When Afghans go to the polls on 20 August for their nation’s second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, they will be looking closely at the names on the ballot paper and weighing the merits of a democratic future.
The elections will not only be measured by how effectively international military forces avert Taliban attempts to disrupt voting, but also by the post-election handling of one fundamental issue – the participation by alleged war criminals in the Afghan political process through the ensuing presidential appointments to positions of authority throughout the new administration.
Since the toppling of the Taliban eight years ago, the Afghan parliament and state institutions have been dominated by individuals with highly questionable backgrounds. Many of the most visible representatives of the state are well-known warlords who have inflicted – and continue to inflict – the gravest human rights violations against their own people.
And yet they stand to be rewarded once again in the provincial council elections and – most conspicuously – through the next round of presidential appointments as governors, mayors, deputy ministers and ministers, donning the cloak of legitimacy afforded by an internationally monitored election process.
Given the complicated political history in the country, it would be naive to suggest that anyone with links to former combatants should be excluded from public office. Indeed, there is little doubt that unless at least some Taliban leaders are engaged in the political process, insecurity in Afghanistan will continue, fuelled by the substantial amounts of money still coming from the country’s illicit drug trade. There is equally little doubt the country needs a comprehensive reconciliation plan to encourage those members of the Taliban prepared to suspend violence and move into the political arena.
The real question is how to select these interlocutors. To choose the wrong actors and engage with those who bear the greatest responsibility for the crimes of the past would only serve to foster impunity and further alienate an already disillusioned Afghan population from the structures of the Afghan state. Put simply, it would send a strong signal to the people of Afghanistan that nothing has changed and nothing is likely to change.
That is why the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), together with No Peace Without Justice (NPWJ), the international organisation I founded, has been working for the past four years to implement a conflict mapping programme in Afghanistan. The aim of the programme is to investigate mass violations committed in Afghanistan between 1978 and 2001 and identify those who bear the greatest responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Recognised in the Afghan constitution but operating independently, the AIHRC has collected statements from more than 7,000 people throughout all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Information has been gathered from victims, witnesses and key informants on crimes, troop movements, chains of command and patterns of conflict of the different fighting factions.
Built on extensive consultations with community elders, victims’ groups, provincial council representatives and women’s groups, the mapping work done by the AIHRC is not simply creating a historical record of the worst crimes committed during wartime in Afghanistan, but also, crucially, it has gone a long way to identifying the perpetrators.
If the international community is serious about helping to create a secure and stable Afghanistan, if it wishes to avoid the periodic recurrence of conflict, it needs to stop rewarding violence. To do that, it needs to keep human rights abusers from positions of power and promote reconciliation in the country – the AIHRC report will help determine that process.
This is why the international community needs to support the work of the AIHRC and not betray those Afghans who believe in human rights and the rule of law as the basis for a stable and peaceful society.
As it currently stands, too many of the people holding public office are the perpetrators of heinous human rights abuses. If this situation is allowed to continue, without being challenged from Europe and other countries who claim an interest in the establishment of a new Afghanistan, then any hope of a democratic future for the country will be lost.