As Afghan and United Nations officials prepare for the forthcoming loya jirga (grand national assembly), as called for in the 2001 Bonn Agreement to choose Afghanistan's next government, ordinary Afghans are increasingly terrorized by the rule of local and regional military commanders - warlords - who are reasserting their control over large areas of Afghanistan. A mission by Human Rights Watch to southern Afghanistan in late May 2002 uncovered credible evidence of the reemergence of figures associated with the Taliban as well as the extremist Islamist movement led by former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in several southern provinces.1 These warlords have been able to consolidate power because of the vacuum created when the U.S.-led military coalition and the U.N. Security Council refused to expand the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) beyond Kabul. Although U.S. forces are operating in these areas, they seem to be doing little if anything to address the insecurity experienced by ordinary Afghans. Indeed, according to persistent though unconfirmed reports received by Human Rights Watch, U.S. cooperation with certain of the local warlords seems to be aggravating the problem. Unconfirmed reports were also received of involvement in the region by Iran and Pakistan.
Regardless of their ideology and the source of their support, these warlords are creating a climate of repression that once again threatens the security and well-being of the Afghan people. This return of the warlords is especially painful to Afghans committed to rebuilding civil society who now face the possible end of the hopeful respite that followed the fall of the Taliban at the hands of the U.S.-led military coalition. Unless immediate steps are taken to counteract the growing power of the regional warlords, Afghanistan will be at the mercy of essentially the same figures whose rule and warring devastated Afghanistan over the last decade. In this environment, the loya jirga process, which was designed to sideline and minimize the rule of warlords, may instead entrench and legitimate their hold on power.
Our interviews generally occurred in a climate of great anxiety. Many people we interviewed told us that they were fearful of discussing their own security and livelihood - itself ample testimony to the high level of repression experienced by local Afghans.2 Nevertheless, in every province of southern Afghanistan, we received at least some reports of local commanders corrupting the election process through the use of threats, beatings, imprisonment, and other tactics of intimidation. At the same time, generalized violence and criminality continued to threaten the livelihoods and well-being of the local population, many of whom are already struggling to cope with a fourth year of drought.
1 The Hizb-i Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar espouses an extremist religious and anti-Western ideology. At various times, it has fought and allied itself with almost every other group in Afghanistan. Hizb-i Islami received some of the strongest support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and attracted thousands of religious radicals to Afghanistan, among them Osama bin Laden. On the role of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the emergence of the Taliban, see Human Rights Watch, Backgrounder on Afghanistan: History of the War, October 2001, http://www.hrw.org/backgrounder/asia/afghan-bck1023.htm.
2 Because of the level of insecurity, Human Rights Watch has withheld the names of people interviewed and in some cases the location of those interviews.