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Stirrings in Kabul | The Nation

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Stirrings in Kabul

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Several weeks on from the loya jirga national council, the streets of Kabul have an extra bustle. Whereas in January the place was deserted by 6 pm, now the curfew has been extended to midnight, and it costs only $5 to buy the password that can allow your taxi to careen through checkpoints into the early hours. The chaotic rhythms of Indian music waft over jingling bicycles and tooting cars, while chai khanas, ubiquitous teahouses, are full--as are the growing number of restaurants, frequented by the thousands of foreign aid workers and other internationals. Increasing numbers of women cross through the center of town, adorned with a light head scarf rather than the stifling blue nylon burqa. Fresh life is palpable.

About the Author

J. West
John West, a former Reuters Middle East bureau chief, heads the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting's...
Anthony Borden
Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, based in London.

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The trial in The Hague of the first state president indicted for genocide was to be the ultimate showdown. In the culmination of a fifty-year struggle by the human rights community against impunity, the firm weight of evidence and international law would be brought to bear on one of the world's most brutal dictators, Slobodan Milosevic. But the set-piece confrontation that began on February 12--a combined case covering three wars over ten years, which is expected to last more than two years--soon ran into problems.

By refusing legal counsel because he rejects the legitimacy of the court, Milosevic did more than insure the image of himself sitting alone against the world. He also gave himself license to thunder, without risking cross-examination, about the Balkan wars as a Western "Nazi" conspiracy to destroy socialist Yugoslavia. "This is a political trial that has nothing to do with the law," he declared.

For procedural reasons, the judges had the case run backward, starting with Kosovo and later taking up the earlier wars in Croatia and Bosnia. This allowed Milosevic to focus initially on the NATO bombing campaign--spending many hours in his opening speech listing civilians and civilian institutions hit (and including many horribly graphic photographs) and stressing his argument that Albanians fled Western bombs, not Serbian forces.

Milosevic played to public opinion, and much of Belgrade was delighted, with a local poll giving his performance high marks and his proud wife, Mira, beaming. If the tribunal hoped to break through Serbia's deep rejection of any responsibility for the wars and atrocities, the proceedings appeared to be having the opposite effect. "He has decided to work for the Serbian people and not for himself. He has broken the media lies produced about us," boasted one parliamentarian from Milosevic's Socialist Party.

Nor has Milosevic been totally alone outside Serbia. The International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, comprising activists, lawyers and intellectuals (including Harold Pinter and Ramsey Clark) has asserted that the "kangaroo court" with its "victor's justice" is illegitimate because the UN Security Council does not have explicit authority under Chapter VII of its charter to establish tribunals. Critics of the court also focused on small errors and confused witnesses in a prosecution case that began weakly. Some Albanians who took the stand seemed lost, failing to nail down the points sought by the prosecution or appearing overwhelmed by Milosevic's aggressive questioning.

The presiding judge, who sparred so fiercely with the defendant in preliminary proceedings, settled into a routine allowing him fairly wide latitude to cross-examine witnesses, only occasionally scolding, "That is enough, Mr. Milosevic." The schedule of the prosecution's case is constantly revised, as the defendant draws out lengthy (sometimes surprisingly well-prepared) cross-examinations stressing the violence of NATO, the Kosovo Liberation Army and even Al Qaeda against innocent Serbs.

It was easy to imagine Milosevic's performance sending quivers down spines at the US State Department and European foreign ministries as he threatened to call world leaders to the stand, highlight contradictions in the West's Balkans policy as well as civilian deaths caused by its actions, and plot the judicial free-for-all Western governments most fear. Bush Administration officials, appearing before the House Foreign Relations Committee on February 28, criticized delay and mismanagement at the tribunal and called for curtailing some investigations. The comments were delivered by Pierre-Richard Prosper, ambassador at large for war crimes issues, in the very hours when NATO forces were attempting, and failing, to arrest former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia. (The Administration sees the arrest of Karadzic as key to its exit strategy for the Balkans and as a prerequisite for closure of the Hague tribunal on the former Yugoslavia by 2008.) Wire reports spoke of "abandoning" the UN system of tribunals and gave the impression that Prosper's view of international tribunals was not far from that of Milosevic himself. Indeed, Washington has been adamant in its rejection of the permanent International Criminal Court, and its position on prisoners from Afghanistan has raised concern in Europe over its commitment to international humanitarian law. Prosper subsequently traveled to The Hague to make more emollient, if less publicized, remarks. Whether the episode was purposefully contradictory, or a storm brewed by selective reporting, a message had been sent.

But for Milosevic, none of this matters. Playing to the media, cross-examining witnesses on tangential issues, making accusations against others (Washington, Sarajevo, Saudi Arabia) instead of addressing charges in the indictment, indeed rejecting the authority of the tribunal (while fully participating)--these are all classic defense strategies. They may influence some opinion in Belgrade and even internationally, but the only relevant audience in the tribunal's hybrid legal system is the panel of three judges who will examine the evidence against him.

