Interesting. Just as western leaders are publicly mulling a strategy of reconciling with moderate Taliban leaders to draw them over to the side of good, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reminded us of why that can never happen.
In an effort to secure political support for upcoming elections, Karzai approved a law that will strip away hard-won gains for the rights of Afghan women and return them to a sub-human existence as chattel, just as they were under the Taliban. A Shia minority woman won’t be able to leave home without her husband’s permission, decline his sexual advances or gain custody of any children.
Canadians and other members of the 42-country NATO group that is fighting to bring security and freedom to all Afghans are rightly outraged. We have collectively paid the financial and human cost for their freedom (Canadians more than most) and, in response, Karzai has thumbed his nose at western values in favour of his own political expediency. The law will win Karzai the support of the religious Shia group that may hold the balance of power in this summer’s election. No doubt, it will also secure the support of pro-Taliban extremists and anyone else who seeks power by oppressing others.
In theory, the West has installed a democratic government. But most similarities to our governments end there. In Afghanistan, female members of government routinely face death threats and cries of “kill her”when they address parliament. No male parliamentarian—including Karzai—has dared to defend or protect them. Other high-ranking women have been intimidated or even assassinated.
In practice, it’s obvious that religious traditions still have considerable power over the decisions the government makes and how it acts. For centuries, Afghanistan had no central government. Its regions were governed by leaders of tribal factions (warlords), religious extremists, drug lords and basically anyone with enough money and/or fire power to gain local influence. Their factional fighting is associated with atrocities such as mass rape, torture and murder, and it’s estimated that they still exploit and oppress about 75 per cent of the population—mostly through the opium drug trade.
According to one Afghan, there is nothing to differentiate any of these leaders from the Taliban or al-Qaeda—they are one and the same. They use corruption and intimidation to manipulate government action and they want it to govern with Islamic—not democratic—traditions. In short, Karzai’s government (which is composed of many former warlords and religious leaders) will never be free to govern democratically as long as these corrupt influences are at hand.
Perhaps that’s why there’s a growing consensus that the only way a central Afghan government can assert its control is to eliminate the opium trade—the very thing that gives warlords/ Taliban/terrorists their power over the Afghan people and government. Afghanistan supplies more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium, producing enough cash to account for over onethird of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. These profits are then used to support terrorism and anti-government activities.
In October 2008, NATO’s top commander in Afghanistan asked for a mandate to go after the opium trade, saying it was the only way to defeat the Taliban. Several months later, in February 2009, President Barack Obama announced that he would send additional troops to Afghanistan and a majority of them will be charged with eradicating the poppy trade that supports the insurgents.
Destroying the fuel that feeds the monster is the only way to victory. But it will be a difficult task, since many of the drug kingpins are members of government or have close friends in government. It’s a commonly reported fact that government officials accept bribes to allow opium to be moved around—and out of—the country. Farmers also rely on opium crops to sustain them, even if it keeps them under the heavy foot of drug lords. Targeting them (at the lowest level of the opium chain) will destroy their livelihood and generate more discontent for the Taliban to feed upon.
There are no easy answers, but this week’s events have shown us who pulls the political strings in Afghanistan. Beyond that, it’s been made abundantly clear that abandoning this fight will result in terrible repercussions for Afghan women.