Tag Archives: Karzai

The Power of Youth…and their Vulnerability

In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, and in relation to Dexter Filkin’s recent post about the lessons of Egypt to Afghanistan, I was reminded of a passage by Pankaj Mishra. It describes the winds of change that blew in Afghanistan in the 1960s and how the youth of Kabul University marched the streets. In retrospect, those events manifest the power of the youth as well as their vulnerability:

It is hard to imagine now, but for students at Kabul University, 1968 was no less a hectic year than it was for students at Columbia, Berkeley, Oxford, and the Sorbonne. A king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, had been presiding over the many ethnic and tribal enclaves of Afghanistan since 1933. But he knew enough of the world elsewhere to attempt, cautiously, a few liberal reforms in his capital city, Kabul. The university had been set up in 1946; a liberal constitution was introduced in 1964; the press was technically free; women ran for public office in 1965. By the Sixties, many students and teachers had traveled abroad; and new ideas about how to organize the state and society had come to the sons of peasants and nomads and artisans from their foreign or foreign-educated teachers.

In the somewhat rarefied world of modernizing Kabul, where women were allowed to appear without the veil in 1959, communism and radical Islam attracted almost an equal number of believers: to these impatient men, the great Afghan countryside with its antique ways appeared ready for revolution. It was from this fledgling intelligentsia in Kabul that almost all of the crucial political figures of the next three decades emerged.

Pankaj Mishra, The Making of Afghanistan

 

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The Parlimentary Elections: More Positive than you think

Afghanistan Parliamentary elections. Image:AP

Alissa Rubin writes in today’s New York Times that 1.3 million votes from Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections have been disqualified. The number is significant. But the fact that the Election Commission has carefully weeded out these fraudulent votes is even more significant, both to this vote and to the future of democracy in Afghanistan.

Ms. Rubin writes:

Despite rampant fraud in the parliamentary elections last month, whose preliminary results were announced Wednesday, the Afghan Independent Election Commission appears to have tried to do an honest job of counting the ballots, an effort that was lauded by the United Nations and even by some losing candidates.

Often, people are quick to jump at conclusions when they read about the sheer magnitude of the fraud. They ignore the context of this vote: an on going war that influences every aspect of the vote, the voter, and the candidate. They also forget that voting and nationwide elections is a new practice in Afghanistan. The preventative measures that have been fine-tuned over long years in the west do not even exist in Afghanistan. What exists is warlords and powerful men who have always had their way, through their gun. Fraud, as a result, is only natural.

But I see this as good news. At this time, Afghanistan does not need “successful” elections. It needs corrective measures like this to fine-tune the process of democracy there and build a strong foundation.  It is better to have fraud that is weeded out and corrected than to have an election that is considered a “success” and its irregularities  are ignored. For Afghanistan, that would be unnatural, extremely dangerous, and hopeless to the future of democracy in that country


Lose the Pride, Save the System

A reflection on the parliamentary elections in Afghanistan.

The future of the vote needs to be protected. (Image:FEFA)

The initial reports about the recent parliamentary elections in Afghanistan  were heartening. It showed that despite tremendous challenges, improvements had been made since last year’s presidential elections. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) observed in their report that campaigning was much more lively this year than 2205, the first parliamentary elections:

Nearly 2,500 individuals put themselves forward as contenders. Women and youth candidates ran in greater numbers than in 2005, and many campaigns reflected increased understanding of the value of reaching out to voters, campaigning on issues, and appealing to interest groups. The media was more adversarial this time around, and covered the campaigns and concurrent electoral processes with increased professionalism.

FEFA, however, highlights that security and intimidation remained a hurdle. Candidates and campaign workers were repeatedly threatened and even kidnapped and killed. And the security forces failed to create a effective mechanism for their protection.

With that said, President Karzai brought certain reforms into the commission, mainly appointing a new Chief Commissioner. As a result, the commission was more transparent, and honest about the challenges.

More recently however, questions have been raised about the irregularities in the elections. While the extent of the fraud is yet to be determined, we know that it happened. FEFA,  in its preliminary report, declares that:

Violence by candidates, their agents and local powerbrokers was reported in several areas and so were a worrying number of instances of government official interfering in the voting process to sway the results in favor of their chosen candidates.

