Global Policy Forum

Taliban Violence, Warlords' Militias


By Yaroslav Trofimov

Wall Street Journal
July 13, 2004

Afghanistan plans to hold its first democratic election in a few months. But in this highland village, a jumble of mud forts set amid terraced orchards and fields of ripe wheat, no one has registered to vote.

Arapat, a farmer with the gilded skullcap and jet-black beard of a Pashtun tribesman, explained that some 60 Taliban insurgents had been to Shelem Kele just three days earlier. "We are all afraid. All the countryside here is under the control of the Taliban," whispered Mr. Arapat, who like many Afghans uses only one name. Minutes later, the valley echoed with explosions as U.S. Army helicopters lobbed missiles into a mountainside. The same week, a Taliban unit operating just a few miles away executed 16 Afghans found to carry voter-registration cards.

Two-and-a-half years since the Taliban abandoned Afghanistan's major cities, the war here goes on. The ousted fundamentalist movement has vowed to derail the election, which it decries as part of a U.S.-led "crusade" to dominate the Islamic world. Some 50 Westerners, soldier and civilian, have been killed over the last year, as well as almost 1,000 Afghans.

Places like Shelem Kele illustrate the chicken-and-egg dilemma that plagues the effort to stabilize Afghanistan. The United Nations and Western donors hope to create lasting security by establishing a representative government through free and fair elections. But such an election remains a long shot while large parts of Afghanistan remain insecure. Throughout the country election workers are risking death, while trying to overcome the fear and indifference of average Afghans.

Last week, the joint U.N.-Afghan body running the elections announced that because of security problems voting for parliament, planned for September, will be postponed until next April or May. Voting for president, initially planned for June, will take place on Oct. 9. The U.S.-backed incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is expected to win, but it's unclear whether enough people will vote to provide him with democratic legitimacy. The October vote is considered a harbinger of what may come in America's highest-stakes experiment in transplanting Western democracy: Iraq, an even more violence-plagued nation where elections are expected early next year.

Afghanistan has a far smaller contingent of American troops than Iraq -- about 17,000, compared with 140,000 -- although the two countries have comparable populations. A separate North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led force in Afghanistan of 6,500 European and Canadian troops, based mostly in Kabul, is due to grow to as many as 10,000 by election time. But the NATO force won't deploy in the insurgency-ridden areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. Afghanistan recently started to train a national army and police force independent of regional warlords. Afghan officials hope as many as 20,000 troops and 30,000 policemen will be patrolling by election day, although international officials call that optimistic.

Nearly every step of the election process in Afghanistan has been shaped by concerns about violence. "The standard operating procedure is to put in place the security and then have an election -- and we're not doing it here," says Peter Murphy, a New Zealander who serves as the chief U.N. electoral officer for five provinces of southern Afghanistan including the one where Shelem Kele lies. As he spoke, an aide examined a leaflet threatening death to electoral workers -- called a "night letter" in the local language because that is when it is typically pasted to a wall or shoved under a door. As a result of such threats, Mr. Murphy's voter-registration teams operate in only 18 of south Afghanistan's 50 administrative districts. International observers, if deployed at all, are also likely to stay in a handful of safe zones on election day.

Taliban attacks against electoral workers have been most successful in stymieing voter registration in southern and eastern areas populated by the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group and the one that produced virtually all the Taliban leaders. Elsewhere, mostly non-Pashtun warlords allied with Mr. Karzai's government have assured relatively high registration, seeing themselves as the likely winners. Citing the Taliban threat, many of these warlords refuse to disarm. "It stretches the imagination to think that you can have free and fair elections in this context," says Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul think tank funded by the U.N., Western donors and aid groups.

Baby Steps

To some, the election delays are merely bumps on a road headed in the right direction. Ercan Murat, Afghanistan director for the U.N. Development Program, noted that it has taken his own country -- Turkey -- several decades to build functioning democratic institutions. "Let's not have any illusions about democracy overnight in Afghanistan," says Mr. Murat, whose program is helping organize the Afghan vote. "This election will probably be one step towards democracy here one day."

