By NSJ Staff Writer
On October 11, 2009, The New York Times reported that, “Afghanistan’s judiciary is so weak that Afghans increasingly turn to a shadow Taliban court system,” especially in rural areas where people lack access to the judicial process. As the Obama Administration continues to review its Afghanistan strategy to determine whether or not to increase U.S. troop levels in the country, it should keep in mind that its approach to advancing the rule of law there has considerable implications for the security situation on the ground. Indeed, the White House appears to have recognized this in recent weeks, as it has emphasized that President Hamid Karzai should make tackling corruption an essential part of his second term as a way to improve his government’s legitimacy and reduce the growing support for the Taliban.
In his Special Address on Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, Commander, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Commander, U.S. Forces Afghanistan, echoed this theme, arguing that the United States must address the shortfalls in governance, aid the Afghan government to provide the rule of law, and build the perception that justice is possible through the legal process. He elaborated:
Villagers are supremely rational and practical people: they make the decision on who they will support, based upon who can protect them and provide for them what they need. If a villager lives in a remote area where the government or security forces cannot protect them from coercion or harm from insurgents, he will not support the government–it would be illogical. Similarly, if the government cannot provide him with rule of law, the basic ability to adjudicate requirements legally, or just enough services to allow him to pursue a likelihood, it is difficult for him to make a rational decision to support the government. The Taliban is not popular. It does not have a compelling context. What it has is proximity to the people and the ability to provide coercion and, in some cases, things like basic rule of law, based upon the fact that they are there and can put themselves in that position. The perception of the villager matters in terms of which side he should support, so winning the battle of perception is key.
Aside from the lack of access to the court system, Afghanistan must address questions of transitional justice to help legitimize the rule of law. According to a study led by the International Center for Transitional Justice, up to 70 percent of Afghans consider themselves to be direct victims of serious human rights violations that occurred during the country’s 23 years of conflict. The study indicated that many victims perceive Afghanistan’s political and legal system as promulgating a “culture of impunity” and point to how alleged human rights violators and warlords currently hold positions of influence and power. For example, the New York Times published an article in July 2009 that detailed General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s alleged participation in the massacre of hundreds of Taliban prisoners in late 2001. The Times Editorial Board followed with a call for investigations. While the Obama Administration has ordered a review of the allegations, General Dostum has since returned to Afghanistan, where he actively campaigned for Hamid Karzai’s re-election and was reinstated to his government position.
The United States appears to have realized that Afghanistan must address this particular breakdown of transitional justice as part of its efforts to develop the rule of law, especially in light of the extensive fraud allegations associated with the recent election. Indeed, according to The New York Times, administration officials have remarked that they “would like at least a few arrests of . . . ‘the more blatantly corrupt’ people in the Afghan government,” which likely would include General Dostum. In his first speech after being declared the election’s winner, Karzai seemed to indicate that he would not follow this approach, stating that Afghanistan’s problems cannot be solved by “changing high-ranking officials,” but rather through “draft[ing] some new laws.”
As President Obama and his national security team complete the Afghanistan strategy review, they must decide how the United States can best promote the rule of law as a way to solidify political and military stability. While the administration’s agenda includes “cleaning out the worst of [Karzai’s] governors and ministers” and “announcing a major new push on corruption,” it is unclear whether the Karzai government will adopt these needed reforms.