The next stage, of how the fraud is dealt with, is incredibly critical.

For a second time in a year, ordinary afghans have braved the threats to cast their votes. They have played their part in this flirt with democracy, but if serious action is not taken to ensure them that their voices matter, they will lose hope.  The future of the democratic system in Afghanistan will be in peril.  After all, what is a democracy without a belief in the power of the vote?

It is crucial that this time around the Afghan leadership really crack down on those who were involved in the fraud. For the sake of saving any hopes of democracy, the government and the leaders need to forget about their pride. They need to man up and accept that there were enormous shortcomings. Rather than questioning its extent and blaming others, they need to take action: punish those who committed systematic fraud, ban them from participating in politics, and perhaps even redo the voting process in certain districts with tighter security and anti-corruption measures. The people need to know that democracy is not corrupt and rotten, but individuals are. If this message is not clearly given to the Afghan people, any hopes of a democracy in the future will be childish.

Following the example of India would be a good start for us. The reason why democracy is deeply institutionalized in a place like India is because its leaders, immediately after independence, worked hard for institutionalizing it. The poor, the minorities realized that there was power in their vote: that, in fact, they could change the country’s direction with their vote. It is a well known fact today that more poor, vulnerable villagers in India go to the polls than those who have decent lives in the cities. This is because the system was institutionalized at any early stage, and the leaders stuck with it.  When someone as powerful as Indra Gandhi committed the minor crime of using a government servant in her campaign, the Supreme Court came down hard on her, removing her from her seat in the parliament and banning her from running again for six years. The Supreme Court assured its people that their vote was above everything and that every effort would be made to honor and protect that vote.

If our country has any dreams of having a democracy like India, we have tremendous work to do right now.  Because if our people are not assured of the power of their vote, and if they do not see corrective steps in bettering this process, they will lose hope in democracy completely.


Amrullah

I think the picture clearly says what I am trying to get at.


Election Coverage: Why the Negativity, NYT?

At the least, the interest in the democratic process is still well and alive

The elections deserve a much longer piece and I will get to that as soon as I get a chance. First impressions: it was not as bad as it could have/would have been. The turn out seemed decent, the number of security incidents not considerable (within the context). As for irregularities, yes as expected. The extent? initial reports do not indicate large scale, systematic fraud.

As Jed Ober, the chief of staff in Afghanistan of Democracy International, whose observers kept a watch in 15 provinces, told Al-Jazeera

“We have not witnessed any type of systematic irregularities,” he said. “We have seen a pretty predictable process so far with nothing that we think affects the process. We are pretty optimistic about the process.”

But we can only be certain once the counting unfolds and the observers reports come in.

The issue that I briefly want to raise here is the difference in the coverage of the elections in the international media, particularly the US and Europe Media. Giants such as the New York Times approached the elections with a very grim look. Their feature stories, of the election eve as well as election day, were written by Elisabeth Bumiller with Rod Nordland or Alissa Rubin. Both stories began as “Marja, Afghanistan.” It makes one question why the New York times chose to see a nationwide election through such narrow, troubled window? All the articles focused on was the small turnout, the fear of rockets, and the gloominess of the overall picture. The Times’s At-War blog too, ran only entries by Ms. Bumiler from Marja. One can only speculate the reasons for such a narrow-scope of coverage.

While there is no doubt that the elections faced some of those challenges to an extent, but to boil it down to just that is unfair to the 150,000 international and 300,000 Afghan forces who worked tirelessly to ensure the security of the vote in the face of tremendous threats. It is also not fair to the 4 million who turned up to vote despite having the bitter taste of last year still in their mouth.

European outlets were a little milder in their approach, leaving some window of optimism. The BBC, for example, raised as many concerns as the New York Times. But it was open to the possibility of a decent turn out, and an election with a relatively low degree of fraud. The Guardian too, was harsh. And so it should be. But Jon Boone was kind enough to mention the possibility of success in one his headlines.

Just for kicks. Not really sure what the source is. a friend shared it.


A Testing Election for Afghanistan

Afghanistan prepares for parliamentary elections (image from Zimbio)

Tomorrow, Afghanistan holds its second election in consecutive years. When polls open, not only will the capabilities of the security forces be tested, but also the people’s belief and trust in elections and the democratic process.

