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News

Afghanistan's Coalition of the Killing

Group wants to topple Karzai, but has bloody hands. A Tyee special report from Kabul.

By Jared Ferrie 3 Apr 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Vancouver journalist and regular Tyee contributor Jared Ferrie is currently reporting from Afghanistan.

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Warlord Rashid Dostum is a key figure in the National United Front.

Once enemies in a brutal civil war, a group of Afghan warlords, communists and others have now united in an attempt to wrest political control from Western-backed President Hamid Karzai.

But while members of the newly formed group say they want to reform Afghanistan's government, others are warning that they could trigger a near-genocidal wave of violence if allowed to take power.

The National United Front brings together a hodgepodge of the mujahideen groups that battled for power after defeating Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government in 1992. Also included however, are prominent members of the communist government itself. The Front has even managed to pull in royalists, including the grandson of Afghanistan's former king.

'Kick out Karzai'

The coalition wants to use its power in parliament to change Afghanistan's political system, according to Sher Abed, a spokesman for the Junbish party, which is controlled by northern strongman Rashid Dostum and is part of the Front.

In particular, it seeks to reincorporate the powerful post of prime minister, which was eliminated in the post-Taliban government and, if reinstated, would severely undercut the role of the president. "This is the purpose -- kick out Karzai," said Abed.

Abed argues that the current government is corrupt and has been ineffective in rebuilding the country and fighting terrorism. He predicted that Dostum would wipe out the Taliban and al Qaeda insurgency within six months if given control of Afghanistan's military.

Others, however, are not so sure.

A history of violence

"Maybe the system of government does need revising," said Nick Higgins. "But perhaps these aren't the guys to do it."

Higgins is a security consultant with Tor International and has worked in Afghanistan for four years. In an interview with The Tyee, he pointed out that the National Front members have a history of violence. Together, he said, they destroyed Kabul while fighting for power during the 1990s. Many have been also been accused of war crimes and other atrocities.

The newly united leaders are also most likely out for individual gain, Higgins said. "If it means they're the headman sitting on a pile of rubble, they'd probably be happy with that."

The possibility of a Dostum-led government was particularly chilling for Higgins. "If Dostum came to power and commanded the army, he'd send it steaming into the south," he said. "If it wasn't genocidal, it would be something close to it."

The coalition's ethnic balance is also an issue. Most of its members are from ethnic parties in the north. Notably absent are the Pashtuns, who make up the majority of Afghanistan's population. "The last thing you want to do is alienate the Pashtuns and drive them towards the Taliban," said Higgins.

Front behind amnesty bill

The checkered past of many Front leaders is also an issue for many.

Shukria Barakzai is a member of the Afghan parliament. She told The Tyee that members of the Front were behind a recent attempt to force through a bill that would grant amnesty to those accused of war crimes.

(A watered-down resolution that prevents the state from taking action against groups, but allows people to pursue charges against individuals was eventually passed, but has not yet been signed into law by President Karzai.)

Barakzai also said the coalition members have little support among the population, pointing out that Karzai trounced some of them in the 2004 presidential election.

"Why did people vote for Karzai? Because he was not a warlord, he didn't kill any person," she said. "He has a background as a diplomat, not a commander."

Fighters seek rewards

Those commanders, however, the ones who fought to liberate Afghanistan from Soviet domination and later battled the Taliban, deserve to be rewarded, according to Sher Abed. Instead, he says, Karzai has pushed them from power.

That includes Dostum, who currently holds the largely symbolic title of Army Chief of Staff. "Now (Karzai's) telling him, 'Go sit in your house without any job,'" said Abed. "This is the wrong policy."

But that argument holds little water with Nick Higgins. Dostum, he points out, switched sides numerous times in the long conflict, including spending most of the 1980s fighting on the side of Afghanistan's communist government before defecting to the mujahideen.

And he doesn't buy the argument that military leaders should be rewarded politically for their service during war time.

A former soldier himself, Higgins spent time in Northern Ireland as part of the British force that fought the Irish Republican Army.

"Does that mean I should have a position of power in Northern Ireland?" he asked rhetorically. "Well no, my job is done."

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