On January 4, 2004, 502 delegates agreed on a Constitution for Afghanistan , an act many have described as a positive step toward democracy. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad wrote: “Afghans have seized the opportunity provided by the United States and its international partners to lay the foundation for democratic institutions and provide a framework for national elections.” 1 Judging by who was allowed to participate, their manner of participation, and the document itself, the foundation set by the delegates and their foreign overseers was precisely antidemocratic.

Legitimizing Afghan Warlords

The constitutional Loya Jirga (grand council) was the third in a series of events prescribed at the December 2001 Bonn meetings for building a post-Taliban Afghanistan consistent with the interests of the United States. The first event was the Bonn meeting itself, the second was the emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002, and the fourth will be presidential elections, scheduled for June 2004.

Like the first two milestones in the Bonn process, the constitutional meetings were notorious in that the Afghan warlords of the Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front, and other jihadi (holy warrior) factions were allowed to participate as legitimate representatives of the people. 2 At the Bonn meetings and in the emergency Loya Jirga, warlords had been awarded prominent seats in the government of President Hamid Karzai in exchange for compliance with U.S. goals. Their documented history of terrorism forgotten, the Afghan warlords, not the Afghan people, were liberated by U.S. intervention and empowered to participate in the new political process. 3

The constitutional meeting this winter did nothing to reverse the trend. According to John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, the process of selecting representatives for the assembly was characterized by “vote-buying, death threats and naked power politics.”

“Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of local military or intelligence commanders intimidating candidates and purchasing votes. In Kabul, guarded by international security forces, intelligence and military officials were openly mingling with candidates at an election site. Many candidates complained of an atmosphere of fear and corruption. In areas outside of Kabul, many independent candidates were too afraid to even run. In a few cases, factional leaders themselves were elected–despite rules barring government officials from serving as delegates. The majority of the 502 delegates to the Loya Jirga were members of voting blocs controlled by military faction leaders, or warlords. Some good people were elected, but they were outnumbered–and scared.” 4

The warlords are able to participate, not because a majority of Afghans want them there, but because Washington decided to use them first as suppliers of ground troops to help oust the Taliban and then as governors to help control the population once the Taliban rulers were gone. In the emergency Loya Jirga of June 2002, the U.S. and UN ensured that Northern Alliance leaders became entrenched in power as ministers of the transitional government, an illegal outcome according to the Bonn rules. In exchange for top ministerial posts, the warlords put their support behind Hamid Karzai, the U.S. choice for president. Washington envoy Khalilzad ensured that the popular former king Zahir Shah did not stand for office, precluding any viable challenger to Karzai. 5 Khalilzad rationalized his choice as follows: “The question really is how to balance the requirements of peace, which sometimes necessitates difficult compromises, and the requirements of justice, which require accountability.” Accountability ranking last on Washington ‘s list of priorities, the envoy’s intention was that Afghans would have to continue suffering injustice, but at least they would experience “peace” in a country run by warlords.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agrees with the view that warlords are good for Afghanistan . “[I]n the bulk of the country the armies, the militias, the forces that exist there, almost all of which have U.S. Special Forces involved with them and advising them and participating, are by their presence contributing to stability.” The kind of “stability” that Mr. Rumsfeld appreciates can be found in the city of Herat, run by Ismail Khan, considered “an appealing person” by the defense secretary. A November 2002 report by Human Rights Watch found that Herat “has remained much as it was under the Taliban: a closed society in which there is no dissent, no criticism of the government, no independent newspapers, no freedom to hold open meetings, and no respect for the rule of law.” The report documents “a pattern of widespread political intimidation, arrests, beatings, and torture by police and security forces under the command of Ismail Khan.” 6

U.S. leaders show deep sensitivity toward their allies whose proxy troops control the population of Afghanistan. “Pentagon officials refrain from using the term ‘warlord’,” the New York Times informs us. 7 Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz told the U.S. Senate in 2002: “I think the basic strategy here is first of all to work with those warlords or regional leaders, whatever you prefer to call them, to encourage good behavior.” U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a staunch Northern Alliance supporter for over a decade, angrily came to the defense of “supposed warlords” who were being criticized at a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing in June 2003:

“I’ve heard a lot of negative posturing about…these people who happened to have been the guys who sided with the United States …Dostam, Atta, Khan…these were the people who defeated the Taliban… Just keep that in mind if you’re an American. They came to help us defeat people who slaughtered our own people [September 11, 2001]. And I’m grateful for that. And I’m not about to label them in these pejorative terms [as warlords], especially when the Taliban are still on the border…I would admonish [you] not to go so quickly in getting rid of people who helped us defeat the Taliban.”

