US-Backed Warlords Threaten Afghan Elections

Insufficient security forces and a lack of election observers, combined with regional warlords backed by the United States, continue to threaten the upcoming presidential election in Afghanistan, says a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Local citizens feel the warlords pose a greater threat to their safety than forces of the former ruling Taliban, which was ousted by U.S. soldiers after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, adds the report by the U.S.-based group.

Remnants of the Taliban, which harbored the al-Qaeda terrorists who committed the U.S. attacks, have remained in hiding in Afghanistan’s remote mountainous regions and recently carried out a number of deadly attacks.

The 52-page HRW report, "The Rule of the Gun: Human Rights Abuses and Political Repression in the Run-Up to Afghanistan’s Presidential Election," says the international community, and countries of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in particular, should vastly increase the number of troops in Afghanistan to ensure security for the elections.

It also complains that there are far too few international observers to monitor polls and give confidence to voters that their ballots will be secret.

"Amazingly, because of the inadequate forces, current security plans for the presidential election include the use of deputized warlords of factional forces to guard polling stations – the very people Afghans say they’re most afraid of," the report noted, adding that U.S. officials closely involved with election preparations "appear to be complacent," believing "democracy is now on the horizon."

It adds that continuing human rights abuses are fueling a pervasive atmosphere of repression and fear in many parts of the country, and that voters in many regions do not appear to understand the ballot or have faith in its secrecy, particularly in the face of pressure from militia factions.

"The warlords are still calling the shots," said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. "Many voters in rural areas say the militias have already told them how to vote, and that they’re afraid of disobeying them. Activists and political organizers who oppose the warlords fear for their lives," he added in the report.

The document, which was released just nine days before the election, echoes many of the same complaints and concerns voiced by a number of other human rights, development and women’s groups in recent weeks.

The main contenders in the election include the favorite of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, interim Afghan President Hamid Karzai, his former education and information minister, Yonus Qanooni, and a dozen less competitive figures. Among them are at least three warlords, such as General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who kicked off his campaign with a giant rally in his hometown Shibarghan, in the northern, predominantly Uzbek, part of the country.

U.S. officials have reportedly tried to persuade Qanooni, an ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, the stronghold of the Northern Alliance that led the drive to oust the Taliban, to withdraw and join a new unity government under Karzai, a member of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, who also constitute the ethnic base of the Taliban.

In addition to these efforts, Washington, which has more than 10,000 U.S. troops in the country, is also trying to prevent Taliban forces and its allies from disrupting the election, especially in the Pashtun regions of the south and southeast, where they have carried out deadly attacks aimed at election workers and officials.

While the HRW report agrees the Taliban pose a threat of further violence in the days leading to the election, voters and political organizers interviewed by the group across Afghanistan said armed local factions, many of them supported by Washington and condoned by the Karzai government, pose the most significant threat to a democratic process.

"The reality is that most Afghans involved in politics on the ground are primarily afraid of warlords and their factions, much more than they’re afraid of the Taliban," said Adams, who, like other rights activists, has been particularly frustrated by the failure of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is led and manned primarily by soldiers of the European and North American nations of NATO, to extend its presence beyond Kabul into the countryside and other important towns and cities.

"For a long time, there has been widespread agreement that elections cannot be successful unless additional international security forces are deployed and warlord militias are disarmed. If Afghanistan is a priority of the international community, where are the troops?" asked Adams.

Intimidation and control by warlords and the Taliban are not the only threats to the election’s legitimacy, according to HRW.

Its staff has confirmed several flaws in the voter-registration process, including multiple registrations. Afghan and UN officials have claimed that some 10.5 million people have registered, including more than four million women, but HRW, echoing a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), has concluded the total is significantly less if the multiple registrations are subtracted.

Factions have used force, intimidation and deception to collect thousands of voting cards from civilians, according to the report, which concluded that tens of thousands of women were induced to register more than once after being told the cards entitled them to certain benefits, such as food rations.

Warlords have also used intimidation and harassment against Afghan journalists and potential candidates for next year’s parliamentary and local elections.

The report applauded Karzai’s recent sidelining of some warlords, most significantly, Ismail Khan, the governor of the western city of Herat. But it called for the president and his government to intensify such efforts and refrain from any deal-making that could further entrench warlord rule.

Washington and NATO should increase cooperation with ISAF and expand troops levels to ensure security throughout the country, according to the report, which said the United States in particular should clarify its strategy in Afghanistan to make the protection of human rights its primary goal.

"The current strategy of supporting both the central government and regional and local warlords who resist accountability to Kabul undermines the creation of democratic institutions and the rule of law," according to the report, which added that Washington must stop supporting abusive faction leaders.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.