January 31, 2012 Leave a comment
Jan Kubiš’ visit to Afghanistan was a fairly solemn affair. The new United Nations special envoy arrived in Kabul on January 17th, and was greeted by President Hamid Karzai the following day. Kubiš shook the President’s hand, ensured him that his focus would be the “partnership” between Afghanistan and the UN, and promised “all his co-operation”. What more could he do?
The words of UNAMA’s special envoy to Afghanistan are, as he surely knows, rather remote from the quotidian concerns of the country’s people. Afghanistan continues to suffer in practically every way that it is possible for a nation to suffer. Over 30 years of continuous military conflict, beginning with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the US-backed Mujahideen insurgency, then a decade of civil war and domination by brutal competing warlords and the Taleban, and culminating in the NATO invasion of 2001 (and one of the most indiscriminate bombing campaigns in human history), have left wounds that will not heal by gauze alone.
The total civilian death count since the invasion is not clear, but my own aggregate estimate based on the methodology of Iraq Body Count and UNAMA’s research, and therefore naturally conservative, puts the figure at around 40,000. The twelve months to this date are the bloodiest for Afghan civilians since 2002.
The World Food Program (WFP) must provide aid for around 114,000 Afghans, most of whom are either poor women or disabled people living in rural areas. Over 200,000 of Afghanistan’s 400,000 internally displaced people required UNHCR aid to keep them from freezing this winter. One in five Afghan children still die before they reach five years old. Life expectancy, though it has risen slightly since 2009, is 48 years – a little lower than Somalia and Chad. Kubiš, like his predecessors, can say little of import about this misery, just as he can say little that will ease the pain of those in CIA torture prisons at Bagram and Kabul, or in those of the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS).
The central reasons for the continuation of this living hell are well known. The continuing military occupation will go hand-in-hand with violent insurgency for as long as it continues. Afghanistan’s borders, particularly the ‘Durand Line’ with Pakistan, are artificial. Ethnic and regional division, entrenched by the rule of warlords, whose NATO backing in 2001 Human Rights Watch called, rightly or wrongly, “probably the single most damaging mistake in Afghanistan”. The country is also riddled with corruption. US policy, implemented through Karzai, has been largely oriented around creating relative safety for foreign contractors, and not around building functioning political and economic institutions. Karzai has now ruled Afghanistan for 10 years.
It was not always thus. From 1963-73, Afghanistan experienced a measure of peace and an improvement in civil rights, including elements of democratic popular organization, that was not inconsiderable. Afghanistan was at that time a constitutional monarchy lead by the then King, Mohammed Zahir.
King Zahir was heir to a Pashtun dynasty that stretched back, with occasional breaks, for over 200 years. When his father, Nadir Khan, was assassinated in 1933, King Zahir nominally acceded to monarchical rule but policy was directed by his father’s two brothers until the early 1960s, and was mostly brutal and oppressive. When Zahir took genuine control he moved fairly quickly (under popular pressure) to begin reforming institutions and improving international relations, which entailed a state visit to meet John Kennedy in 1963. The living conditions of those in lower social and economic groups, including women, increased at an impressive rate accounting for historical context and national structural constraints such as elements of Pashtunwali and large areas of decentralized regional government.
King Zahir, the ‘last king of Afghanistan’, was ousted in 1973 by pro-Soviet former Prime Minister Daoud Khan, and subsequently went into exile rather than risk civil war. Strikingly, many women took to the streets of Kabul in protest. Zahir was prevented from returning following the Soviet occupation, though did attempt to form a government in exile from Italy in the early 1980s.
By the turn of the Twenty-First Century, current President Hamid Karzai was busy travelling the world. He flew to Rome to briefly meet the exiled King, before appearing in several United States Congressional committees, including the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Karzai described these visits as successful in cultivating “political support”, but found that he was unable to gain “real backing for a military occupation in Afghanistan”, as was his purpose. Following the attacks of September 11th and the rise of President Bush’s administration, that changed. Contacts with Karzai were quickly opened and he rose to lead an interim government.
By the 2002 Loya Jirga Karzai’s support with the Occupation, and US policy-makers, was unassailable. Karzai was seen as a malleable leader, and Zahir’s status as a former monarch meant working with him would draw attention to the hypocrisy of the US administration’s ‘democracy promotion’ rhetoric. However, Afghan support for King Zahir to lead the country, at least until the 2004 election, was strong. The House Congressional record notes in 2002 that “all of the Afghan people had a warm place in their heart for King Zahir”. It is easy to see why. The days of the King’s rule must have looked attractive after decades of blood and darkness.
The largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, strongly supported King Zahir, and though the collected US-backed Tajik warlords of the Northern Alliance opposed him, there’s little concrete evidence that the minority Tajik population itself did. King Zahir was in a strong position to run for leadership, but US diplomats visited Zahir hours before the Jirga and he immediately announced that he would not stand. Many of the delegates reported that they were intimidated into voting for Karzai. Zahir was reduced to a ceremonial role as ‘Father of the Nation’, and died in July 2007.
Karzai proceeded to win two presidential elections in Afghanistan, both of which are known to have been plagued by corruption. Karzai himself brushed off allegations of fraud in the 2009 Presidential election by explaining that “there was fraud in 2004 as well”. Aside from the direct corruption of the Presidential elections, and the 2002 Jirga, it is necessary to note the inherent illegitimacy of elections carried out under military occupation which has been understated, especially by the UN and the military occupants’ support for Karzai. The Department for International Development considers most polls, even on minor issues, that it conducts in Afghanistan to be extremely unreliable, citing fear and misunderstanding as key barriers. Afghanistan is currently accounted the 3rd most corrupt country on earth by Transparency International.
Karzai’s Presidency has been largely illegitimate and has, with marginal, mostly rhetorical, exceptions been characterized by a comfortable adherence to the consensus of US policy-makers, as would be expected. This has been partly responsible for the failure to improve the awful living standards of Afghans, and largely responsible for the country’s endemic corruption.
The coup against Zahir, and his marginalization at the 2002 Jirga, have had significant implications for Afghan governance. Though his experienced leadership and popularity would not have insured Afghanistan against the ravages of the occupation and insurgency, they may have mediated them, just as Zahir may have been able to mediate between the US occupation, of which he was not wholly critical, and the interests of the Afghan population. Zahir was by no means an ideal leader for Afghanistan, but the US imposition of Karzai over him should be seen as, at best, a mistake. His influence on Afghan politics since 1973 has been a little too spectral.
Image by Kodak Agfa