The first step on this road came in late 2001, after U.S. air power and the predominantly ethnic-Tajik Northern Alliance ousted the Taliban, a theocratic movement allied with al Qaeda terrorists. Meeting in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001, victorious Northern Alliance warlords, tribal leaders and exiled Afghan technocrats selected Mr. Karzai, a prominent Pashtun backed by Washington, as Afghanistan's new interim leader.

The Bonn deal required elections no later than two years after convening a traditional grand council of Afghan elders, known as a Loya Jirga. It gathered in Kabul in June 2002. A second grand council was held this January to adopt a new Afghan constitution calling for an elected president and a 249-member elected legislature. The election date was tentatively set for June, in line with the Bonn timetable.

But insurgent activity derailed these plans. Only about 5.6 million out of the previously estimated 10.5 million voting-age Afghans registered to vote by the June 30 deadline, according to U.N. figures. The deadline had to be extended until August, and the official estimate of the voting-age population was reduced to 9.8 million. As of last weekend, some 6.5 million voters were registered, according to official figures. If accurate, that figure represents significant progress, but registration rates vary wildly from region to region.

The prospect of Mr. Karzai ruling until next spring without the counterweight of an elected legislature is producing fractures in Kabul's ruling coalition. Northern Alliance commanders -- who expected their power to be extended through the parliamentary poll -- decried its delay as unconstitutional.

"People want to elect their own representatives. They aren't interested in voting just for the president," says Ahmed Wali Massoud. A prominent Tajik politician, he is the brother of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance leader who became an Afghan national hero after dying at the hands of al Qaeda hitmen in September 2001. "This is the first democratic election in Afghanistan, and you have to do it right," says Mr. Massoud.

Doing it right is the goal of Abdul Razek, a 47-year-old construction-company official now employed by the U.N.-Afghan vote organizers. He risks his life every day around Kandahar, the mostly Pashtun regional capital of south Afghanistan, trying to drum up enthusiasm for the poll.

One late-June morning Mr. Razek sat outside a grocery store on the city's outskirts with several dozen local notables -- all of them men -- and explained the vote's importance. One man stood up to say that gunmen had been to the neighborhood's homes, threatening anybody who registers. A local teacher listened skeptically to Mr. Razek speak and then said that democracy in Afghanistan is nothing but lies, and that the Tajik warlords currently backing Mr. Karzai will remain in power no matter what. The neighborhood's mullah listened quietly, and then he, too, softly indicated that he didn't think an election was a good idea.

"It can get much worse," Mr. Razek said later. "Sometimes they just say that I'm an infidel working for infidels." A few days later, a minibus carrying a similar electoral team was blown up by a bomb in Afghanistan's other main Pashtun city, the eastern regional capital of Jalalabad, killing three women and wounding several others.

Registering voters has proved even more difficult in remote places such as Zabul Province, where Shelem Kele is located. The province extends from the Pakistan border to the central Afghan mountain ranges. Only about 11,000 people -- less than a tenth of Zabul's electorate -- braved Taliban threats and registered to vote by June 30. Until last week, registration teams didn't dare to leave Zabul's provincial capital.

The U.S. military is busy these days trying to make guerrilla-infested regions safe enough for electoral teams like Mr. Razek's to enter. On a recent morning, Chinook helicopters whipped up a haze of dust at dawn near Shelem Kele, disgorging a company of soldiers of the 25th Infantry Division and two squads of U.S.-commanded Afghan troops. The soldiers spent several days on a counterinsurgency mission, cordoning off hamlets, confiscating weapons and detaining suspected Taliban supporters.

Most villagers in Shelem Kele claimed ignorance of the Taliban, and said even less when asked about the planned election. Zar Wali, a silver-haired elder who guarded the village's womenfolk on a rooftop while soldiers probed homes, insisted he didn't even know that elections are planned in Afghanistan. "We are poor farmers, and nobody told us anything about this," he shrugged. "These big political issues are for generals and emirs to decide," said another farmer, Nur Ahmad, before scurrying away.