Rohrabacher’s point enlightens us as to the motives of U.S. officials. Criminals who “sided with the United States ” are to be defended and given power, while those who don’t are cast out, persecuted, and recognized as criminals or terrorists. The consistency of this approach is remarkable, and, when understood, it clarifies a commonly perceived inconsistency in U.S. behavior; namely, the transformation from support to denouncement of thugs like Osama bin Laden, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and Saddam Hussein.

The converse is also true. Outcasts can be brought back into the fold, provided they obey. The Washington Post reported in December a “new strategy” that includes “wooing some Taliban members.” The head of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno maintains: “Those who are criminals must be held accountable, but for the rank and file, the noncriminals, there will be opportunities for reconciliation and reintegration.” 8 In practice, however, the criminality of the Taliban extends only to those who defy Washington. Those who obey, no matter how highly placed, are allowed “reintegration,” that is, power. For example, the former Defense Minister of the Taliban Mullah Abdul Razzak has joined Jaishul Muslim, an offshoot of the Taliban based in Peshawar, Pakistan. According to Asia Times Online, the group developed as a result of an effort by “the Pakistani and U.S. intelligence establishments” to create “a proxy organization” that would “split the Taliban and reduce the intensity of its resistance movement.” The goal is to use Jaishul Muslim “to sway Taliban commanders with the offer of a place in the government.” The organization “has little, if any, support within Afghanistan itself,” 9 but as far as Washington is concerned, popular support has never been a necessary condition for governing a country.

An alternate, equally consistent approach would have been to disarm and weaken all armed factions, refusing to deal with any group guilty of human rights violations, including both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. This approach, based on principles rather than power, is foreign to Washington power brokers but has practical underpinnings. A recent report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank, finds that the current process, “based on impunity,” is “inherently unstable and unsustainable.” According to the report, “it is past perpetrators of violence who are the cause of insecurity today and the greatest threat to Afghanistan’s future… [I]f perpetrators are not punished for their violations, they will repeat their acts and the cycle of impunity and insecurity will continue endlessly.” 10 The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, a political and humanitarian organization outspoken in its denunciation of fundamentalist groups like the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, goes further: “Unless the West stops backing the Northern Alliance fundamentalists and starts supporting the independence-loving and freedom-loving forces, it…will be haunted by the threat of inhuman incidents like 11th of September…” 11

The Most Powerful Warlords

While their Afghan allies were bullying candidates for the constitutional Loya Jirga, the warlords in Washington were engaging in their own form of intimidation, directed at the Afghan population residing in the extensive border with Pakistan. A week before Afghan warlords and bureaucrats assembled under a tent in Kabul’s soccer stadium (a public execution site under the Taliban) to discuss the Constitution, the Pentagon began Operation Avalanche, its largest military campaign in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban. The operation was part of a security plan to keep the Loya Jirga free from terrorist attacks, which have been rising dramatically throughout the country. 12 “We want to take the offensive…to keep them busy protecting and defending themselves,” U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad said. Here “them” was intended to mean terrorists, but anyone in the way of Operation Avalanche was unlikely to be spared.

