Endgame Afghanistan: Compromising Human Rights?
February 17, 2012
Compared to the Taliban era and before, Afghanistan has made impressive gains in the sphere of human rights, especially women rights. The current Afghan constitution guarantees equality of men and women before law. Women have visible presence in parliament, cabinet, civil administration, and media. They are important pillars of civil society activism in the country. Afghan women have also played an important role in expanding the scope of female education, thereby making the current enrolment of over 2 million girls in schools possible.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission has established its credibility for being consistently critical of the government on issues such as corruption. Moreover, the role of the country’s vibrant media in promoting a culture of free enquiry in a predominantly tribal society can hardly be overlooked.
What Afghanistan has been able to achieve in the middle of a war with due international help was virtually unthinkable over a decade ago. We only have to refresh our memory of the Taliban era to appreciate Afghanistan’s current gains in the domain of human rights. However, as the corresponding processes of dialogue with Taliban and withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan move forward, there is real danger that whatever human rights gains the country has made in a decade may be compromised.
To explain why I consider these gains, however limited their present scope may be, too precious to compromise, let me go back in time to share some personal thoughts on the evolution of the Taliban movement and its implications for Afghan society.
As a reporter with Pakistani newspaper, The Nation, I had covered the rise of Taliban in Kandahar in mid-90s. The Taliban movement was no doubt a natural response to atrocities committed by rival commanders in the region. Local people abhorred Afghan infighting, which was why Taliban did not face much resistance in extending their writ beyond Kandahar and disarming the conquered areas. However, some worrisome signs were indeed visible during their initial rise. Taliban leaders, including Mullah Umar, were categorically clear about enforcing a Hanafi Sunni Islamic order in Afghanistan.
Thus, in the areas that were captured by Taliban, Shariah code was instantly enforced. There was little to doubt right at the start that Taliban’s belief system was the sum total of Pashtun religious conservatism, which had radicalised during the anti-Soviet jihad, and a violent, exclusivist Islamic creed of Pakistani Deobandis and Saudi Wahhabis. In their bigoted worldview, there was no space for minority views or dissident voices.
Thus, as soon as Kabul fell to Taliban in September 1996, it was clear what they were up to—as mutilated bodies of former Afghan President Dr Najibullah and his brother hung in the city square symbolising a terror spree that was to follow. Once firmly in power, Taliban chose to act independently. Even Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, which had rushed to recognise the Taliban regime, finally made the uncomfortable discovery that a fundamentalist leadership equipped with political power was difficult to control.
The Saudis fell apart with Taliban over the Osama bin Laden issue. They destroyed the ancient Buddha Statues in Bamiyan, despite consistent appeals by the whole world, including Pakistan. What they did to the people of Afghanistan, especially to minorities and other unprivileged sections of population, as well as to all those who did not subscribe to their regressive creed, was simply horrendous.
As I wrote in a December 2000 issue of the journal, Perceptions: “The traditionally tolerant multi-ethnic society of Afghanistan does not deserve to be ruled by Taliban, who exercise a reign of terror in the territories under their occupation. They have won global notoriety for their maltreatment of women, who are denied the right to education, work, move and speak freely. Those accused of illicit sexual ties are stoned to death, and men accused of murder are shot dead by relatives of the victim party, in case the latter refuse to accept the blood money, and this deadly drama is played right before the eyes of hundreds of people usually in sports stadiums. Hands or legs of the accused thieves are amputated likewise.”
I further wrote: “The Religious Force of the Ministry of Fostering Virtue and Preventing Vice recently disrupted two friendly football matches between Afghan and Pakistani teams in Kandahar and Kabul—in July and October 2000, respectively. In the first instance, the heads of Pakistani players were shaved off—for they violated the dress code of Taliban by wearing shorts; and, in the second case, the players were chased away from the stadium by bearded thugs because the timing of the match violated a recent edict of Taliban’s spiritual leader, which prohibits the people from taking part in any sports activity after 4 pm.”
In the end, only a terrorist event of the scale of 9/11 had to occur to persuade the world to militarily intervene in Afghanistan and rescue its people from the Taliban rule. Prior to that, the UN Security Council had passed two sets of sanctions against the Taliban regime—but only after the Clinton Administration stopped luring the Taliban regime to win a regional gas pipeline contract from the Taliban for the American UNOCAL-led consortium. Faced with growing pressure from human rights campaigners, the US government was left with no option but to publicly castigate the Taliban regime for committing human rights violations. And it did so almost two years after Taliban captured Kabul.
Thus, if the abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet defeat was one strategic mistake, the late response to Taliban’s human rights excesses was another. The former created a political vacuum in the war-torn country, out of which emerged the Taliban movement; and the latter enabled Taliban to conquer much of Afghanistan, including its northern provinces.
Afghanistan is once again at risk of becoming a casualty of a similar pragmatic approach, which the Karzai regime and the US government have already started to pursue. As part of its policy to appease Taliban and their sympathisers in Afghan parliament, the Afghan government has in recent years taken a number of controversial legal steps that narrow down the space for women rights rather than expand it further. It is no surprise that a bulk of Afghan women surveyed recently fearing the return of a Taliban-style rule in the country.
For its part, the US has further empowered its traditional allies among Afghan regional warlords, most of whom have heinous track-record, to establish their own local police forces—an issue over which the Human Rights Watch’s recently released annual report on the state of human rights in Afghanistan in the past year has expressed grave concern.