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“Return of the Warlords”: Afghan Elections Marred by Fraud, Warlord Dominance

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Eight years after US and NATO forces toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan held its second major elections since 2001. But far from being a symbol of democracy, the August 20th elections have been marred by accusations of fraud and concerns over President Hamid Karzai’s reliance on the support of warlords and suspected war criminals. We get a report from independent journalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Eight years after US and NATO forces toppled the Taliban, Afghanistan held its second major elections since 2001. But far from being a symbol of democracy, the August 20th elections have been marred by accusations of massive fraud and concerns over President Hamid Karzai’s reliance on the support of warlords and suspected war criminals.

This is an excerpt from a report by independent journalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films called “Return of the Warlords.” It airs in full on Al Jazeera English today.

    RICK ROWLEY: The road to Sheberghan cuts through the high arid plain of northern Afghanistan. This is the stronghold of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlord, General Rashid Dostum, who has been a powerful player in the country’s politics for three decades. The road is littered with reminders of Dostum’s many battles: the husks of Russian armored vehicles and abandoned mud and stone fortresses, where Dostum based his troops.

    General Dostum has been living in exile in Turkey for the last nine months because of ongoing criminal and human rights investigations against him. But he was invited back into the country by President Hamid Karzai two days before this year’s presidential elections. Eight years after the US invasion, the 2009 elections were supposed to showcase a democratic central government that had ended thirty years of warlord rule, violence and impunity. But Karzai has relied heavily in this campaign on the support of regional strongmen.

    We manage to catch the General as he slips out of the compound, the first television interview he has given since his dramatic return.

    GEN. RASHID DOSTUM: [translated] We were in negotiations over my endorsement of President Karzai for almost two months. I can say that I will bring him more than two million votes.

    RICK ROWLEY: Dostum often speaks of himself in the third person and says that those who criticize his return from exile are afraid of the role he will play in securing the country.

    GEN. RASHID DOSTUM: [translated] They are Taliban and Taliban sympathizers. The Taliban is not worried about NATO, but it is afraid of General Dostum. When, God forbid, the situation deteriorates again, it is better to have General Dostum on your side if you really want security and victory in Afghanistan.

    RICK ROWLEY: General Dostum isn’t running for office, but there are more pictures of him on the walls of Sheberghan than any political candidate.

    SHEBERGHAN RESIDENT: [translated] General Dostum is a good man. He is our leader. He served Afghanistan, and we really love him.

    RICK ROWLEY: No one we meet is shy about telling us where their allegiances lie or who they will be voting for in the elections tomorrow.

    KARZAI SUPPORTER: [translated] Yes, I will vote for Karzai. Whatever Dostum orders, we will obey.

    RICK ROWLEY: We could not find anyone in Sheberghan with a critical word to say about the General. Dostum’s influence among a large sector of the population here is undeniable. But the unanimity in the streets of Sheberghan was strangely troubling.

    We did eventually find a large community of northern Afghans who were critical of the General, 600 kilometers from Sheberghan in these refugee camps. The UN says that 17,000 families, around 75,000 people from Dostum’s region in northern Afghanistan, are now crowded into these low mud brick buildings. There is no work here, no hospitals and no schools. We asked them how they ended up here.

    PASHTUN REFUGEE: [translated] You must be new here to be asking that question. The whole world knows that we were driven here by General Dostum, his soldiers and his commanders.

    RICK ROWLEY: These Pashtun refugees say that Dostum ruled in the north as a warlord, that they were targeted by his Uzbek militia, who saw them both as ethnic enemies and as potential threats to Dostum’s power. They say that his men looted their villages and their livestock, killed his political opponents, and drove them from their land by force.

    PASHTUN REFUGEE: [translated] My child and my relatives died under Dostum’s gun. We were driven from our homes during a hard winter and traveled through the snow-filled desert. Our people died on the way, and we didn’t have time to bury them. The wolves ate the bodies of our men, women and children.

    RICK ROWLEY: The families here fear that with Dostum’s return to Afghanistan, they will never be able to go home.

    Dostum is a controversial character. Many call him a warlord, but he has influential allies who disagree. Back in Kabul, Dostum’s most powerful supporter, President Hamid Karzai, addresses the nation in the last televised debate before the election. Karzai says that men like Dostum are not warlords; they are national heroes and a necessary part of any future government. His opponents disagree.