The title was surprisingly (although perhaps unintentionally) frank in evoking the U.S. military as an unstoppable force of nature, indiscriminately destroying anything in its path. In the first week of the assault U.S. forces proved that assessment correct, killing 15 children in two separate aerial attacks aimed at single individuals. Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty absolved U.S. soldiers by blaming the children for being in the path of Operation Avalanche: “if noncombatants surround themselves with thousands of weapons … in a compound known to be used by a terrorist, we are not completely responsible for the consequences.” Hilferty did express regret for the massacres, not because they were war crimes, but because “such mistakes could make the Afghan people think ill of the coalition.” After the first air raid killed nine children, the UN envoy to Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi said, “[it] adds to a sense of insecurity and fear in the country.” The Washington Post reported that the U.S. airstrikes, together with antigovernment terrorist attacks, “have cast a jittery pall over preparations” for the constitutional assembly. 13

In the next stage of the Bonn process, Afghan presidential elections slated for summer 2004, the violence will only increase. (More on the elections below.) A highly publicized “spring offensive” is planned by Washington to keep antigovernment forces on the run until after elections, just as Operation Avalanche was used to provide security for the constitutional Loya Jirga. The probable consequences for people living in the regions under attack will be as devastating.

The senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, claims that in the border areas with Pakistan the Pentagon is “moving to a more classic counterinsurgency strategy,” which means in practice that the Afghan population itself is considered a potential enemy. Barno explained that currently “battalions, and oftentimes companies and sometimes even platoons, now own specific large chunks of the countryside; stay in those areas, operate continuously out of those areas; maintain and develop relations with the tribal elders, with the mullahs, with the local government officials.” An unnamed senior Afghan government official told the New York Times, “There is a widening gap between the Afghan people and the Americans,” which is a polite way of saying that Afghans are not happy with the U.S. presence. Reuters describes “confusion and mistrust” that often has “turned to hatred” because of “aggressive search tactics and a general sense among Muslims of being under siege.” An open letter from the villagers of Lejay to the United Nations mission reads, in part: “The Americans searched our province. They did not find Mullah Omar, they did not find Osama bin Laden, and they did not find any Taliban. They arrested old men, drivers, and shopkeepers, and they injured women and children.” One resident of Sher-o-Aba, Haji Allah Dad, told Reuters: “On the slightest suspicion, they arrest us and treat us like animals. Their treatment is so inhuman that sometimes we even think of joining the ‘jihad’ (holy war) of the Taliban against them.” 14

Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the Pakistani military is apparently stepping up its own intimidation of frontier citizens. In Barno’s words, this is part of a “hammer and anvil approach” to “crush the al Qaeda elements between the Pakistani and the coalition forces.” No comment is made about the innocent people crushed along with them. The Boston Globe reports that this is the “largest joint effort to date” conducted by the U.S. and Pakistan, with “thousands of troops” deploying to the “lawless northwestern frontier, pressuring tribal elders and allowing American soldiers from neighboring Afghanistan to make forays across the border.” 15 Barno praised the results: “I’ve seen some very positive developments from Pakistan, and I’m going to continue to encourage them to do more in those areas.” For example, “destruction of homes and things of that nature…we’re watching that with great interest.” 16

Guaranteeing Long-term U.S. Interests

Molesting villagers and razing their homes may ensure temporary deference to Washington’s power in the “lawless” frontier region, but such forays are costly and, because they are based on fear, cannot have a lasting effect. That is why the new Afghan Constitution is important for planners in Washington. In addition to its propaganda value as “proof” that U.S. actions lead to democracy, the Constitution cements a political power structure that legitimizes Washington’s long-term intentions for Afghanistan. Despite the fact that there will be a National Assembly with the ability to enact laws, overwhelming political power is currently allocated to the president. A strong presidency is not necessary for democracy, but it is a lot easier for an external empire to exert control if one person holds most of the power. According to an op-ed article in Gulf News: “A centralized presidency in Kabul must be the surest way of maintaining the Afghan government’s support for U.S.-led policies … diluting authority is bound to bring in voices of dissent on matters [bearing on] Washington ‘s interests.” 17

