Aug 20, 2009

Justice or reconciliation?

As the country prepares for its second presidential election, the challenge thus lies with the Afghan people to forge their peace process and rebuild their nation after 30 years of bloodshed. Who will emerge the winner on August 20 – or a subsequent run-off within a fortnight – and will the election be conducted securely: these are the questions all Afghan people are asking.

On the security front, there has been a sharp rise in the number of civilian and military deaths in the country recently. Indeed, on August 15, Kabul was rocked by a car bomb, killing seven and wounding almost 100. Again, on August 18, two days before the election, 15 people were killed in suicide attacks in Kabul. Afghan politicians too have not been safe, with President Hamid Karzai’s vice-presidential candidate escaping an ambush while campaigning. Officials have even told the AFP that 10 per cent of polling stations may be closed for security reasons.

Despite these attacks, contacts between the government and the Taliban have led to the militants agreeing to a truce in the Badghis province ahead of the poll. Under the truce ‘the Taliban agreed not to attack election candidates in the province and to allow them to set up campaign offices.’ Although that ceasefire fell apart hours after it was struck, with clashes erupting between militants and policemen, presidential spokesperson Seyamak Herawi told Reuters the government hopes to strike similar deals in other parts of the country, adding that ‘the Taliban can also take part in the elections.’ Peace however, cannot come without a price and in all likelihood that price will have to be justice.

In post-conflict situations, the issue of pursuing justice or reconciliation is central. With the pursuit of justice, those guilty of killings, lootings and a multitude of other horrors that war entails are brought to trial in some manner and punished. With reconciliation, however, the focus shifts away from prosecuting the crimes of the past – for example, by accommodating former warlords into the system and giving amnesty to former power holders to convince them to ally with the new system. In contrast, if the peace process was contingent on bringing evildoers to justice, there would be many within Afghanistan who would have a reason to resist any peace process. Post-apartheid South Africa stands as a testament to the power of reconciliation, as its Truth and Reconciliation Commission traveled the country inviting victims of violence to be heard and perpetrators of violence to testify and seek amnesty.

In Afghanistan the need for amnesty is particularly reinforced, as constant conflict for more than a generation has meant that few Afghan leaders have hands that are entirely bloodless. Indeed, the need to tolerate powerful players’ illegal behaviour continues in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In his book Descent into Chaos, veteran journalist Ahmed Rashid writes how, ‘the UN and all major western embassies gathered evidence that Karzai was tolerating suspected drug traffickers because they were either his political allies or close friends or because he could not afford their removal from power.’

With one indicator of stability being the state’s ability to ensure law and order, Rashid also writes how ‘the Ministry of Interior, which ran the police after 9/11, became a center for drug trafficking, with police posts… auctioned to the highest bidder…’ The reason, Rashid explains, that drug traffickers and warlords in powerful positions were allowed to stay on is because ‘tribal loyalties, politics and links to the Taliban or the government were closely mixed up and it was impossible to unravel one thread without unraveling the entire ball of string.’ If anything, it appears as if Karzai is trying to increase the size of the ball of string, calling on ‘all those Taliban who are not part of Al-Qaeda, who are not part of terrorist network… and who want to have peace in their country and live a normal life, to participate [in the election].’

For many Afghan’s however, giving power back to people who once oppressed them is too high a price when trying to rebuild the country. Malalai Joya, an independent Afghan MP tells The Independent how, ‘most people in the West have been led to believe that the intolerance and brutality towards women in Afghanistan began with the Taliban regime. But this is a lie. Many of the worst atrocities were committed by the fundamentalist mujahideen during the civil war between 1992 and 1996. They introduced the laws oppressing women followed by the Taliban – and now they were marching back to power, backed by the United States. They immediately went back to their old habit of using rape to punish their enemies and reward their fighters.’

For Joya and many Afghans, the paradox between justice and reconciliation is another of the all too real decisions forced upon them by a lifetime of conflict. On Afghanistan’s path to peace, they find themselves forced into a dialogue over the future of their nation and the men who run it. As poet Julia Hartwig describes the pains of reconciliation after torture, they are embraced in ‘the dialogue of force and martyrdom, cruelty and pain.’ It’s on this dialogue however, that the future of Afghanistan now rests.

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