Hamid Karzai was sworn in as president of Afghanistan on December 7 amid unprecedented security: foreign troops protected him from the very people who are supposed to have elected him to his office. In attendance were not only USdefence secretary Donald Rumsfeld but also vice president Dick Cheney, with an entire hospital in tow, just in case his pacemaker should stop during the ceremony. So worried were US security personnel about a possible attack by the Taliban that all those attending were asked to give their blood group in advance. In addition to security, there were other awkward moments as well: Karzai stumbled as he read the oath; then in a theatrical gesture, he “welcomed” Cheney to Afghanistan; the US vice president gave his customary chuckle with a straight face. Karzai is a prisoner in the presidential compound, guarded not by Afghans but by US soldiers. He is often called the mayor of Kabul; even that may be too generous. His writ has never extended beyond a few streets in Kabul; the rest of the country is controlled by warlords on America’s payroll or by sympathizers of the Taliban.
Yet in a way Karzai’s investiture can be considered a landmark in a country wracked by 25 years of warfare, even if 18,000 US and 8,400 NATO troops control only a few pockets in the country. Deep internal divisions persist; the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, a minority in tribally-divided Afghanistan, is unhappy because they have been displaced from their position as the real wielders of power. Before his inauguration, Karzai made an attempt to entice Yunus Qanuni of the Northern Alliance with a ministerial position. Qanuni came a distant second in the 18-candidate presidential race, and has been interior as well as education minister in the past.
Karzai faces difficulties in cobbling a cabinet together; the constitution stipulates that no person without “higher education”, nor any person holding dual nationality, can be member of the cabinet. What constitutes higher education has not been stipulated, but presumably it means a college degree. The constitutional provisions suggest the power struggle between two divergent groups: the former mujahideen commanders were too busy fighting the Red Army to acquire degrees, while the technocrats fled the country, acquired degrees and foreign (mainly American) citizenship, without firing a single shot in defence of their homeland. Each side has tried to undermine the other by means of this constitutional ploy, landing Karzai in difficulties. He had promised to have a cabinet in place within two weeks of his inauguration, and announced a new cabinet, dominated by technocrats, on December 23.
He faces other difficulties as well; it was US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, not Karzai, who on December 11 offered an amnesty to the Taliban if they would give up their weapons; there have been few takers. Khalilzad’s offer not only undermines Karzai’s authority, but it also indicates where real power lies: in the US embassy, even if it is dispensed through an Afghan-born ambassador. Similarly, the US military has announced another operation, codenamed “Lightning Freedom”, involving 18,000 troops, to target the Taliban during the winter months. This is what the US military has been trying to do since November 2001, with little success. Another stated objective is to prepare the country for parliamentary elections, which are due in April.
Khalilzad is not the only official undermining Karzai; UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, in a report to the UN Security Council on November 26, while welcoming “Afghanistan’s march towards democracy”, also warned that difficult challenges remain for Karzai. On December 8 the UN General Assembly passed a unanimous resolution calling for recognition of their urgency. The most serious are the continuing insecurity caused by lawlessness, opium-cultivation and drug-peddling, banditry, and fighting between ethnic and tribal groups. Women and children continue to suffer enormously at the hands of US-sponsored warlords. Kidnapping of children for huge ransoms and rape of women are also on the increase. The Afghan security forces are notoriously unreliable, while the continued presence of foreign troops will defeat the very purpose for which Karzai has been installed as president.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium-producer, accounting for 75 percent of the world’s total production; the biggest warlords, in league with the US, are also major drug-dealers. Because of the failure of the promised international aid for reconstruction to materialise, drugs are a major source of revenue, and therefore of power, in the country. Drug-lords continue to run private prisons where people are kept in appalling conditions; torture is rampant. Cherif Bassiouni, the UN’s ‘independent’ expert on human rights in Afghanistan, who conducted a comprehensive survey last August, has confirmed all this in his report to the UN General Assembly.
Not only the warlords but also the government is guilty of gross violations of human rights, including illegal imprisonment, prolonged detention without trial, horrible prison conditions, and forcible confinement of women to their homes and denial of any public role, despite constitutional guarantees against discrimination. Both men and women are denied healthcare, education and other facilities. In short there is total lawlessness, despite the American-inspired drumbeating about democracy. That is not what the people want; they are looking for food and medicines for their families and education for their children. In many parts of Afghanistan people get meat only once a year: during Eid al-Adha, when Muslims from abroad send donations to get their dhabiha done there. Getting clean drinking water is another problem for ordinary Afghans. Often, children and women are forced to fetch water from wells several miles away from their homes. This drudgery is a daily routine for most people.
Compounding their misery is the brutality of the manner in which US occupation forces treat ordinary Afghans. During sweeps through villages, US soldiers randomly pick up young men and take them away for questioning. Stripping them naked, holding them in painful positions or depriving them of food and sleep for long periods are some of the techniques used routinely to extract information. Many deaths have occurred during torture or because of lack of medical care.
Under pressure from Human Rights Watch, the US army has been forced to admit that eight Afghan prisoners have died in custody since the Taliban were removed from power; the true figure is almost certainly much higher. Many prisons are contracted out to freelance American terrorists or US-backed warlords, and their casualties are not included in this list (indeed, they are probably not even recorded or reported to any central authority). In a letter to Rumsfeld, Human Rights Watch has demanded that the US ”get serious about prosecuting people implicated in prisoner deaths and mistreatment”. So far only one sergeant has been charged, and even he has not appeared before any court for trial.
While US officials proclaim the virtues of democracy, ordinary Afghans continue to suffer appalling degradation and humiliation at the hands of both the warlords and the US military. Perhaps there is far too much democracy being thrust too quickly down their throats to digest; probably they would rather have food instead.