A paper by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a mainstream Brussels-based think tank (board members include Zbigniew Brzezinski, Wesley Clark, and George Soros), analyzed the draft Constitution presented by Karzai to the delegates. (This draft was accepted with minor changes.) 18 According to the report, that version of the Constitution “would fail to provide meaningful democratic governance, including power-sharing, a system of checks and balances, or mechanisms for increasing the representation of ethnic, regional and other minority groups.” The ICG criticized “the manner in which the draft has been prepared and publicised, as well as its content,” all of which “raise serious questions about whether it can become the first constitution in Afghanistan ‘s history to command genuinely deep popular support.” An earlier draft described a prime ministerial position to balance the power of the president. But, according to the ICG, President Karzai changed the draft because of a “strong desire … for a purely presidential system.” Apparently it was not Karzai’s idea alone. It is “the perception of many Afghans” that the notion of a strong presidency grew out of “the U.S. desire to ensure Karzai is in firm control, or at least unchallenged while he struggles to assert his authority over other powerful players.”

Many Afghans also found fault with Karzai’s draft. Controversy over presidential power actually threatened to shut down the constitutional Loya Jirga when 48% of the delegates boycotted the vote. Karzai was furious, declaring: “There won’t be any deals on Afghanistan’s system of government, neither with jihadi leaders nor with anyone else.” 19 That’s an interesting choice of words, since in the end it was a backroom agreement brokered by U.S. and UN officials that led to the withdrawal of objections to a strong presidency. 20

Karzai and his backers in the U.S. and the UN portray the proponents of a more representative system as “rivals of Karzai, mainly from the Northern Alliance.” 21 In other words, they are warlords with independent fiefdoms anxious to legitimize their power at Karzai’s expense. Although it is true that the warlords stand to benefit from a decentralized government, there are many problems with the view that a strong presidency is the only way to weaken the power of the warlords. First, it ignores the tacit legalization and bolstering of warlord power resulting from U.S. strategic decisions (continuing today), and it puts the burden for disempowering local warlords on Afghan shoulders. Second, although the lack of a prime ministerial position ensures that a warlord figure will currently not be able to share power with Karzai, a presidency with few checks and balances predisposes Afghanistan to a takeover by such a figure in the future–e.g., a Musharraf-style coup or an authoritarian regime like those in Central Asia. And third, the boycott was instigated and joined by many Afghans who are not members of the Northern Alliance or other warlord factions. For example, Mustafa Etemadi, a member of the Shiite Hazara minority, who said: “We did not go to vote, because our people’s desires were not respected. We want far-reaching democracy in this country, we want our Parliament to have more authority.” Habiba, a teacher from Kabul had a similar message: “We want a strong Parliament alongside the president, equal rights for men and women, democracy among all the ethnic groups, and recognition of all the languages of the nation. The Constitution is not for one tribe or one people; it belongs to all the people of the country.” 22

Although the assembly was dominated by Karzai and his U.S.-backed elite on one hand and the Northern Alliance warlords on the other, there were “less-powerful groups: women delegates, ethnic Hazaras, former communists, and ethnic Uzbeks” who strove for a parliamentary system. They also fought for the few lines in the Constitution giving women some recognition–women’s rights are declared equal to those of men, and over 25% of seats in the lower house of Parliament are reserved for women. In contrast, U.S. concerns at the constitutional Loya Jirga were strictly power-related, centering on the need to control the people with a dominant president. Other issues, such as human rights and bringing warlords to justice were not considered important enough to advocate. According to the Christian Science Monitor: “Neither Karzai nor his American backers publicly made a point of emphasizing women’s rights.” 23

Elections in Afghanistan and the United States

Though not in the way he intended, Zalmay Khalilzad was right when he said that the constitutional meetings “provide a framework for national elections,” due to happen this summer. Like the framework used for the first three stages of the Bonn process, this final event will probably consist of a preordained decision presented to the people by the United States and the United Nations (through their intermediaries, Karzai and the warlords). The people will be given few choices, if any, so the intended presidential candidate, Hamid Karzai, will be ratified. And finally, the results will be proclaimed to the world as a triumph for democracy.