Last year’s presidential elections ended in chaos and controversy. The turn out was low because of intimidation by the Taliban. In certain provinces, the Taliban threatened to chop the fingers that had been dipped in ink. And they did.

They ignored threats and took tremendous risks to line up and vote, believing that their vote mattered in shaping their future. Did it? Most will say not really. The vote ended in shambles. And not many people, whether those who voted for Abdullah or Karzai, were satisfied with the final result. The biggest loser of all was the elections and the trust in the democratic process

For tomorrow’s parliamentary vote, the Afghan government has repeatedly assured the people that extensive security measures have been taken. 300,000 Afghan forces assisted by 150,000 international forces. The new election chief, too, has been much more honest in his dealings. He has repeatedly asserted that no polling stations will opened in unsafe places. To that end, he has closed down about 1000 polling stations.

Tomorrow’s elections, in the face of tremendous challenges, will most importantly test the international community’s patience for Afghanistan. After last year’s messy vote, the international community has increasingly lost faith in the democratic process taking root there. If tomorrow’s vote is as messy as last year’s — or messier– one can only see the international community growing hopeless.


The Legacy of a Warrior: Ahmad Shah Massoud

Massoud, a warrior who maintained his humanity. (Photograph by Reza Deghati)

“If there had never been a war,” he said, “I would have been a very good architect.”

Ahmad Shah Massoud, a renowned guerrilla fighter of his generation, left behind a mixed legacy after his death on September 9, 2001. A moderate amongst the leaders of jihad who grew extremer every day, few close to him would question the personal dignity of the commander.  His humanity remained intact despite being devoured by the beast of war for more than half of his life. However, what taints his legacy is the involvement of his men in the darkest period of Afghanistan’s history—or Kabul’s history, rather.

The period I speak of is the years between 1991 and 1996, when the government of Dr. Najib was toppled and the Mujahideen moved into Kabul. As their eminent victory over Najib’s government neared after the Soviets withdrew their military power, the Mujahideen grew progressively divided. At the heart of their disputes was the structure of the future government that would move into Kabul. How would the power be divided? And more importantly, who will move into the mouth-watering presidential palace?

As the various factions tightened the noose around Kabul, Najib offered to step down. His attempts to ensure a smooth transition did not reach anywhere for no one listens to the demands of a leader on verge of demise. The country was at the mercy of the handful jihadi leaders who bargained behind closed doors in Peshawer. Pakistani agents sat at the head of the table, trying to broker a deal.

Massoud himself did not have any ambitions of becoming president, that is one certainty of the matter.  He was a king-maker and his word carried a lot of weight, but he had never shown any desire for the seat. He repeatedly said that he had left the issue of leadership of the country to the elders. However, it was his rivalry with Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, a fellow engineering classmate in his younger days, that eventually turned Kabul into the bloodiest killing-ground.

The commanders had delayed an immediate entry into Kabul until a political agreement was reached by the different leaders in Pakistan. A sudden entry would bring chaos in the city, it was said. But Hikmatyar grew restless of the negotiations, and felt that nothing was being achieved. He wanted to move in immediately and claim the ultimate prize for the Mujahideen: the presidential palace. But there was no longer such a thing as the mujahideen. The language used was one of ahzab, or parties, factions. Hikmatyar’s entry meant a victory for his faction, not for all. And Massoud vehemently warned against such an entry. He tried to convince Hikmatyar that he should wait, pending the results of the negotiations in Peshawer. But Hekmatyar would have none of it. So Massoud declared that he would “defend the people of Kabul, the man, women, children, and elderly of Kabul.” And so began the darkest period in history.

For close to five years, until Taliban emerged from the South to rid them all and corner Massoud into Panjsher, Kabul burned in a hellish civil war. The small city was divided up into numerous kingdoms, with a throne on every street. Hikmatyar fired mortars from one end, Charasyab, and Massoud responded from the other, Koh e Telvision. In between, Kabul was looted, raped, and burned until it turned into a ghost-town.

The Legacy:

Any warrior, whether he likes it or not, will have blood on his hands. Massoud is no different. His image, as Afghans see it now, has splashes of blood over it. Whether he pierced his own dagger and drew that blood is questionable.  Did he have men under his command who caused tremendous bloodshed? That is a harsh certainty.