    RAMAZAN BASHARDOST: For Afghanistan, it is a disaster. The same criminal of war, today they return in power. You saw the return of Dostum, for example, the return of Fahim in power. This election is a disaster for Afghan people, for human rights values, for freedom.

    RICK ROWLEY: Ramazan Bashardost ran third in the polls prior to this year’s fraud-tainted presidential election. He was once a member of Karzai’s cabinet but was forced to resign because of his sharp criticism of the international community’s role in Afghanistan. He says that economic and military aid, as well as reconstruction contracts, have been funneled through warlords, making it impossible for a democratic central government to develop.

    RAMAZAN BASHARDOST: If the international community doesn’t support the warlords, doesn’t finance the warlords, doesn’t pay the salary of bodyguard of warlords, I’m absolutely sure that Afghan people can find their way.

    RICK ROWLEY: Until that happens, Bashardost sees warlord rule as inevitable and the democratic process as inherently undermined.

    RAMAZAN BASHARDOST: Who is the governor? Who is the chief of police in Afghanistan? Who is the chief of district? Who is deputy minister? Who is minister? They are warlord in Afghanistan.

    RICK ROWLEY: Election day is bloody across Afghanistan, with over 400 attacks in twenty-four hours. But Sheberghan remains calm. Pictograms on the wall tell voters to denounce acts of intimidation, as General Dostum’s supporters show up to cast their votes. Before the results have even started to trickle in, the accusations of fraud begin. In the initial numbers, it appears that Karzai is winning handily. Dostum has delivered his region in the north, and the Pashtun south is also solidly in Karzai’s column. But irregularities quickly multiply, and the scale of the apparent fraud is stunning. UN officials warn that as many as one in every three votes may be fraudulent.

    MOHAMMAD ATTA: [translated] Petty fraud is one thing, but this was a deep and shameful fraud.

    RICK ROWLEY: Mohammad Atta is the current governor of Balkh Province. He was also a key warlord ally of the US during the invasion. But he has fought with Dostum over control of territory in the north. It has been rumored that Karzai may give the governorship of Balkh to Dostum as part of the deal he struck for support in the elections.

    MOHAMMAD ATTA: [translated] The people of Balkh will not accept this infamous thief, bandit and looter as their leader. It is much better to be ruled by the Taliban than by Dostum.

    RICK ROWLEY: All of this only complicates matters for Washington. In 2002, dozens died in armed clashes between Dostum and Atta’s forces, and a full-scale civil war nearly erupted, as both leaders deployed tanks to the capital of Balkh Province. A return of that kind of violence in the midst of the current Taliban resurgence could be devastating.

    The Obama administration has voiced its concern about the return of General Dostum, signaling perhaps a departure from the Bush administration’s so-called warlord strategy. Ambassador James Dobbins was George Bush’s first envoy to Afghanistan. He prefers not to use the term “warlord” as he lays out the former administration’s approach.

    JAMES DOBBINS: You do need a strategy in Afghanistan that’s bottom-up, as well as top-down. That is, in addition to creating a more competent central administration that can project services to the population, you also need to create local sources of authority.

    RICK ROWLEY: But even under the Bush administration, some of the dangers in this bottom-up strategy became clear.

    JAMES DOBBINS: There have been tension between Atta and Dostum before, and indeed it was a major source of concern to the United States back in early 2002, when they were competing for influence in and around Mazari Sharif.

    RICK ROWLEY: Dobbins says that Atta’s stance is more than just saber rattling, that it represents a real danger of political fragmentation.

    JAMES DOBBINS: The anti-Taliban coalition that prevailed in late 2001 with American assistance could, at the time, have fallen out among themselves in a competition for power. And that could still happen. The dispute over the current election could easily lead to serious riffs within the anti-Taliban coalition in the country.

    RICK ROWLEY: In the wake of the elections, with tension rising in the north, there are reports in the press that weapons prices have doubled, as Afghans prepare for a possible confrontation. We cannot verify the numbers, but while filming with Atta’s district police, they find an unregistered assault rifle in the back of this car. Unregistered rifles are evidence of a black market weapons trade, as northerners brace for a possible clash between the two old rivals.

