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Understanding Afghanistan's complexities


Afghanistan map: poll booths that didn't openOur first parliamentary debate about Australia's involvement in Afghanistan, nine years after that involvement began, focuses on Australia's military role activity in Uruzgan province in the south.

At the same time, Afghan election authorities have cancelled 1.3 million votes in the parliamentary election, nearly a quarter of the 5.6 million ballots cast. The final results are due to be declared on 30 October, although it will likely be later. It's grist to the mill of those who believe widespread electoral fraud and the corruption of the Karzai government nullifies any international assistance to Afghanistan.

We tend to view Afghanistan through the lens of our own experience. Our national parliamentary elections are held on a Saturday morning at the local school complete with sausage sizzle and cake stalls. They deliver our representatives to a well-established parliamentary institution in Canberra.

But in Central Asia, from Genghis Khan onwards, the strong man has been privileged over strong institutions. Institutions are for settled societies. Afghanistan remains a highly unsettled political entity.

The interactive maps from the Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan show just how insecure the election campaign and election day were for huge swathes of Afghanis. Democracy International's interactive map shows the number of polling booths that didn't open, both in the south and east where the Taliban is strong, and in the north and centre where other anti-government groups operate.

The situation is far more complex than the Australian parliamentary debate seems to credit.

So far the debate has not raised the Karzai government's plan to bring the Taliban inside the political tent, or the fact that countries in Central Asia are already discussing the strategic shape of things following a major US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

There seems to be bipartisan acceptance that Al-Qaeda has been routed in Afghanistan. But US security analyst, Peter Bergen, believes a hive of jihadists is still operating across the border in Pakistan. This border is not officially recognised by Afghanistan, and Pashtuns in Afghanistan's east cross it regularly.

In August ten members of a medical team from Christian aid organisation International Assistance Mission were murdered in remote north-east Afghanistan. The surviving Afghan driver confirmed that Urdu was spoken by some of the killers, indicating they were from across the border.

The murders are being investigated by the FBI. However, many in Afghanistan believe Hezb-e Islami, one of a handful of anti-Afghan government groups led by notorious former mujaheed, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were responsible. Hekmatyar's group has bases in Pakistan's Swat Valley and North and South Waziristan.

It also has members in the Karzai government. This exemplifies the conundrum for the international community. Some former jihadi commanders who allegedly committed murder and other human rights violations now sit in the parliament. Under Afghan electoral law, one has to be found guilty in a court of law to be denied candidate status. The international community has failed to address this.

An opportunist like Hekmatyar has no real need of democracy, governance, free and fair elections or human rights because he plays political buzkashi, the Central Asian game where a goat's carcass is fought over furiously by opposing teams, with no discernible rules. He has been successful, and US observers maintain he can be brought into the political tent — for a price.

The international community still focuses on elections as the tool of nation-building and as a bulwark against the Taliban insurgency. Yet democracy doesn't end when polls close: many parliamentarians demonstrate little knowledge of basic parliamentary procedures, and their constituents have exaggerated, uninformed expectations. 

What is more alarming is that, having instituted successful ballot-rigging during the 2009 presidential election, election players have learned how to do it in more sophisticated ways. Analyst Noah Coburn argues that clever candidates can use existing insecurity and rumours of violence to their own benefit while hurting other candidates.

More than 30 people were killed during the election campaign, including candidates and election officials. In some cases candidates have encouraged this violence, which has been blamed on the Taliban. The entrenched culture of violence profoundly undermines efforts to establish democratic institutions.

Coburn argues that fraud and corruption, which the international community focuses on, are only symptoms of the real issue. '... Politics in Afghanistan, despite (and in some ways because of) nine years of international intervention, are inherently unstable … the country is deeply divided on the question of whether it should be ruled by religious leaders, former commanders or bureaucrats'.

Coburn suggests the international community and the Afghan government should be starting a bigger conversation about how a more transparent and accountable political culture can be encouraged in Afghanistan. It is a profoundly difficult conversation, and one that will not be dealt with while the international engagement with Afghanistan is seen merely in military terms.

Jan ForresterJan Forrester works periodically in Afghanistan as a media trainer with a US-based media development NGO. She is a member of the Council of the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

Topic tags: Jan Forrester, Afghanistan, Noah Coburn, Uruzgan, parliamentary debate, Karzai, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar



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Existing comments

Thanks Jan. The issue of allegations of corruption and criminality in Afghanistan's Karzai administration appear not to have been addressed by those intervening. Both the Govt and Taliban are dangerous, corrupt and violent. Foreign invasion has the potential to exacerbate the war. The infantry approaches represent blunt instruments to deal with guerrilla insurgency and murder that may be actually promoting such conduct. If *the conflict is tribal and ethnic at its core and *much of the Taliban action is motivated by a resistance to foreign forces, resulting in * dozens of new recruits for the Taliban.* There is a view that *Afghanistan is less stable for the war that now than when with the foreign allies ousted the Taliban. Some like Greg Mortenson believe that it is possible to re-build the country can only be achieved during military presence. See NYT op-ed 20 Oct to which there have been 100 responses


There is no quick fix. The moral dilemma for the international community is how the most vulnerable can be protected after troops withdraw. Re-locating the persecuted to other countries is a collective responsibility. This includes the Hararas, to whom refuge must be offered.

