Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Afghanistan moving to dictatorship?

On Saturday in Afghanistan's Herat City, factory employees and judges returned to work, ending a week-long work stoppage begun by the city's doctors. The strike was called to demand measures to ensure security following a wave of kidnappings and extortion of doctors and their families. In response to the protest, the national government threatened legal action against the doctors, forcing them back to work. Meanwhile, the doctors' protest had been joined by workers in some 250 factories, as well as shopkeepers and a hundred judges.

While it is unclear what the government promised in order to end the action, it seems measures will include beefed up security around industrial parks. "Crime," notes Agence France-Presse, "including kidnapping for ransom, has soared in major cities since the fall of the hardline Taliban government in late 2001." (See this page of photos of Herat City.)

Moving slightly east, but sticking to the theme of insecurity, readers may recall the saga of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum, an Uzbek commander from Jowzjan province, was last heard from when he and his men beat and abducted a former Dostum ally and current member of parliament. Dostum, a key warlord with tremendous influence in five provinces (Balkh, Faryab, Sar-e Pul, Jowzjan and Samangan), went on to defy the attorney general's attempts to bring him to account for his crime.

The Independent brings us up to speed on Dostum:

General Dostum is now in his base at Shibirghan in the north, where his private army is being rearmed, and supporters hold daily demonstrations threatening an uprising unless the arrest warrant against him is revoked and his official powers are restored. The Uzbek, physically a big, bear-like man, is said to be feeling isolated. Increasingly, to the worry of his staff, he is drinking vodka heavily. ... (link)
Moving further east to Mazar-i Sharif in Balkh province, where Pervez Kambakhsh still languishes in jail convicted of blasphemy for allegedly distributing material critical of some religious teachings. His brother Yaqub Ibrahimi, whom readers may recall was the actual target of the action against Pervez, gave a press conference recently in Paris. (See Reporters Without Borders press release here. See previous blog postings on Kambakhsh here and here.)

Finally, I'll excerpt a report by Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, Afghanistan bureau chief of National Public Radio:
Too Much Power in Karzai's Hands, Critics Say

March 7 (NPR) - One reason American troops are still in Afghanistan nearly seven years after ousting the Taliban is to protect the still fragile democracy there. A growing number of Afghans question whether that democracy is worth protecting.

They complain that the government they've elected is corrupt and that it does a poor job of providing basic services, let alone law and order. They accuse the West of caring more about backing President Hamid Karzai, than addressing his government's problems.

Some are so frustrated that they've taken matters into their own hands.

One by one, the elders of the Mohammadzai tribe arrive for their weekly meeting in the southern city of Kandahar. They sit cross legged on the floor in front of cups of steaming green tea.

This gathering, or shura, is a tradition the elders resurrected 18 months ago to address people's economic and security needs. They say they did so because they no longer trust their government to take care of them.

The elders debate a new plan by their tribe and 26 six others in Kandahar province to form a council that would, in effect, take over the duties of the existing provincial government. ...

"The West kicked out the powerful Taliban regime and replaced it with a government people don't like and a person who cannot be a strong leader," [former Kandahar attorney general Mohammad Issa] Durazai says.

Such criticism of Karzai and his government is common in Afghanistan these days. ...

While Karzai's government is widely viewed here as ineffective, experts note he still controls the levers of power. It's the president who appoints the cabinet ministers and provincial governors. That means government officials answer to the president and his advisers, rather than to the people they are supposed to serve.

Even parliament is unable to force the president to fire ministers. The legislators impeached the Afghan foreign minister last year, but he's still in office.

"There are signs that if we are not careful, we might be moving towards a dictatorship," says Mahmoud Saikal, a former deputy foreign minister who also served as ambassador to Australia. ... (link)
What Nelson refers to above as a Mohammadzai tribal shura is surely what the Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith was referring to last month when he described a tribal manifesto that was about to be unveiled. Smith quoted the outspoken Mohammad Issa Durazai, quoted above, as saying:
"The foreign soldiers aren't helping, they're behaving like an occupying force".

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