December 21, 2003


Journey from Taliban to democrat: One man builds a future in the new Afghanistan (Scott Baldauf, 12/22/03, The Christian Science Monitor)

Before he leaves his village for Kabul, Abdul Hakeem Muneeb is given strict instructions by his constituents.

"The first thing is Islam," they whisper to him. He agrees: "If we follow Islam, all the rest, development and security, will follow naturally."

A delegate to the loya jirga, a grand council that will produce Afghanistan's new constitution, Mr. Muneeb makes an unlikely founding father. A former deputy minister in the ousted Taliban government, he still wears the black turban favored by Taliban leaders. Without it, he says, his head feels naked.

While some Afghans consider him a representative of the past, the Karzai government sees former Taliban like Muneeb as windows into the volatile countryside, where the vast majority of Afghanistan's 21 million citizens live. Making men like Muneeb feel like citizens, with rights and responsibilities, may be a crucial first step in undercutting Taliban support and giving disaffected Pashtun tribesmen an option other than the gun. [...]

On Sunday morning, Muneeb listens to Karzai's introductory speech with mild amusement, but fervent support.

"The terrorists are the enemy of a better life for Afghanistan," Karzai tells the delegates. "But this nation will never give up. This nation will gain the victory against the terrorists, God willing."

The crowd applauds, and Muneeb joins them enthusiastically.

In the pocket of his sport coat, Muneeb carries a copy of the draft constitution - a 160-article document compiled by a handpicked team of intellectuals, religious scholars, and legal experts. He approves of most of the provisions, but he has qualms about issues of justice. The decision to forgive or punish a murderer, for instance, should belong to the victim's family - as it was during the Prophet's time - and not to the president, he says.

But there will be plenty of time for substance. First comes the symbolism. The former King Zahir Shah gives a short speech urging unity. A blind cleric chants verses from the Koran. Then a group of kindergarten students, dressed in various ethnic garbs, sing songs of Afghan unity.

"This is our great land,
this is our beautiful land,
this land is our life,
this is our Afghanistan."

The nationalist messages are not subtle, and they carry a powerful effect. On a large video screen at the front of the tent, a delegate wipes her eyes with a handkerchief. Muneeb also wipes his eyes. Afghanistan was beautiful once,he recalls, before drought and war and bombs turned the mountains around Kabul to dust.

Muneeb thinks of his children back in Zormat. His oldest daughter is 3; his youngest son is 2 months old. Will they have a school in Zormat? Will they grow up thinking of themselves as Afghans or as Pashtuns? Everything starts here.

Throughout his time as a Taliban official, Muneeb saw himself as a moderate among hard-liners. While commanders pressed for stricter rules on the lives of Afghanistan's urban population, Muneeb looked for ways to retain the true spirit of Islam. Taliban rules - unlike the Koran - specifically forbade women from attending school, for instance, but Muneeb and his moderate colleagues quietly arranged to keep a medical institute open for young women throughout the five-year Taliban regime.

But while the loya jirga organizers have worked hard on creating a spirit of unity, it's difficult to undo decades of animosity and suspicion. Within minutes of the children's song, an argument breaks out over procedures. Farsi-speaking candidates from religious parties complain that the system chosen by Karzai is unfair. Muneeb springs to his feet. He is the first speaker to back Karzai's voting system.

"At the last loya jirga, Karzai was elected president, so he has the authority to choose the system he wants," Muneeb says in Pashto. "We all have a big responsibility, to adopt a constitution and to act in accordance with Islam. We must not be distracted from our main task."

The only rational stance towards Afghanistan's experiment in nation building is skeptical hopfulness.

Uphill pursuit for Afghan warlord: US troops hunt for a guerrilla group with ties to Al Qaeda and Taliban. (Ann Scott Tyson, 12/22/03, CS Monitor)

For three days, US soldiers trekked along goat trails, forded waist-deep rivers, and scrambled up steep, rocky ridges of the Hindu Kush to reach a suspected mountain hideout of the group led by renegade Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

There, near the remote hamlet of Tazagul Kala in Nuristan Province, they came upon devastation left by multiple precision-guided bombs - at least two cottages in rubble and another partially destroyed by a US air strike targeting Mr. Hekmatyar and his radical Hizb-i Islami, or Party of Islam.

The shepherds' dwellings perched on high terraces had been stocked for the winter with bags of corn and wheat, as well as machine-gun ammunition, bombmaking components, and antigovernment propaganda, say 10th Mountain Division soldiers who searched the site Nov. 9.

But who, if anyone, died in the late October strike remains a matter of controversy - with some local Afghans charging that six civilians lost their lives and US officers saying that anyone killed was probably an enemy. What is clear, however, is that Hekmatyar and his close associates evaded the attack.

Derided as a "warlord without a portfolio" by some Bush administration officials, Hekmatyar has emerged as a primary target since he declared a "holy war" against US-led forces in Afghanistan and denounced President Hamid Karzai as a puppet. The State Department this year labeled Hekmatyar a terrorist with ties to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and he is believed to be responsible for deadly attacks on both foreigners and Afghans.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 21, 2003 9:29 PM

Naipaul's "Among the Believers" doesn't touch on Afghanistan per se, but it's required reading, I believe, for anyone who wants to understand what a political dead-end is.

Noting that David Warren, as I understood him, doesn't think much of Naipaul's analysis. But I can't see how one can escape the latter's conclusions.

Having said that, I hope that Afghanistan is a tremendous success. Perhaps it can be if it never forgets the Taliban---and if they, or the US, can help ensure that the Taliban never regain power.

Still, I wonder if it's not a Sisyphean task, given the respect that must be given the faith, seemingly at all costs.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 22, 2003 1:57 AM

As for Hekmatyar, Robert D. Kagan, in "Soldiers of God" has much to say, none complimentary, about this overall troublemaker and tool of the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI).

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 22, 2003 2:02 AM

Correction: should be Roberrt D. Kaplan.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 22, 2003 2:03 AM

With a constitution based on Islam, I would put their chance of success at slim to none.

Posted by: BJW at December 22, 2003 9:35 AM

The problem isn't so much that it is based on Islam, but that Islam right now is so insecure.

Posted by: David Cohen at December 22, 2003 10:37 AM

No, the problem, while certainly complex, is---in a nutshell---that Islam provides no political structures or institutions---and no chance of developing them---yet it is expected by the faithful to solve all kinds of political (not to mention social) problems. Moreover, it is firmly held by those same faithful that Islam provides ideal solutions to everything (as it necessarily must).

Roger Scruton discusses this with considerable insight in "The Political Problem of Islam":

Posted by: Barry Meislin at December 22, 2003 11:15 AM

Karzai will succeed if warlords like Hekmatyar are kept on the run, knowing that if they stop for a night, they will be bombed from 15,000 ft.

In retrospect, the US probably should have killed the wacko warlords 2 years ago, but at least we are hunting them now.

Posted by: jim hamlen at December 23, 2003 4:14 AM
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