Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Why Afghanistan Should Concern Us

James Skillen


June 14, 2004

Late in September, Afghanistan's interim president, Hamid Karzai, is likely to be elected to that office by what will appear to be a nationwide vote. If that happens, Americans will cheer the progress of freedom and democracy and turn away in relief, congratulating ourselves for having liberated Afghanistan.

The time for cheering is not just around the corner, however. The news coming out of Afghanistan is cause for deep concern. An article by Kathy Gannon in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs summarizes the darker picture.

In "Afghanistan Unbound," Gannon begins with the warlords. These are the few men who rule different ethnic groups and territories covering most of the country. They control their own private armies and decide who lives and dies. President Karzai's government in Kabul has not come anywhere near disarming and subordinating them to itself. Even worse, Karzai knows that despite America's talk about democracy, American officials are themselves still working with the warlords to help fight Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. Karzai has no alternative, then, but to negotiate with the same non-democratic and brutal thugs for his own survival and permission to hold a presidential election.

If, during a short period of time, the warlords were really helping the U.S. and Karzai to eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda, after which the warlords were committed to becoming supporters of a national democratic government, that might be promising. But this is where we must look back before 2001 to 1994 and even earlier. For it was the warlords who were fighting one another for control of Kabul back in 1994, killing upwards of 50,000 Afghans, mostly civilians. The people do not look to the warlords as their saviors or as accountable to the people.

Moreover, the warlords are also the ones who, before 1996, had built up a tremendous opium trade, protecting the poppy fields in their regions. In 1996, the Taliban managed to sweep Kabul clean of the warlords and to outlaw poppy production. Now, by contrast, says Gannon, the U.S. and its allies have allowed opium production to return and are "betting that the same men who caused Afghanistan so much misery in the past will somehow lead it to democracy and stability in the future. The evidence, however, suggests that the opposite is happening."

Poppy growing and opium production are booming at record levels just two years after the overthrow of the Taliban. The warlords have plenty of money to buy arms and rule their territories (the opium trade was "valued at close to $2.3 billion last year"). Soon they may feel strong enough to stop dealing with the U.S. and its allies. An election for president might be held in September, if the warlords permit it, but "barely ten percent of Afghan voters have been registered to date," says Gannon, in part because the government does not have enough money to register voters.

President Karzai barely rules Kabul, much less Afghanistan. The people are losing trust in the West and its hollow promises. We can talk democracy; they have to live reality.

But at least the warlords are helping the U.S. eliminate the Taliban and Al Qaeda, aren't they? No, says Gannon, "much of the intelligence that the warlords have supplied to Washington on the Taliban has proved faulty," and there is evidence that eight of eleven districts in Zabul Province are now run largely by the Taliban, which is recovering its strength.

Why should this concern us? Because ten years from now, only a force like the Taliban or Al Qaeda may be able to "save" the Afghan people from the warlords and the drug economy. And around we will go again. Moreover, if that is what the liberation of Afghanistan means, what will the liberation of Iraq look like five or ten years from now?

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”