A ripple of laughter passes through a crowd of about 1,500 packed into a Kabul wedding hall last Friday afternoon. Onstage, warlords sit on plastic chairs talking to an American in a slick dark suit and shades. "I have to go to a meeting now," the American says abruptly as the warlords rise from their seats in protest. "Don't worry, we'll support you."
The play is funny, but its subject is potentially explosive. Afghanistan's government is riddled with former and current warlords. The play is an overt criticism of a bill they recently pushed through both houses of parliament that would give blanket immunity to those among them who committed atrocities during the Afghan civil war.
The bill has Afghanistan's president in a tough spot. If Hamid Karzai supports the warlords in their quest for amnesty, he will anger Afghans who remember the tens of thousands killed, tortured and raped during civil war in the 1990s. If he doesn't, he risks the stability of his own government.
Already facing a rising Taliban insurgency in the south, Karzai can ill afford to raise the ire of warlords who still control formidable militias. Last month, some of them gathered 25,000 people together in Kabul to rally in support of the resolution.
Memories of past atrocities
Human rights groups, along with many ordinary Afghans, want a special court set up to charge war criminals. Among their many allegations is the claim that armed groups indiscriminately rained down rockets on Kabul between 1992 and 1996, laying the capital city to waste.
Many of those watching the play in Kabul experienced the horror of those years first-hand, according to Danish Hamed of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, which organized Friday's event. "In Kabul, 65,000 people got killed in four years," she said. "Thousands of girls got kidnapped. Their families are still in Kabul."
As long as war criminals remain on the loose, instability and lawlessness will persist, she said.
"They should be brought to justice in Afghanistan in front of the eyes of all those people who were victims of these crimes."
The resolution has also provoked a strong response internationally. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbor, a former Canadian Supreme Court Justice, condemned it two days after the lower house gave its approval.
Vittorio Agnoletto, an Italian member of the European parliament who was visiting Kabul independently, attended the play and addressed the crowd. In an interview, he said it was "incredible" that those accused of well-documented war crimes could hold public office.
"But the most incredible thing is that our governments -- I'm thinking about the Western governments -- are allies with this government that inside it has a lot of (alleged) criminals," he said.
Danish Hamed admitted that Karzai has little power to decide who gets prosecuted for war crimes.
"It's not only Karzai, but America, because America supported these warlords," she said. "And America should admit that it was a mistake."
Agnoletto wants current U.S.-dominated international military force to be withdrawn and replaced by UN peacekeepers.
Forgive and forget?
As the actor playing the American strides briskly offstage, a woman acting as a western television reporter steps up to interview the warlords about the amnesty bill.
No individuals are to blame for the atrocities of war, they tell her. Afghanistan must move beyond its bloody past.
The resolution calls for all factions who fought each other in the past 25 years to forgive each other for the sake of "national reconciliation."
"They should not be dealt with through legal and judicial channels," it states.
Karzai buys time
On Saturday, the day after the play in Kabul, Karzai bought himself some time by sending the resolution back to parliament to be revised. The new bill grants amnesty to warring groups and puts the onus on victims, rather than the state, to pursue charges against individuals.
Outspoken parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai has told reporters that she is "confused" by the new bill's seemingly contradictory wording. And it is unclear if and when parliament will send it back to Karzai to sign.
Senior officials implicated
If the bill fails and human rights groups get their way, key members of Karzai's government could be charged with war crimes. Human Rights Watch has criticized Karzai for "trying to bring all political forces under his umbrella" and condemned the U.S. for relying on warlords to help fight its "war on terror."
The organization has laid allegations against Vice President Karim Khalili, Army Chief of Staff Rashid Dostum, former prime minister Burhanuddin Rabbani and prominent lawmaker Abdul al-Rassul Sayaf, among others.
All of those aging warlords -- which the group accuses of continuing to misuse power -- are represented onstage in Kabul, the actors doing impressions of them that the audience clearly finds amusing.
In the play, a student has the last word. "If Karzai signs this bill, that means he is also a criminal," she tells the television reporter.
Related Tyee stories: