Failed Promises Imperil Afghanistan Polls, Groups Tell G8

WASHINGTON, June 8 (IPS) National elections in Afghanistan planned for September will be increasingly in doubt unless western nations commit more troops to the war-weary country, international human rights groups told leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations, gathering this week on Sea Island in the state of Georgia.

With less than four million of Afghanistan’s more than 10 million eligible voters registered to date, the country needs more troop contributions for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) whose deployments are still limited to only two cities: the capital Kabul and Khost.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is running in the elections, is attending the Sea Island Summit, after which he will travel to Washington to meet top U.S. officials.

“There’s been too much doubletalk on Afghanistan,” said Sam Zarifi, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). “It’s time for the United States and its NATO allies to honor their pledges to provide aid and ensure security in Afghanistan before things deteriorate even further.”

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which includes the United States, Canada and two-dozen European countries, is leading ISAF.

G8 leaders face a number of decisions on political and economic issues, some of which remain – contrary to tradition – unsettled on the eve of the meeting that begins Tuesday.

U.S. President George W. Bush, whose invitations to the summit to a large number of Arab rulers have been rejected, is hoping to line up greater international support from Washington’s traditional allies for the occupation in Iraq.

At the same time, the U.S.’ European allies want Bush to focus greater attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose persistence is fuelling transatlantic tensions and alienation in the Arab world.

Karzai’s presence is designed to refocus western attention on Afghanistan, where Kabul, ISAF and some 17,000 U.S. troops, who are operating independently, have been unable to impose the rule of law on most of the country.

U.S. military casualties have risen sharply in recent months, while attacks on aid workers by forces of the former ruling Taliban regime or their allies have become more deadly. Over the last six months, at least 18 aid workers, five them foreign nationals, have been killed while trying to carry out their humanitarian and reconstruction missions, according to Amnesty International, which also called this week for greater efforts to achieve security.

“Unless a secure and stable environment is created,” Amnesty said, “the reconstruction of Afghanistan will be completely undermined.”

The worst recent incident took place last week, when unidentified gunmen shot down five workers for Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres), including volunteers from Belgium, the Netherlands and Norway, as well as two Afghans.

In addition, a police chief was assassinated in the eastern city of Jalalabad, near Pakistan, and a U.N. convoy was attacked near Khost.

“It is imperative that the Afghan government and international community not only condemn such attacks but also take measures to regain stability and security for all those in the country,” Amnesty said in a statement, noting that elections will be difficult to carry out unless the situation improves.

The polls are also threatened by a funding shortfall, according to HRW, which noted that donors have not supplied any of the 101 million U.S. dollars needed by the United Nations and Afghan government to administer the elections. At a conference in Berlin at the end of April, donors pledged only 70 million dollars.

ISAF has also been disappointing, due largely to the reluctance of NATO member states to commit troops, equipment and funding, according to Zarifi. “The NATO countries should be ashamed of their foot-dragging. It’s bad enough that the United States and Europe treated Afghanistan’s security like a hot potato, tossing the responsibility back and forth for months, but it’s even more regrettable than Europe won’t muster the troops to do the job.”

U.S. military officials have also suggested they will start pulling out their troops, who are mostly focussed on hunting down remnants of the Taliban regime and its supporters – including members of the al-Qaeda terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden – after the elections.

The inability of ISAF and Kabul to extend their authority beyond the two cities has resulted in the continued domination of most of the countryside by local military commanders, or warlords.

As a result, many candidates planning to run against local leaders in parliamentary elections may be unable to do so.

“Barring new efforts, most Afghans expect that local strongmen will dominate the elections in many parts of the country and the Taliban will disrupt voting in the south and southeast,” said Zarifi. “This election could signify either the emergence of a new, relatively democratic Afghanistan, or the country’s return to rule of the gun.”

HRW also called for an increase in the number of U.N. human rights monitors and political affairs officers deployed in Afghanistan to protect vulnerable candidates and election monitors. Now, the world body, which is charged with preparing the elections, has only eight slots for monitors throughout the country, and not all of these are staffed.

By contrast, the United Nations had dozens of monitors deployed in the Balkans and East Timor for elections after civil war or the breakdown of civil order in those countries.

MSF said Monday that U.S. forces in southern Afghanistan have been distributing leaflets demanding that people there “pass on any information related to Taliban, al-Qaeda and (related forces)” and suggesting that they may be deprived of humanitarian aid if they fail to cooperate.

MSF called the tactic “an unacceptable assault on humanitarian principles” that may result in the neediest Afghans not getting the relief they need. “In the wake of recent attacks on aid workers, MSF is extremely worried that these leaflets will increase the dangers of providing assistance in Afghanistan,” the group said.

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.