Afghan warlords exact a toll on the road to democracy

Afghan warlords exact a toll on the road to democracy

By Fariba Nawa
June 5, 2002
The San Francisco Chronicle

Herat, Afghanistan — Rafiq Shaheer’s friends were shocked when they saw the bruises on his back after he was released from custody.

“He lifted his shirt, and it was all black,” said an acquaintance.

Shaheer, president of the pro-democratic Council of Professionals in this city of 330,000, was jailed and beaten last week for speaking out against Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat province and self-styled ruler of western Afghanistan.

As the nation prepares to choose new leaders through the loya jirga, or grand council, that gets under way on Monday, warlords representing different ethnic and religious groups are cracking down on opponents who favor more democracy as they jockey to retain power.

The recent slayings of eight loya jirga delegates in different parts of the country, the arrest of 24 more in the district of Marawaray on charges of stirring up trouble and the detention of Shaheer have raised concerns about the process to determine Afghanistan’s political future.

The 1,500-member loya jirga, representing all ethnic groups, will select the next administration in a weeklong meeting — the start of a five-year transition toward this war-torn nation’s first democratic government.

The obstacles, however, are immense. The warlords pay only lip service to Hamid Karzai’s interim government in Kabul and are capable of pushing the country back into the factional chaos that has plagued it for the past 22 years.

The democratic process in Herat is actually progressing faster than in most provinces — albeit in an Afghan context. The fact that Shaheer’s group openly criticized Khan in a publication without anyone being killed as a result is a step forward compared to many districts, where freedom of expression is nonexistent.

Khan, a politically complex Tajik commander who does not match the bloodthirsty, gun-toting image of his peers in other regions, is one of the nation’s most tolerant warlords. After driving out the Soviets in 1992, he was welcomed by Herat locals as a near saint, allowing him to set up his fiefdom. In the next three years, he built a university, paved roads and instituted a moderate Islamic law that allowed women to work and go to segregated schools.

When the Taliban arrived in 1995, Khan went into exile in Iran. Two years later, he returned to recapture Herat but was captured himself. He spent nearly three years in prison — mostly chained to a pipe — before escaping to Iran. Last year, he and his troops defeated the Taliban, liberating the city for a second time.

Although local support has waned considerably for the 56-year-old white- bearded Khan in recent months, many residents still say he is a good leader.

Since Khan regained control seven months ago, he has allowed women to return to work and school, introduced a new telephone system, paved roads and rebuilt homes and businesses. Herat remains the cleanest and richest province in the country.

“Without him, there wouldn’t be stability in Herat,” said Sharif Faez, the nation’s education minister and one of Khan’s staunchest backers. “He’s a man of action.”

His critics, however, say Khan reaps revenues from customs duty on smuggled goods from Iran and Turkmenistan, names unqualified individuals to government posts, keeps a private army of 15,000 to 20,000 men, has done little to stop the harassment of Pashtuns by non-Pashtun commanders and has become increasingly hard-line in enforcing Islamic law.

He has discouraged women from removing their burqas and barred private school teachers from teaching the opposite sex. Public schools are already segregated by sex.

Shaheer, a 42-year-old political scientist, was a Khan supporter during the warlord’s three-year reign in the 1990s. But lately, his group, made up of about 1,000 intellectuals, has encouraged locals to defy Khan’s autocratic rule. Shaheer has even spoken out with the warlord in attendance at several public meetings.

“In one of my speeches, I asked people to show courage, express their opinions, not wait to ask for their rights and not be afraid,” said Shaheer.

“If they don’t, our society will remain unchanged.”

Shaheer said he still respected Khan until his arrest last week.

About a dozen men broke into his house, which he shares with his wife and five children, at 10:30 p.m., demanding to see him. When he appeared clad in pajamas, he was blindfolded, taken to jail, interrogated about his political activities and anti-Khan comments and beaten.

A day later, Karzai secured Shaheer’s release after meeting with Khan in Kabul. Insiders say Karzai warned the warlord to cooperate or risk losing U.S. support. Currently, about 50 U.S. soldiers are repairing bridges, roads and canals in Herat.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has described Khan as “a very interesting, deep man,” gave him a similar warning in a private conversation April 29, boosting the confidence of Khan foes such as Shaheer.

Since his release, Shaheer has given press interviews to anyone who will listen and has received numerous guests to his modest home in downtown Herat.

“We want the Bonn protocol (a U.N.-sponsored conference last December to establish a post-Taliban government) to be implemented so that our basic human rights can be protected,” said Shaheer.

Shaheer is most irate that he has been denied a spot on the loya jirga despite the fact that Herat residents voted in district elections to send him. He says Khan is trying to stack the seats allocated for the region with loyalists.

Noor Ahmed Khatibi, a supporter of former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, was also booted from the list after being elected in the same election. He had called for Khan to share his power and cooperate more fully with the Karzai government.

“It’s completely a militaristic government in Herat,” said Khatibi. “Fundamental needs and cultured discussions don’t exist.”

Khan’s foes are skeptical that the loya jirga will loosen his hold, but they hope that their continued dissent will force him to change.

“He’s selfish and arrogant, but he’s not a killer, and he loves his people and his country,” said a former associate.

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