The possibility of a US-led military intervention in Iraq is acting as a shadow over both the government and the aid community. The Afghan government fears that Afghanistan will fall off the international agenda and that radical elements will take the opportunity of reduced international attention to increase their power base.
The aid community is concerned that it may be difficult to maintain its operations if the level of threat to the security of its staff becomes too great. Already, in January, there has been an increase in tension in southern Afghanistan, particularly around the Pakistan border at Spin Boldak, in Kandahar and in the provinces of Helmand, Uruzgan and Zabul. On 27th January, a bomb was thrown into the office of the French NGO, Action Contre La Faim, in Kandahar. Although seven people were in the compound at the time, nobody was hurt, fortunately.
The US-led coalition forces have also been subject to a greater number of attacks in recent weeks, with the most significant taking place on 28th January in the mountains to the north-east of Spin Boldak in southern Afghanistan. Coalition forces responded to this particular incident with a heavy use of force and undertook a major search operation of caves in the area. However, these produced very little evidence of planned military activity.
There are also many reports of threats being issued against western targets, including Afghans working for western agencies, through leaflets, flyers and radio. One report has spoken of an unknown local radio station in Paktia calling on the people of the province to engage in a jihad against the US coalition forces and President Karzai. Speaking on 6th January, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, Major-General Hilmi Akin Zorlu, said that a war in Iraq would increase the chance of attacks on foreigners in Afghanistan.
It remains difficult, in relation to particular incidents or threats, to identify specific organisations or groups as being responsible. While it is very possible that attacks on western targets are attributable to those seeking to commit violence against Western targets, it is equally possible that other factors such as criminal activity or acts of revenge could have determined the outcome. Even if those responsible are targeting the West, we should not jump too readily to conclusions as to which organisations are involved. Aside from Hisb-e-Islami, there are many small groups advocating anti-western violence. Although these are often collectively labelled under the name of Al-Qaida, they represent no more than a loose network.
There are also concerns that, if the USA takes its eye off Afghanistan during an engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan's neighbours, particularly Pakistan, Iran, Russia and Uzbekistan may step in to fill the power vacuum. The fear is that these may further strengthen the power base of the regional power holders, including the Defence Minister, General Fahim, and further weaken the nation-building process.
However, concerns that the USA could withdraw its forces and so leave the interim government in a highly vulnerable position have been countered by the insistence of the US government that it will not reduce its military presence.
The level of threat from within Pakistan remains a very important one, both to western targets within Pakistan and Afghanistan and to regional stability. Passions ran very high during the Gulf War and can be expected to again be high if the USA were to intervene militarily in Iraq. It is also possible that Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, the radical coalition which took power in North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan in October 2002, may lend support to any efforts by the Taliban to rebuild their support. The MMA organised rallies across Pakistan on January 4th against a possible war on Iraq.
The increased insecurity in the Kandahar area is likely to seriously hinder progress on reconstruction of the major highway system in southern Afghanistan.
Iran and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to provide electricity to Herat from the Iranian grid. Work is expected to be completed on the project in 2004.
On 31st January, UNHCR expressed "deep concern" over the arrest, by the Pakistan government, of 270 Afghan refugees in Rawalpindi during the previous week. All were detained under the Foreigner's Act. A UN spokesman was reported as commenting that there was "considerable fear within the refugee community and people are afraid to go out into the streets now in case they are detained."
The United Nations Environment Programme has published a "Post-Conflict Environmental Assessment" on Afghanistan. This looked at pollution 'hotspots' in the urban environment, surface and ground water resources, deforestation, waste and sanitation, air quality and desertification.
Among the significant findings is that the conifer forests in the provinces of Nangarhar, Kunar and Nuristan have been reduced by an average of 50% since 1978. The pistachio forests in Badghis and Takhar have suffered to an even greater extent, with 50-70% of pistachio woodland cover being lost over the past three decades. Overall agricultural productivity is declining, which is leading to an exodus from the countryside to the urban areas. Thus, the agricultural population has fallen from 94% of the total in 1950 to 78% in 2000. In part, the fall in agricultural production has been caused by a desertification process. The report notes that a reduction in stabilising vegetation has led to increased sand dune movement in some areas. This has been aggravated by shortages of fuel and the consequent need to collect whatever brushwood is available. Flood risks are also increasing, with the erosion of river banks. Further concern is expressed over the uncoordinated drilling of deep wells with insufficient regard to the impact on shallow wells, springs and karezes.
Turning to the urban areas, the report comments that poor management of general and hospital waste is leading to groundwater contamination and toxic air pollution, from burning waste, as well as increasing the risk of disease. This is in spite of organised waste clearance programmes in the main cities. Painting a bleak picture of the few industrial units that exist, it notes that these operate with extremely poor regard for staff health and safety, the fumes they emit into the environment or the disposal of waste. It expresses particular concern over the employment of children in such environments.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has produced a major report entitled "The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: An International Problem." In the introduction, the authors note that the study seeks to examine the "dynamics" of the opium economy, "the reasons for its success, its beneficiaries and victims and the problems it has caused domestically and abroad."