Madeleine Kingston | 22 October 2010  

While I am ambivalent about Australia's military involvement in Afghanistan, I have sufficient faith in our government's political perspective of the region (with the exception of the Howard's participation in the invasion of Iraq).All the same, let's not forget that Australian lives are at risk defending a country which is warped in corruption, where (mainly) women are stoned to death, continue to maintain the practice of 'rearing' dancing boys for the sexual gratification of men (mainly warlords) and is one of the world's largest suppliers of narcotics. The purpose of Australia's presence in Afghanistan to restore that country's political equilibrium should not only be confined to military aid. There are human right issues that should be primarily addressed.

Alex Njoo | 22 October 2010  

The Taliban is unlikely to accept a reasonable solution and abandon their violence or role as religious police. A corrupt and violent Govt provides no alternative solution. The groundwork is being laid for reconciliation with insurgents. Tom Malinowski, an Advocacy Dir. for Human Rights Watch, says that US Govt support for an alliance is because /“we all know that that's the only way to end the war.” A disturbing audio report discusses the stoning case of the couple in Kunduz.

Malinowski asks, /“Can we live with the deal in which the man who ordered the stoning becomes the mayor of that town?"/


Of no comfort to victims entrapped is the Taliban’s history of atrocities particularly against women, and minority groups like the Hazaras, of different ethnic origins (Mongolian-Turk); appearance, language and religious sub-sect. The Hazaras have been persecuted, tortured and inhumanely executed for at least a century. Michelle Dimasi refers to records showing that Hazara tribes lost between 60 and 90 per cent of their population and others totally disappeared. Over half the total Hazara population was slaughtered, others were enslaved or forced to pay exorbitant taxes.

Madeleine Kingston | 22 October 2010  

i think get sick and tired of the justifications for war.

rhonda | 23 October 2010  

Thanks Madeleine and Alex. My problem with our focus on Taliban misdeeds is that it veils those of other anti-government groups playing power games and also the government itself. It was after all the ferocious bombardment of Kabul by the warlord Hekmatyar that possibly enabled the Taliban entry to Kabul: people were just fed up with mujahideen infighting and corruption. Bacha bazi, that polite term for pedophilia against boys, is not just perpetrated by Taliban, it is alive and well across Afghanistan.

The role played by the woman's family in the Kunduz stoning (enticing them back with promises that all issues were resolved), underscores how women still remain the badge of family honour amongst ethnic groups. Women are burning/killing themselves with oil in the Tajik-dominated north http://worldblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2009/10/29/4376694-afghan-girls-burn-themselves-to-escape-marriage.

As for Hazaras, that is another big story on its own, but it is also true some are preparing themselves for an accommodation with the Taliban. Other Afghans, not only Hazaras, are keeping a back door open to leave the country if things get REALLY tough.

There are certainly strong indications that many Afghans have changed their minds about the value of international intervention: when security has deteriorated and that effects every facet of life for those in insecure provinces, from kids going to school to people going about their daily business. So Greg Mortensen's belief is under pressure in Afghanistan. We are dealing with the rule of law having little value and the impunity of the powerful local warlords/power brokers.

I regret that the international community has been pragmatic in accepting ex-commanders with alleged blood on their hands into the Parliament and other key positions: it sent an unmistakable signal to all that the old power games can still be played, and rewarded.

janforrester | 23 October 2010  

Thank you, Eureka Street, for publishing Jan's article.

I wrote a brief letter to a national broadsheet a couple of days ago on the same subject based on what I had read in The New York Times on 19 Oct. It was not published.
My letter was not complex but it did raise the subject of complexity of Western engagement in Asia. Complexity is not somthing the media likes. Nor would it seem neither does our Government nor Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Yet I can't believe the Security Committee of Cabinet is not being briefed, along with the Leader of the Opposition, on the political manoevring going in Afghanistan and within NATO.

The US President may speak in platitudes about the war but at least the US has some news media that are prepared to put unpalatable stories before the public - even if less than 10% pay any attention to them. Unless it's on Oprah it's not really interesting.

