Afghanistan struggles to keep warlords off the ballot

The election commission says it will decide shortly whether to disqualify 21 more candidates from the Sept. 18 election.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

With only two weeks to go before Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, officials here are making a last minute bid to ensure that warlords do not get a firm foothold in the new government.

The Elections Complaints Commission is reconsidering whether 21 candidates should be disqualified for being warlords or having links to illegal militias. With ballots already printed for the Sept. 18 vote, any further disqualifications would have to be posted at polling stations to warn voters away from wasting their vote.

Since coming to power, the central government, headed by US-backed President Hamid Karzai, has gingerly tried to disarm and remove warlords from their bases of power - and met with some success. Analysts fear that the parliamentary election could be a setback to those efforts if warlords or their surrogates are allowed to wield their influence within the corridors of Afghanistan's fledgling legislature.

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"Many who abused human rights in the past continue to abuse human rights and traffick in drugs from positions of power today," says Joanna Nathan, senior analyst for International Crisis Group in Afghanistan. "Many are now seeking the mantle of a democratic mandate. This should in no way exempt them from prosecution or other means of justice as determined by the Afghan people."

The latest investigations are the second attempt to purge warlords from a field of 5,800 candidates for the National Assembly and Provincial Councils. The process has been criticized by human rights groups and other observers for allowing past human rights abusers and current outlaws to run for government and perpetuate Afghanistan's culture of impunity.

A final decision on whether the disqualify the 21 candidates will be made in the coming days, according to ECC spokesman Josh Wright. Given the touchy definition of "warlord," explanations of ineligibility won't be given.

"We're not a criminal court," said Mr. Wright. "We're making decisions for the administration of elections."

The initial vetting process ended on July 12, when only 11 candidates out of 208 allegedly involved in illegal armed groups were stricken from the ballot. Officially, those still in the race showed sufficient efforts to comply with election laws. (With no convictions for crimes against humanity, candidates' past atrocities will slide for now.)

A UN report, issued jointly last month with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights commission, acknowledged disappointment in the vetting process, stating: "Many expressed the view that a number of armed and powerful figures never appeared on the [disqualified] list due to political calculations."

Since the formal vetting process, many tales of voter intimidation have circulated around the country, although the UN and the ECC attempt to keep registered complaints confidential. Observers also say that self-censorship on the part of those intimidated keeps the extent of the problem difficult to gauge.

Family member surrogates

But reports of warlords running relatives as candidates, and then conducting campaigns of terror and vote-buying on their relative's behalf, are not uncommon, bringing into question what constitutes involvement with an illegal armed group. According to the ECC's Mohammed Farid Hamidi, to violate the Election Law a candidate must command an armed outfit or be an active participant. He conceded that warlords running brothers, cousins, and in one reported case a wife, are a "big problem."

Peter Babbington, the acting director of the UN-backed Afghanistan New Beginnings Program (ANBP), which in 2003 started efforts to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate military units, said last week that the 208 scrutinized candidates were all on his agency's expansive warlord database. To make that list, which contains 1,800 names, a person must be accused of involvement in an illegal militia by two credible and independent sources, a measure intended to keep personal vendettas from tainting the mechanism.

Most of those 1,800 commanders maintain self-defense militias in remote areas and are "benign," says Mr. Babbington. The number of dangerous groups is less than 100, he says. ANBP divided them into three categories: those that pose a threat to elections (insurgents), those that pose a threat to governance (roadblock extortionists, etc.) and those involved in narcotics trafficking. About 25 gangs fall into all three categories, he says.

But, Babbington adds, there are "some key individuals who are larger than life" and they are making their way into Afghanistan's fractured officialdom.

Hazrat Ali, a former warlord who stepped down as Nangahar's police chief and turned in weapons before entering the elections, is one of those figures, according to Babbington.

Having commanded a Northern Alliance force against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, he has worked closely with US military since the US invasion in 2001.

When a reporter entered Mr. Ali's campaign headquarters in Jalalabad, the provincial seat of Nangahar, several weeks ago, the compound bustled with about 100 mujahideen-turned-political activists. Ali's secretary Agha Jan, misunderstanding the reporter's introduction, snapped, "We have nothing to do with drugs!"

Ali: 'It was war.'

Ali voiced confidence in his campaign and dismissed the possibility of past crimes tainting his candidacy. "There was 30 years of war in Afghanistan. Good and bad things happened. It was war," he said.

Several officials with the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission maintain that Ali disbanded his private army only on paper and that his men still participate in drug trafficking and land grabs, terrorizing the citizenry - practices mentioned in past reports by Human Rights Watch.

Many of Ali's ex-soldiers are now Nangahar provincial police. One ranking Nangahar police official that Ali's men, "imposed with pressure and power," have a disproportionate presence on his force.

"They're involved in illegal activities. The battalion commanders, the border police, they're all involved in illegal activities," the police official said, adding that the crimes include extortion, drug trafficking and other smuggling operations.

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