The 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga was more representative then anything seen in Afghanistan in the previous 25 years, writes our guest blogger, but it was sold out to the warlords for a cheap political compromise, argues our guest blogger Jan Malekzade*. Looking back at two stints with the UN, he says farewell to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s heritage of literature is one on of the oldest and most sophisticated of the world and most Afghans can easily recite by heart the ancient verses of Jalaluddin Rumi, Jami, Rudaki, Nasir Khosrou Balkhi, the poetess Rabia Balkhi and the Pashtun warrior/poet Khushal Khan Khattak. Instead of the usual farewell message I would like to share with you a parabel I was told by an Afghan friend. It describes my experience of the last two years in Afghanistan better then lengthy words:
A Malik (land owner) called his servant and told him that he would release him after 30 years of servitude, if he fulfilled a last task. The old man had been serving the Malik for his whole life, cultivating his lands and keeping his gardens lush and green. He was tired and looking forward to be released into retirement. The Malik asked him to build a house as large, as comfortable and as luxurious as possible and not shy away from any costs.
The servant started with the construction, but was angered that in his old age he had been given such a difficult job. The fundaments of the house were done hastily, the walls not strong enough and the whole building came out as quiet unstable. The servant went to the Malik and told him that the house had been completed and insisted that he would now be granted his well deserved retirement.
The Malik agreed to release his servant and told him that he had a special gift for him: ‘The house you have built is yours!’
When you work in Political Affairs with the United Nations you need a strong stomach, many of the counterparts we are dealing with, should rather be tried at court then dealt with as political partners.
I was in 2001 in Afghanistan when the Afghans were left with no choice but to accept that the old class of war criminals and civil war leaders were brought back from exile and dealt with as ‘heroes of resistance against the Taleban’. In fact it was a simple – but wrong – tactical calculation of the Coalition: instead of expensive troops on the ground they armed and financed these ragtag criminals with a record of some of the worst human rights crimes and re-installed them in a country that had forced them into exile. In June 2001, when I was posted with the Northern Alliance in the tiny mountain area that the Taleban had not yet under their control, these ‘heroes of resistance’ were busy with feuding each other over income of smuggling alcohol into Afghanistan from Tajikistan.
The silent consent of the UN to re-instate these war criminals into positions of power was hard to stomach in 2002, and many of us argued with our seniors that they had sold the principles of the UN for a cheap political compromise. But at least there was a civil society left with whom we worked. There were more legitimate representatives of Afghan society, like those we had helped to elect into the Emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002.
Coming back in 2009 was a sobering experience: not only that war criminals had consolidated their power, now controlling large parts of an economy that was once described by Ashraf Ghani as a ‘drug economy’ (before he became a government official).
To many of my Afghan friends it seemed that the international community had spared no effort to push Afghanistan back into civil war and conflict. After the resurrection of the warlords, their old foes, the Taleban, who had forced one of the most obscurantist and violent regimes in human history upon the Afghan population, are now dealt with as a legitimate political power to negotiate with.
Again, another simple and cheap political miscalculation is driving these efforts: ‘getting out of Afghanistan at any price’. The effort to re-build one of the poorest and most destroyed countries of the world was brief and very limited. Only in the last six years more serious efforts were made to help the Afghans build their state. It needed a shift from the ‘war on terror’ to ‘state building’ to finally give Afghanistan six years of relatively intensive support. But the international community is already eager to leave, regardless of the fact that rebuilding Germany after 1945 or Japan after 1946, or any country destroyed by war for that matter, took much more time and effort.
I was twice with the United Nations in Afghanistan, initially with UNSMA from June 2001 to February 2002. Our efforts to prevent the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamian or to deal with moderate elements among the Taleban did not yield results.
Only on 9/11 when I was in Faizabad, Badakhshan, we knew that change would finally come to Afghanistan. In February 2002, UNAMA received its first mandate from the UN Security Council and I moved to Herat to establish its first presence there. Those early days were enthusiastic, the liberation from the Taleban regime still resounded in every conversation. And the warlords, despised by most Afghans, had not yet managed to consolidate their grip on power.
But the signs were there: I had educated Afghan women coming to my office, complaining they were arrested by the local warlord for driving in Herat city. This was post-Taleban(!) and the local warlord one of those ‘heroes of resistance’ against the Taleban, well funded and equipped by the Coalition. Many more incidents called for the intervention of the UN but this is not the place to write about it, since many of my Afghan friends are more than ever in danger.
With a team of only eight UNAMA officers in eight different regions, we managed to organize the first post-Taleban elections. We were faster than the warlords and commanders who were just about to re-consolidate their grip on the population. And before their machinery of intimidation and violence had kicked in, we had already completed the indirect elections for the Emergency Loya Jirga, an assembly that was more representative then anything seen in Afghanistan in the previous 25 years. When the elected representatives finally conveyed in Kabul in June 2002, unelected warlords and war criminals were invited to join the assembly against the fierce protest of many Afghans. This was only the first blow to the aspirations of the Afghan population for justice; more grave ones were to come.
When I left Afghanistan in December 2003, we had just completed the (various) drafts of the new Afghan constitution, and we hoped that the house that was to be built would be solid to provide enough space for all the diversity of this country.
Coming back six years later I found that this house had deep cracks in its fundaments. Although a lot of resources had been put into it, the birth defect of not honouring the legitimate aspiration of the population for justice had a devastating effect on the state that was established. And instead of an emerging state, we had built another ‘theater of war’ re-installing not only the civil war factions, but now also the Taleban.
Leaving Afghanistan for the second time I wish for my Afghan friends that they would finally find the peace and the justice that they have been longing for, for such a long time. In fact, this country had not had a single day of peace since 25 December 1979 when the Soviet invasion started. There are many educated Afghans who are dedicated to liberate their country from the scourge of conflict and violence. I was privileged to enjoy their friendship and support. May your efforts be rewarded with success!
(*) Jan Malekzade worked twice as a UN Political Affairs Officer in Afghanistan, for UNSMA and for UNAMA, from 2001 to 2003 and from 2009 to 2011. His last assignment was to Herat. He has left the country for good a few days ago.
This article was last updated on 31 Mar 2020