    Five years ago, Afghanistan’s first presidential elections brought hope to many that thirty years of warlord rule of violence and impunity were about to come to an end. In the 2009 election, warlords are back.

    RAMAZAN BASHARDOST: Unfortunately, it’s a result of this election. It is a disaster for Afghan people. And it is a second chance for the narcotraffic, for the corrupt, for the warlord, to share the power between them.

    RICK ROWLEY: The same men who have fought over control of the country for decades are back at the center of national politics, serving as kingmakers for a presidency that seems every day less democratic and every day more powerless.

JUAN GONZALEZ: “Return of the Warlords,” an excerpt of a report by independent journalist Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films. He’ll join us in our firehouse studio after this break. Stay with us.


JUAN GONZALEZ: We’re joined now by independent journalist Rick Rowley. He’s just back from Afghanistan and joins me now in the firehouse studio.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rick.

RICK ROWLEY: Thanks, Juan. Always a pleasure.

JUAN GONZALEZ: General Dostum, where is he right now?

RICK ROWLEY: Well, he came back the day — or two days before the election to rally votes for Karzai. As soon as the election happened, he went to Kabul for a minute to negotiate what sort of deal he’s going to get. And then he’s gone back to Turkey to keep a low profile, until the whole fraud investigation has been clarified.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And you were there for a month in total? And your sense now, back in the United States, as you’re hearing the Obama administration debating sending possibly as many as 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, well, Juan, I mean, the US military has finally been allowed to admit to the American people that we’re losing the war militarily.

But an even greater crisis, potentially, is this political crisis, that the thin veneer of a democratic central government, for which we’ve been fighting and killing and dying for eight years, has been shattered and really destroyed in these elections, not just with the fraud, but with Karzai bringing back in the warlords.

And it’s not just Dostum. Dostum is the archetype of all warlords. But Dostum, Fahim and Mohaqiq are the three key people in Karzai’s campaign. Fahim, of course, the most important Tajik warlord in the country; Mohaqiq, the most important Hazari warlord in the country; and Dostum, the most important Uzbek warlord.

So, right now, Karzai is acting less as a — well, I mean, just the illusion, not even of a democratic government, of a central government has disappeared. Karzai is mediating a coalition of warlords who can deliver him the votes to get the elections. He’s not even acting as a central government anymore.

And so, that question — I mean, what are we killing and fighting and dying for? What is this government? I mean, is it even a government? I mean, that raises even more serious questions in my mind than whether we can win militarily on the ground.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And so, in effect, Karzai is sort of acting more as the head of a crime syndicate than the head of a duly constituted government.

RICK ROWLEY: Well, I mean, there are certainly many indications — there are open investigations against many of Karzai’s key supporters that indicate criminal activity. I mean, Dostum — the rap sheet on Dostum is huge. It’s very difficult to prove any of these kinds of allegations, you know, in Afghanistan, because the country is still very much run by these strong regional powers.

Dostum is — I mean, there’s been a lot of reporting on Democracy Now! about the Dasht-e-Leili massacre that Dostum is implicated in, and there’s an ongoing investigation into that, where up to 2,000 prisoners of war were loaded into boxcars and suffocated and then just dumped in the desert. I mean, that’s just one. There’s also — he’s rocketed and killed 4,000 civilians in Kabul. He’s been accused of kidnapping and torturing his political opponents. Karzai’s brother, of course, has been accused of being a major narcotrafficker in Kandahar. So, yeah, I mean, the rap sheets against the characters inside Karzai’s government right now is long.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And one of the things your report points out is the level of internal displacement or refugees forced out of their homes as a result of these conflicts by the warlords. Could you talk a little more about that?

RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s important to recognize the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan in this sense, that in Iraq — as opposed to a straight occupation and invasion, as we had in Iraq, where the population is, you know, 100 percent against the Americans being there, in Afghanistan it’s more like we invaded at the end of an unresolved civil war, and so — a civil war that has become, over the course of decades, has become more and more violent, more and more — more and more ethnically based. So, yeah, there are tens of thousands of refugees, of Pashtun refugees in the south and of Tajik refugees in the north, who have been forced from their land.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Rick Rowley, independent journalist with Big Noise Films, I want to thank you for joining us, just returned from Afghanistan. His piece called “Return of the Warlords” airs on Al Jazeera English today.

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