Despite the elders' promises that the village of Shelem Kele didn't support the Taliban and possessed no weapons, American soldiers found nine rocket-propelled grenades as well as explosives and assault rifles. The soldiers had to purchase two donkeys -- christened Chicken and Fish -- to carry the load. Capt. Mike Berdy, the company commander, said of the local Taliban supporters: "They're smart. They just wait it out. They know we'll leave." The company's first sergeant, Matthew Grucella, doubted whether such military missions make the area safer for long. The Afghan villagers, he said, "know that we're not going to provide them with any lasting security."

Besides searching for insurgents, U.S. Army units also help the U.N.-Afghan elections body carry out registration drives in parts of the country. But Mr. Murphy, the U.N. elections chief in south Afghanistan, says he prefers not to have his work associated with coalition forces because it could reinforce the Taliban propaganda claim that the election is designed to benefit the U.S., not Afghans. The U.S. forces "are at war -- they're not peacekeepers," Mr. Murphy says. However, with the constant threat of violence, even he occasionally catches rides on U.S. military aircraft to visit dangerous areas.

Patchwork of Fiefs

Aside from low voter registration in Pashtun areas, the most important challenge in the election is dealing with the many warlords who have divided the country into a patchwork of fiefs. Leaders of the U.S.-backed insurgency by Afghan mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, these warlords plunged Afghanistan into a civil war after the collapse of the Soviet-installed regime in 1992 and reduced much of Kabul to rubble. The main warlords hold key positions in Mr. Karzai's cabinet and have agreed not to field a candidate for president against him. But they have stalled in implementing a U.N.-supervised program of disarming their private militias.

Where voter-registration efforts are booming, supportive warlords generally get the credit -- and, Mr. Murphy says, are occasionally recruited by the U.N. to provide security. Critics fear these commanders plan to intimidate voters when parliament is chosen. "They have all the power, and they'll use this power to get what they want," says Abdul Qader Noorzai, the head of the Kandahar-based south Afghanistan office of the Independent Human Rights Commission, a public monitoring body created by the Bonn accords.

Afghanistan's mountainous province of Wardak, straddling the Kabul-Kandahar highway just an hour's drive south of the capital, is one of the areas where the election organizers have claimed a registration success. Its governor is Raz Mahmood, a former mujahedeen commander who rules with the help of a council of warlords of which he is chairman.

One sunny morning, Gov. Mahmood spent an hour giving advice on elections to a delegation of tribal leaders in his office, decorated with gaudy artificial flowers. "Make sure people get the voter cards, and if they don't think there is a good Muslim to choose among candidates, they don't have to vote," he told the elders, sipping green tea.

At the empty polling station outside, registration workers said more than half of the 2,000 voters they had recorded so far came from outside the province and often were soldiers or government employees. They also said some people registered more than once -- a simple matter, since a voting card is issued to anyone claiming to be an Afghan and no identity document is required. U.N. officials say they're aware of the multiple-registration problem but don't think it's significant. They say people will be allowed to vote only once on election day.

Gov. Mahmood, who is aiming for a parliament seat himself, had little doubt about who will win in Wardak. "Eighty five percent of the votes here will be for the mujahedeen commanders," he said. "People want someone who was in the jihad and gave his blood for this country" in the fight against the Soviets.

Maulawi Habib ul-Haq, deputy head of the provincial council of clerics -- another institution created by Gov. Mahmood -- said the mullahs will give clear instructions to their flock. "The people want us to give them an idea, to tell them who is a good Muslim. So, at the due time, this council will decide how the people should vote," Mr. Haq said at the clerical council's meeting in a mosque annex.

Outside the mosque, a gas-station attendant named Turgal stroked his beard when asked about the election. "Why should I lose half a day to go get my voter card?" he said. "The powerful people have already made their choices, and we all know who's going to win."

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.