Progress and Peril

Afghanistan's constitution is now law, but "the rule of law" is still a work in progress.

Thu Jan. 29, 2004 1:00 AM PST

Hamid Karzai signed Afghanistan's post-Taliban constitution into law on Monday and expressed the hope that the 162-article document, which paves the way for elections and provides protections for minority rights, would bring "prosperity for all and ... ensure peace, equality and brotherhood" among Afghanistan's fractious ethnic groups. The constitution is a great achievement in itself, but the gap between its ideals and the reality on the ground shows just how far Afghanistan has still to go.

The latest annual world report from Human Rights Watch, out this week, describes how many of the early gains made after the fall of the Taliban have been lost. Author Sam Zia-Zarifi explains that the U.S. approach to reconstructing Afghanistan, frequently offered as a model for Iraq's reconstruction, has failed to empower civil society. Instead, regional warlords, armed in most cases by the United States to help allied troops fight the Taliban, preside over many rural areas, and Taliban remnants have regrouped in some parts of the country, mounting attacks against aid workers and government troops. The report explains:

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"Warlords, militias, and brigands dominate the entire country, including the city of Kabul. Many women and girls, freed from the Taliban’s rule, have again been forced out of schools and jobs due to insecurity. Poppy cultivation has soared to new highs, providing billions of dollars to the Taliban, warlords, and petty criminals who resist the central government."

A British and a Canadian soldier were killed in attacks this week. The Taliban claimed responsibility and promised a new wave of violence.

Just one week ago, President Bush used his State of the Union address to claim success in Afghanistan.

"As of this month, that country has a new constitution, guaranteeing free elections and full participation by women. Businesses are opening, health care centers are being established, and the boys and girls of Afghanistan are back in school. With the help from the new Afghan army, our coalition is leading aggressive raids against the surviving members of the Taliban and al Qaeda. The men and women of Afghanistan are building a nation that is free and proud and fighting terror -- and America is honored to be their friend."

The HRW report acknowledges that the fall of the Taliban opened up possibilities for Afghan society.

"When the United States and its Coalition partners helped oust the Taliban, they opened a window of opportunity for ordinary Afghans to resume their lives. In the first year after the fall of the Taliban, some two million Afghans who had fled their country returned (although millions more remain refugees); girls and children regained the possibility of attending school or holding jobs; and the voices of civil society, silenced by over two decades of repression and fighting, again emerged around the country."

But according to John Sifton, the Afghanistan researcher for HRW, much of the opportunity has been squandered. Sifton told Mother Jones that Bush's speech was "at best deeply disingenuous and at worst outright lying." Sifton, who has spent much of the past three years in Afghanistan explains that while girls may have the right to go to school, the warlords in rural areas keeps many people in fear.

"Bush talked about boys and girls going back to school, well here's a fact: 1.4 million girls enrolled in Afghanistan. There are at least four million school age girls in Afghanistan, that means much less than half the school age girls in Afghanistan are back in school. 1.4 million sounds good, but percentage wise most girls are out of school. That's because of the security, families are afraid to send their girls outside to play in front of their house let alone walk a few kilometers to a school. A lot of places schools haven't even been built for girls because the security is so bad that the UN, and the international agencies, and the Afghan government forces to come in and build schools can't even get there because there's robbing and looting going on. Between the Taliban and the warlords, it's just not happening on women's education."

The report explains that the international community has failed to provide the necessary funds to rebuild the country. In 2003 the U.S. gave less than $1 billion to Afghanistan, while $26 billion was allocated for Iraq. There are currently about 11,500 international troops in the country, 8,500 of them American, with an additional 5,000 NATO peacekeepers in Kabul. Zarifi argues that the U.S. has failed in its commitment to rebuild the country because the administration views Afghanistan as irreparable.

"A major reason is that the United States, like previous foreign powers in Afghanistan, sees the country as endemically violent and thus excessively relies on a military response to the country’s problems. Viewing the country through a prism of violence has contributed to a number of erroneous policies in Afghanistan, to wit: focusing on the short-term defeat of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces with little regard for long-term security concerns; the resultant reliance on warlords on the national and local levels without regard for their legitimacy with the local population; and the shortchanging of nonmilitary measures. This skewed understanding of Afghanistan’s problems and their solutions has persisted despite recent indications that Washington policy-makers now recognize the continuing threats posed in Afghanistan and understand some of the mistakes of their past policies."

The report concludes that if the international community commits to increased military and economic reconstruction efforts, and listens to the needs of Afghans, significant progress might be made. Whether the U.S. is prepared to take the lead on this is hard to say. With an election year in full swing, a major deficit, and Iraq to rebuild, the odds don't look good. On Wednesday CNN reported that the U.S. Defense Department is planning a spring offensive against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. But with the U.S.'s sights set on catching the elusive Osama bin Laden, it's not clear whether an increased U.S. presence will keep the warlords in check. Ultimately, says the HRW report, the U.S. must work to support Democratic institutions, not corrupt warlords, in Afghanistan.

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