Milosevic himself, in court, has several times confirmed a clear chain of military command within the Yugoslav forces. In the coming months, the prosecution can be expected to present senior witnesses from the Belgrade establishment who should go further to confirm a direct conspiracy from the top to commit crimes in Kosovo, particularly mass deportation. The Croatian and Bosnian cases are far more complex, taking place outside the territory over which Milosevic was the chief authority. But the prosecution has laid out detailed diagrams of control in what it calls a joint criminal enterprise, and by all accounts the legal teams on these cases are stronger. The record of Milosevic's responsibility for the wars in the Balkans over the past decade will be aired.

It nonetheless remains a concern that critics, both pro-Milosevic and anti-international law, will exploit the impossibility of anyone but those obsessively following the whole case (available live online at www.domovina.net) to make highly selective critiques. In doing so, they may raise their own profiles but will impede the justice and reconciliation in the region that is the underlying goal of the war crimes tribunal.

But not far below the surface, the loya jirga has changed little in the country. The suave President Hamid Karzai ostensibly presides with new legitimacy over a more representative administration. But except for juggling one of the ethnic Tajik-run power ministers, the so-called Panjshiri mafia of the old Northern Alliance mujahedeen fighters remains firmly in control, not only at the top but among the practical levers of control such as police chiefs, secret service heads and army commanders.

Without his own power base, Karzai is seen by some as less a real chief executive than a liberal opposition figure against his own Cabinet--offering no apparent strategy for securing and unifying the fractious country. "The only question," according to Paul Bergne, a former British special envoy to Afghanistan, "is whether this is because he has no interest, or simply a reasonable interest, in staying alive." Especially with the exclusion from power of former King Zahir Shah, the majority Pashtuns, concentrated in the south, where the Taliban emerged, feel disfranchised and demoralized. Rubbing salt in the wound, pictures of the martyred Ahmed Shah Massoud, the rebel leader killed by the Taliban on September 9, adorn every checkpoint, office and street corner, and even prayer mats on sale in the city markets.

Soon after the loya jirga, Vice President Haji Qadeer, an ethnic Pashtun, was gunned down in front of his office by two assailants, who escaped easily. The United States quickly agreed to provide American soldiers to serve as bodyguards for a somewhat panicked Karzai--doubtless a prudent security measure, but one viewed as shameful by Afghans worried that their leader is Washington's puppet. Meanwhile, public anger over continuing deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of US rocket fire--such as the 175 casualties at a wedding in the tense southern province of Oruzgan--compelled even Karzai himself to complain. Separate UN and US investigations into the incident have been launched, amid speculation that the reports will never be released or that the most damaging conclusions--including alleged American removal of evidence--will be redacted. International troops are seen as essential for keeping the local fighting at bay, but Pashtuns bitterly question why the bulk of civilian casualties appear to be among Pashtun-majority areas in the south.

The overwhelming majority of the country's 20 million-odd people are still poor, ill and unemployed. Basic statistics confirm that the country remains at the bottom ranking of many development indexes, whether infant mortality, girls' enrollment in primary education (under 10 percent), annual deaths from diarrhea (85,000) or chronic unemployment, which cannot even begin to be measured.

Afghan officials--facing growing pressure from their own constituents--have been raising ever sharper alarms about the pace of aid payments. According to the US special envoy, only around one-third of the $1.8 billion in aid pledged for the year at an international donors' conference in Tokyo has been released. Kabul earns tax revenues of less than 15 percent of its $600 million annual budget. As a result, most aid has been spent either on humanitarian needs or simply on the daily costs of government. There have essentially been no major reconstruction works that would pump funds into the economy and rebuild the country's devastated infrastructure.

The first postwar administration in any society is inevitably problematic. Without any conditions for democracy--too many guns and recalcitrant warlords, no free press or civic institutions for independent organizing, no functioning economy--establishing a legitimate and representative administration is not easy. As the Bush Administration insists, enormous changes have indeed taken place. Whatever the problems, conditions are vastly improved from the circumstances of only a few months ago--when the country was plagued by severe persecution and increasing food shortages with seemingly no hope. Indeed, some Afghans respond sharply to any probing questions about the costs and benefits of the US intervention. "Those are questions for a Western perspective," remarked a senior local editor. "For us, we are glad the Taliban are gone."

Yet the risks of an unattended Afghanistan remain high. The transitional administration faces an enormous challenge, aiming to pave the way for truly democratic elections in 2004 while striving to balance conflicting and often violent local interests, and struggling to sustain international support. The core conflict, however, may be between America's pursuit of Al Qaeda and Afghan democracy itself: The US military directly supports many Afghan warlords as allies in its effort to stamp out Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts. Continuing that policy will have a devastating effect on efforts to establish democratic central government and a meaningful civil society. This is especially true considering that, despite US training efforts, the establishment of an effective Afghan national army is years away, and Washington and other Western governments repeatedly reject Afghan calls--recently joined by Senators Joseph Biden, Richard Lugar and Barbara Boxer--to extend the international security assistance force to major cities other than Kabul.

As a result, the government's authority effectively ends at the capital's edge. As a result, too, peace could be short-lived. As BBC regional specialist Behrouz Afagh-Tebrizi notes, "There is a consensus to avoid a return to war, but there has not been any change in political culture. Unless the unresolved conflict between the warlords of the 1990s is transformed into a purely political struggle, it is not hard to see Afghanistan descending back into violence."

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