Uncle Pat | 23 October 2010  

Thanks Jan for taking the trouble to respond providing further insights into what is happening in Afghanistan. I note with concern that there are strong indications of a change of mind regarding international intervention. Your comment about Greg Mortensen's approach being questioned is of particular concern, since he advocates for non-violent constructive input in helping to build schools and develop rapport with the locals through encouraging ownership of infrastructure and stability-building.

With much regret I am forced to concede that Afghanistan, amongst other countries with a similar approach to power-driven and idealistic rejection of those who do not share the same religious beliefs or background, is far from ready for progress.

One poster in the NYT editorial Afghanistan Today has posed the question: How likely is it that we will move a country composed of ethnic groups that hate each other, from the 13th to the 21st century in a short period of time, through force of arms? Do you share his view that it is an impossible task, even if foreign Western occupation extended to a century? If so what should be done? Australia is proposing to stay for the long haul. How can the vulnerable be left behind?

Madeleine Kingston | 23 October 2010  

Pat, complexity is not normally appreciated. NYT has published a wide ranging views. Afghanistan Now 22 Oct with 111 responses and Op-Ed by Nicholas Kristof Dr. Greg’s Afghanistan (108 responses) open for Letters to the Editor.


Most responding are outspoken about the futility of the war, and America’s motivations. One poster refers to theocratic police state of rare brutality. He says that Afghanistan is not a way but an occupation that must be continued. On the one hand there is a push to withdraw and on the other justification for staying to convert the country to democracy and introduce a more humane approach. Yet if the people are not ready, and fundamentalists including the Taliban and the Government are corrupt and violent, what is to be done. I continue to believe that re-location of the most vulnerable is essential and adoption of complementary protection as an enforceable international policy for those party to the Convention. Jan refers to some reconciliation between the Hazaras and the Taliban, but I can’t see this happening in reality. Once troops withdraw violence will escalate, but there is also a credible view that foreign presence may be contributing to instability and violence.

Madeleine Kingston | 23 October 2010  

I enjoyed this article and I sincerely thank Jan Forrester for reflecting a little bit of suffering that Afghan people are undergoing now. I am a Junior Undergraduate at the newly established American University of Afghanistan and come from the turbulent Urozgan province. I was hoping that after graduation from the University, I work senior position in Afghan government and play a genuine role in reconstruction of my country. But my hope is being extinguished and Afghanistan will certainly fail. The corrupt and Pushton-dominated government of Afghanistan is struggling hard to complete the last phase of ethnic domination. The Taliban have entered provinces close to Kabul and the fear of their return is widespread. The government has established a High Council of Peace with 80% its members from extremist Pushton and in the first day of its meeting, the Council announced that it would extend unconditional offer to the Taliban to join the government. They do not accept Afghanistan's constitution, women rights and democracy. They will kill Hazaras because of their ethnic structure and religious beleifs and they will lead the country towards isolation. I just do not see my future in this country anymore and so do money of my freinds and classmates.

Reza Sarwar | 24 October 2010  

I would completely reject the underlying premise of this article. It is assumed here that the model of "nation building" adopted by the "international community" is wrongheaded, and alternative approaches should be considered. It speaks of a "conversation" between the "international community" and the foreign imposed government towards this end. However, foreigners have no right to engage in "nation building" in Afghanistan at all. The political, social and economic structure of Afghanistan is a matter for the Afghans. That Afghanistan itself was so thoroughly destroyed was due to no small degree to the actions of the "international community." The nation building discourse assumes that the primitive trigger happy Afghans destroyed it themselves. If the Afghans ask for our assistance for building a model which they have themselves freely chosen, that's fine. The decision is theirs, not ours, to make. The imperialist and colonialist mindset is so deep seated in the West that even independent NGOs readily base their criticisms upon the shared premise that the world is a world for the West to make. It isn't.

Markob | 26 October 2010  

Thanks Reza and Markob, have just seen your posts. No doubt there is a colonial exercise going on in Afghanistan but I sense Markob that you see my observations on Afghan internal politics or history is part of my colonial mindset. So be it, but I note that Afghans are far more brutal/direct about all aspects of politics in Afghanistan, as is their right. And there is no doubt more Afghans would like the international community out. That may happen. Western countries, however defined, are not the only ones hovering around a future Afghanistan: Iran, Pakistan, Russia, India, Central Asian states, China are all discussing, jockeying. As we know, some of these states have had a significant role in Afghanistan's past and they are likely to have longer relationships in Afghanistan's future, and no doubt full of ongoing complexities - a central one being water-sharing. By contrast I often think 'the West' is a baby in the region - and yes trying to establish democracy before lunchtime. I also feel for Reza as he exemplifies what I hear a lot from young Afghans, who often reminded me that their own forms of power sharing have been debated, and died for, for at least a century.

jan forrester | 10 November 2010  

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