But although the gathering of votes might take place, that act will not constitute democracy. Holding elections under current circumstances in Afghanistan will at best insult democracy and at worst spark a civil war. Most credible analysts assert that the summer timetable does not allow enough time to create the necessary conditions for free and fair elections. Currently, only 10% of Afghanistan’s eligible population has been registered to vote, and no political parties have been recognized. Furthermore, crushing poverty and physical insecurity in much of the country will prevent many Afghans from registering. UN spokesperson Manual de Almeida e Silva asserts that “it is close to impossible to meet the June date with the current security conditions, which do not permit the registration to take place all over the country.” Taliban leaders have promised to attack Afghans who participate, and the dominance of warlords in many regions will surely lead to intimidation and vote buying, as occurred in the election of delegates to the emergency and constitutional Loya Jirgas.

A recent briefing paper by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) notes, “elections could well legitimise the very individuals deemed the most illegitimate by the majority of Afghans.” The paper mentions lessons from other countries that underwent “peaceful elections held in ‘postconflict’ ” situations, such as South Africa, El Salvador, and Mozambique. Polls in each of those countries “were preceded by strong international peace agreements, disarmament, a sound constitution and stable grassroots political movements,” none of which exist in Afghanistan. On the other hand, “elections held in countries before peace was secure, as in Liberia, Angola, and Bosnia legitimised the very forces they were meant to remove from power and sowed the seeds for further conflict.” 24 The possibilities are just as dire for Afghanistan, though the Bush administration rejects this possibility. Zalmay Khalilzad insists: “I am not of the view at this point that elections cannot take place this June, or this summer… There is a way for this to happen.”

According to the director of the AREU, the push for early elections is motivated primarily by “domestic political reasons within the U.S. ” 25 The AREU briefing paper states that Washington’s “enthusiasm for 2004 [Afghan] elections is a result of the Bush administration’s need for a foreign policy and ‘war-on-terror’ success ahead of the November 2004 presidential elections in the U.S., particularly as Iraq appears to be [be]coming less of a success by the day.” The New York Times affirms that, “there is little doubt that President Bush would like to claim an electoral success in Afghanistan as he runs for re-election himself.” According to a January Washington Post article, the “biggest single factor” in Mr. Bush’s election bid will be foreign affairs. “This is the first presidential election perhaps since Vietnam that is going to turn on the way the public views the success or failure of foreign policy,” predicts Mark Snyder, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group. Success in Afghanistan is a benchmark whereby the U.S. electorate can judge Bush’s actions, and Afghan elections would be the most visible sign of U.S. engagement with the country. 26

Ambassador Khalilzad maintains that Karzai, not Bush, would be the one to lose out by delaying elections in Afghanistan. “Khalilzad said Karzai would be…damaged by an election delay, which he said could create a ‘crisis of legitimacy’ if [Karzai’s] transitional mandate ends before the voting takes place.” 27 In other words, if Mr. Karzai is not seen to be duly elected by the majority of Afghans, his illegitimacy will be recognized. Clearly, if Karzai runs an uncontested race with very few people voting, it would also weaken the validity of the elections. But it looks as if the Bush administration is interested in Karzai winning–regardless of the context–in order to impress the U.S. electorate before November.

The AREU lamented that “it seems virtually certain that the [Afghan] elections will be won by those with the greatest power to intimidate voters and to buy their way into power.” In his own way Karzai is as guilty of this as the warlords. While his Washington patrons use their military to engage in “classic counterinsurgency” against residents of the “lawless frontier” areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan to eliminate Taliban influence, the buying of Afghan votes for Karzai is also underway. A $1.6 billion spending package was approved by the U.S. Congress last October to “accelerate success” and “demonstrate to the Afghan people the concrete, visible programs that are improving their lives.” It is certainly better to sponsor reconstruction than destruction, but this assistance is much smaller than required (the Afghan government estimates reconstruction costs at $28 billion over seven years) and is obviously geared toward superficially improving Karzai’s clout before the elections.

