VIEW: Internalising impunity in Afghanistan —Wazhma Frogh By Daily Times
Saturday, May 22, 2010
The key to lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan is not in encouraging the culture of rewarding bullies and strongmen, but in providing justice and so winning public support
A woman is yelling in pain but the man continues to beat her on her back with a whip. With every lash, her body jolts, moving up and down while she cries for forgiveness. A large number of men, and some women, are gathered around her, watching the scene. With each lash, the man shouts at her, “Shame on you...You must be punished...Others should learn a lesson from your punishment.” The flogging continues for around three minutes in this video that was shown on the national television channels in Kabul on February 18, 2010 and we are told that there was another woman who would be flogged afterwards.
Given the video’s content, one tends to assume that the incident must have taken place in a Taliban-controlled community. After all, a similar incident of public lashing of a young girl is known to have taken place in Swat Valley last year. But the assumption is incorrect, because this particular incident took place recently in a district of Ghor province. The district is not under Taliban control and the man who carried out the flogging is in fact an imam of a local mosque. The flogging itself was ordered by one of the local commanders, popularly known as warlords. Community members said that there have been a number of similar incidents ordered by the same commander. The commander had issued the orders even though he had no official designation giving him the authority to request punishment for members of the community. He runs the district’s affairs simply because he has guns and men who spread terror.
In mid-February 2010, when the incident took place, this was just a news story, which was soon forgotten. We never found out whether the mullah and the commander had been arrested or whether the incident was investigated. But the incident represents far more than a news story. It is an illustration of the legacy of the impunity that was granted to warlords after the Bonn Agreement in 2001. Today, this same impunity is being offered to the Taliban, with various Afghan leaders insisting that this represents a key to peace in Afghanistan.
The Amnesty Law granting impunity from prosecution to all parties involved in the wars up to 2001 echoes this view. The law has been gazetted and published by the Afghan Ministry of Justice. Given the warlords’ track record, the law is likely to encourage further violations of human rights as exemplified in the illegal public flogging of the woman in the video. The debate on how best to end the conflict has brought to the fore two distinct but contradictory views. A majority of analysts believe that the negotiation and granting of amnesty to insurgents is the key to creating peace in Afghanistan. But critics of this view rightly point out that the provision of justice is an essential prerequisite for peace and the rule of law. Afghanistan’s recent history has shown that the co-option of self-appointed strongmen and commanders in the government has backfired. The strongmen who were offered impunity and positions in the government failed to deliver services and their failure has directly led to increase in support for the insurgency. In addition, the impunity granted to them has allowed them to feel a sense of entitlement to power. As a consequence, they continue to pose a threat to security if faced with losing out on opportunities.
Granting impunity to those whose crimes are well known and recorded might bring about an appearance of relative peace and security. But as the flogging incident in Ghor shows, in reality, such policies lead to further instability because the warlords’ indiscriminate violation of human rights turns the public against the government for allowing such individuals to oppress the people with impunity. It is this resentment against the government that has allowed the Taliban to intensify their insurgency. After all, the Taliban’s guerrilla warfare relies on local support for food and shelter and Afghan villagers are known to provide such support simply because the Taliban promise them justice. The Taliban famously gained initial support for their movement because they publicly punished local commanders who oppressed villagers and in doing so, showed that they were capable of ensuring justice. The key to lasting peace and stability in Afghanistan is not in encouraging the culture of rewarding bullies and strongmen, but in providing justice and so winning public support. Afghanistan’s history is evidence of the fact that sacrificing justice for the sake of an illusory, temporary peace is likely to only delay further more serious destabilisation. Let us learn from history.
Wazhma Frogh is an Afghan civil society activist currently a postgraduate fellow at Warwick University, United Kingdom