But Ahmad Shah Massoud stands out for one characteristic that many life-long warriors lose in the face of war: the ability to maintain a concerned, moderate, human heart. At every moment of his life, in every speech, in every gesture, Massoud gave the vibe that he had risen from the people, that his struggle was for the people, and that he was firm on the principles of his struggle.

Journalist Sebastian Junger, who visited Massoud for a National Geographic assignment, had this to say about Massoud’s undeniable charisma:

There was something about him – the slow nod of his head as he listened to a question, the exhaustion and curiosity engraved on his handsome, haggard face – that made it clear we were in the presence of an extraordinary man. I found it impossible not to listen to Massoud when he spoke, even though I didn’t understand a word. I watched everything he did, because I had the sense that somehow – in the way he poured his tea, in the way his hands carved the air as he talked – there was some secret to be learned.”

From what his friends and those close to him recall, one gets a sense that Massoud was a man  firm on upholding his principles at all times. In time of peace, that is an easy task. But when you are cornered into a ditch for years and your enemy threatens to destroy you every moment, it takes an extraordinary man to stay firm, to stay true, and to maintain a kind heart.

Little anecdotes help us put this picture of Massoud together. General Daoud Daoud, one of Massoud’s commanders and the recent Deputy Minister of Interior, shares this story:

We were in Kabul. A professor at Kabul university came to Massoud and complained that his daughter had been taken by the son of a commander. Massoud ordered Fahim [his intelligence chief at the time, the current Vice President of Afganistan] to return the girl to his father at any cost. In fact, Massoud said he would not eat until the girl was returned to his father. Fahim said that the case would get messy, it could ignite fighting. The boy’s father had lots of armed men. Massoud replied that the honor of the professor and his daughter was everything to him. She should be returned at any cost.

Dr. Mehdi, one of Massoud’s advisers and current politician, remembers this anecdote:

I joined Massoud at a gathering in Takhar. My entry into the room had interrupted his conversation  with one of his commanders. After greeting me, he turned to the commander and asked him to please continue.

“Yes sir,” the commander continued, “so I left with eight of my men. They have Kalashnikovs and I have a kalakov.  We arrived there at dawn. Our guide showed us to a place where deer grazed. There were two ways that the deer could escape and my men blocked both ends. When it turned light, the deer that had been grazing got scared of us and started running. Since both escape routs were blocked, they had no option but to come towards me. And I started in the name of God. I fired three rounds. When I finished, my men came and gathered the deer. I had shot 28 of them. The rest that were injured ran away. They might have fallen later, but we did not follow after them. 28 was more than enough for us. I brought ten home and give away the rest, to my men and the villagers.”

The gathering remained silent. Massoud took a long look at the commander. Then, he brought his hand to his forehead and lowered his head in silence. All eyes were fixed on him as to how he would react. He turned to the commander and said:

“What a pity. You are mujahid, a haji who has gone to pilgrimage, and a sufi. You killed God’s creatures, you ended a generation of them. Don’t you think in Islam, hunting has its limits? And that excess is a sin?”

Later, Massoud refused to have a bite of the deer meat they had brought him as a delicacy.

And a final anecdote from Mir Dad, one of his commanders:

I served as the commander for the Commando Battalion.  Once, Chief of Staff of the Pakistani Army invited Massoud for a meeting, which he accepted. With a few commando soldiers and couple horses, we left for the headquarters in Badakhshan. The  journey was long, so Massoud repeatedly offered his horse to one of the soldiers. “You are tired, come ride my horse,” he said. The soldier refused. Massoud got off the horse and started walking. He left the horse behind for the soldier. He asked me to have the rest soldiers take turns on the other horses…

Massoud, on many times, reminisced about his student days. The man had gone through a lot, but he still remembered his days at the lyce Istiqlal as the best days of his life, where he played soccer and prepared to join the engineering faculty at Kabul Polytechnic. His first two years of university, too, he recalled with nostalgia. He had been very focused on his studies, very excited about becoming an architect. But the communist revolution in Afghanistan changed everything for him, turning him into a life-long warrior.

One only wonders how good an architect Massoud would have become had there been no war.

This is the second and final part of a two-part serines on Massoud and his legacy.