghans: AIDS. At least 35 people have been identified as HIV-positive or have contracted full-blown AIDS in Kabul, according to the BBC Pushto Service on December 1. If the Americans stay longer, the Afghans will learn a lot more about what Uncle Sam can pass on to them. Democracy will certainly not be one of them.