In an attempt to salvage his credibility, Mr. Karzai is finally appearing to squelch the power of the warlords, or at least those that defy him. Zalmay Khalilzad was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “Afghan warlords, whom Washington previously tolerated as allies against the Taliban, would be ‘marginalized’ if they continued using guns to impose their will.” 28 In October Karzai passed the Political Parties Law, which “bans political parties from having their own militias or affiliations with armed forces.” The law also bans “judges, prosecutors, officers, and other military personnel, police, and national security staff” from joining a party while still in office. This narrows the spectrum of possible challengers to Karzai’s candidacy. 29 Technically Karzai himself is ineligible to run for office, since the law also forbids parties that “receive funds from foreign sources.” But apparently, the most powerful global empire is not regarded as a “foreign influence.”

While the Bush administration collaborates with its hand-picked Kabul leaders to ensure that neither the Taliban nor the warlords challenge Karzai’s continuance as president, all armed parties (the U.S., the Afghan government, the warlords, and the Taliban) have in common the goal of keeping the elections free from another, more unpredictable influence: the people of Afghanistan. Unless they have guns, those who fight for their rights in Afghanistan are either disregarded or attacked. Student protests have been met with bullets from the Kabul police. Women who assert themselves are ostracized, as was Malalai Joya, a delegate to the constitutional meeting who accused many of her fellow delegates of war crimes. In the middle of her speech, her microphone was shut off, and she was removed from the conference “for her safety.” Celebrated as a hero in her hometown, her calls for justice were ignored by the country’s “representatives” and their foreign masters.

Although Afghanistan ‘s new Constitution asserts the right of freedom of the press, journalists who question the current order are arrested and intimidated. “Killing You Is a Very Easy Thing for Us,” is the title of a Human Rights Watch report, referring to a threat received by an editor who published a political cartoon lampooning Defense Minister Fahim. 30 One story that received some mention in the U.S. press involved the editors of the weekly newspaper Aftab, Mir Hussein Mahdawi and his assistant Ali Reza. The two were arrested last June for “blasphemy” after publishing an editorial entitled “Holy Fascism” criticizing the Afghan warlords and some mullahs for “crimes committed in Islam’s name.” The article denounced many U.S.-backed leaders of the Northern Alliance, including the current Afghan Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili. The journalists were released on orders from President Karzai, but the blasphemy charge still stands. Karzai said he believed in press freedom, but he explained: “It is our job to protect the Afghan people’s…religious beliefs… We will naturally take measures whenever we see that the foundations of the Afghan people’s beliefs are violated. This does not mean a disregard for the freedom of the press, it is rather respect for the freedom of the press.” 31

A Fearful Future

Far from building the “foundations for democratic institutions,” U.S. operations in Afghanistan are an assault on democracy, devastating people’s lives and increasing insecurity. With every violation, the return of the Taliban becomes more likely. Surely the recent statement by Mullah Omar, former Supreme Leader of the Taliban, resonates widely: “The American, shaky transitional government in Afghanistan has completed its two years but so far it has not achieved anything. Where is the democracy that was to accompany peace, freedom, human rights and reconstruction? For Muslims, that fraud democracy is bringing the gifts of killings, bombings, destruction of homes.” 32Washington’s response to such critiques is only more violence and subversion of democracy. The chief interests upheld at the constitutional Loya Jirga this winter were those of the Bush administration and its puppet Hamid Karzai as well as the Afghan warlords who were legitimized officially for the third time. Meanwhile, Afghans continue to wait for reconstruction, justice, and lasting peace.

Since Bush began his “war on terrorism,” the Afghan people have been allowed to choose only between U.S.-backed puppets and a gang of fundamentalist ruffians. An independent, nonviolent grassroots movement advocating true democracy is not one of the options. It is ironic, but expected, that the Pentagon terrorizes villages along the borders with Pakistan in an effort to “fight terrorism” while supporting warlords, most of whom are tyrants, drug lords, and terrorists in their own right. A first step in promoting democracy and stifling terrorism in Afghanistan would be to cut off aid to the Northern Alliance and other Afghan warlords. A second, more difficult step might be to address the root causes of terrorism; namely, deprivation of fundamental rights and anger at an arrogant imperial power.

Get more news like this, directly in your inbox.

Subscribe to our newsletter.