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Human Rights Angst Lingers In Afghanistan

Published in: NPR

As Afghanistan's elections draw to a shambolic finale, it is time for President Obama to end his policy review and breathe hope into Afghanistan's bleak landscape.

Some members of Congress are so appalled by these fraudulent elections, they question the value of continued U.S. engagement. But any politician who followed Afghanistan closely knew that lawlessness and corruption was endemic in the Afghan government. They should have also speculated that the United States helped feed it.

For the past eight years, the U.S. has done business with known drug lords, held high-level meetings with notorious war criminals, and employed unregistered armed militias to guard their bases. The Bush administration refused to sideline many feared and hated politicians and warlords on the grounds that the "enemy of our enemy is our friend."

With a raging insurgency and a discredited government, the "security before justice" argument no longer holds up to scrutiny. Afghans desperately want to see a change. They are disgusted by the venality of their leaders, sickened by the killings, rapes and abductions that go unpunished. Human rights defenders are attacked, women activists are murdered, journalists are silenced. Meanwhile, the Taliban grow in strength and popularity.

In Kabul, I met many Afghans who did not bother to vote, having surmised that little would change. Hamid Karzai was likely to win, and if he didn't, his rival Abdullah Abdullah had just as many warlord friends. One woman decried Karzai's electoral pacts with warlords - in particular the notorious Gen. Dostum. Her brother was murdered by Dostum's men decades ago when Dostum was a communist-era commander. Her tears had not stopped: "My brother has been eating dust in his grave for 30 years, and here's Dostum still acting like a king." A young man had seen his entire family gunned down when he was 11, during the civil war of the early 1990s. "I did not vote. The warlords win whoever I vote for."

Before the election, Karzai mortgaged out his government to the warlords and crooks of yesterday. Unless Obama acts fast to make good governance the centerpiece of his new policy, these men will be back in power and continuing to enrich themselves with foreign dollars and drug money.

But before he tries to persuade Karzai to clean up his act, Obama should announce that the U.S. will end relations with corrupt politicians, criminal warlords and militias. Washington should prioritize women's rights, even if this is unpopular with powerful men in and out of government.

And the hotly debated question of more troops? Those who argue for more troops should first explain what those forces will do and how they will enhance, instead of diminish, security. And those calling for withdrawal must show how the rights of women will be protected - and how to avoid the blood bath of a civil war. If foreign forces withdraw precipitously, current levels of violence and impunity may end up seeming like the good old days.

Rachel Reid is an Afghanistan specialist for Human Rights Watch. She has lived and worked in Afghanistan for more than two years. She is currently in London.

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