The report notes that the previous fragmentation of the opium trade within Afghanistan, based on local opium bazaars offering credit to farmers as an advance on the income from the opium to be grown, is increasingly influenced by international syndicates and criminal groups and "may be on the way to becoming a single integrated market".
Interestingly, the report speaks of a strong increase in drug abuse in the last few years, due to prolonged suffering, the breakdown of traditional social controls, the return of refugees who developed a drug problem in the refugee camps in Pakistan and the large-scale use, by the war wounded, of opium, morphine and heroin as painkillers. Unlike Pakistan and Iran, where drug abuse has been high for very many years, the population of Afghanistan have been slow to develop a serious level of addiction to opiates and the level of abuse remains low compared to Afghanistan's neighbours. On the basis of local surveys in eastern Afghanistan, it is estimated that opium is abused by 0.5% of the adult population and heroin by 0.1%. The growing use of Central Asia as a transit route for drugs is increasing addiction levels there.
The report concludes that drug control will have to be linked to wider development efforts to rebuild the country while noting that, unless the drug problem is solved, there will be no sustainable development for Afghanistan.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group raises some important questions about the judicial reform process in Afghanistan and what is termed transitional justice, namely the process whereby past human rights abuses are addressed during an immediate post-conflict period. Published on 28th January under the title of "Judicial Reform and Transitional Justice", the report starts with the following introductory statement:
"Afghanistan's legal system has collapsed. Never strong to begin with, it has been nearly destroyed by 23 years of conflict and misrule. There are few trained lawyers, little physical infrastructure and no complete record of the country's laws. Under successive regimes, laws have been administered for mostly political ends with few protections of the rights of individuals to a fair trial. Although the country has signed up to most international agreements on human rights, abuses have been widespread and military commanders have enjoyed impunity". It later notes that "human rights abuses by commanders, many officially part of the government, continue across the country".
In considering how the situation might be improved, the report expresses disappointment at the progress of the Judicial Commission set up in accordance with the provisions of the Bonn Agreement. It thus notes that it was necessary to appoint a new Commission in November 2002 after the first Commission had been rendered ineffective by political and bureaucratic rivalries after only three months in operation. It talks further of such rivalries when it states that:
"each of the three major components of the judicial system - the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court and the Attorney General's Office - is dominated by rival political and ideological camps which, while sharing an Islamic background, have been unable to define a common set of objectives. Many provincial judges were appointed or confirmed by the militias that are now dominant in their areas and are often simply madrasa-educated mullahs. Resolving the internal disputes within the judicial system and professionalising the judiciary will require confronting powerful political actors and should proceed in tandem with demobilisation and disarmament."
The report also comments that "there are deep divisions between those who favour a very conservative interpretation of Islamic law and those who want to revive the more progressive ideas in the 1964 Constitution". In this context, it notes that Fazl Hadi Shinwari, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was previously head of a Peshawar madrasa and is politically allied to Abd-el-Rabb Ar-Rasoul Sayyaf, leader of Ittihad-i-Islami. Sayyaf is one of the most conservative of the former Mujahidin leaders and has, historically, received strong backing from Saudi Arabia. He has also been a close ally of Burhannudin Rabbani for many years. The report expresses concern that Mr Shinwari has sought to place others with similar political links in key positions, including initiating an increase in the number of Supreme Court judges from 9 to 137.
The report raises some important questions. Foremost among these is how the population can ensure that those guilty of past human rights abuses and war crimes can be brought to account. This is particularly complex in a situation in which the political compromises necessary to achieve and maintain peace have meant that it is necessary to include such guilty individuals in the current power holding arrangements. The report argues that the international community should be patient in allowing Afghans to find an appropriate way forward at a point at which key witnesses can give evidence without fear. It nonetheless recommends that the international community can assist by painstakingly documenting abuses and accumulating evidence so that, when the time is right, the legal proof that will be needed is available.
This document is a useful source of reference for the history of the legal evolution of Afghanistan, noting, for example, the key provisions of the 1964 Constitution and the international conventions to which Afghanistan is a signatory. Among the important provisions of the 1964 Constitution were due process guarantees such as the presumption of innocence and the right to defence counsel. The Constitution prohibited coerced confessions, arbitrary detention, torture and other forms of punishment "incompatible with human dignity".
Another important development on the human rights front has been the decision by the Afghan cabinet, on 13th January, to accede to the International Criminal Court.
This report is published by the British Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG) Project, based at the Refugee Council, London. The Project is funded from a number of sources, including the UK Government's Department for International Development and individual British NGOs operating in Afghanistan. However, the views expressed are those of the BAAG Project and do not represent any official view of its funders.
For more information, please contact:
The Secretariat, BAAG at Refugee Council, 3 Bondway, London SW8 1SJ
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