Monday, 7 September 2009

Pervez Kambaksh and the future of Afghanistan

The Independent is celebrating, as we all should, the release of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the Afghan student journalist imprisoned for - what was it again? - distributing material he found on the internet about women's rights. Originally threatened with death for "blasphemy", then sentenced to twenty years, he has now been officially pardoned. But only after losing two years of his life in a dingy jail for performing a public service. And now he faces a life of exile. He spoke of his "deep regret at knowing he was unlikely to see his family or country again".

The paper - which has done more than most to highlight the case - points to the 100,000 signatures collected in Pervez's support. It also suggests that the Afghan government "came under intense pressure from the international community to release him". I wonder, though, quite how intense that international pressure must have been for it to take two whole years to persuade the Western-installed election stealer Hamid Karzai to sign the necessary papers. The Kabul regime he heads is dependent on international support for its fragile survival. Publicly, Western governments have regretted Pervez's unjust imprisonment. But does anyone really believe that they were not in a position to insist upon his release?

Admittedly, there were hardline elements in Kabul determined to make this trivial incident into a test case. The Independent's report refers to "intensive diplomatic negotiations which took place behind the scenes" and mentions "a number of political figures close to the government" who were calling for Pervez to be executed. But that does tend to underline the unpleasant nature of the regime our troops are giving their lives to sustain.

Unpleasant, especially where women are concerned. As Katharine Butler puts it, "the Taliban are not in power, but women can still be sold out because Western-backed politicians, in hock to men whose views on women are just as conservative as the Taliban, don't consider their rights a priority." I would go further: these misogynistic bigots ("conservative" is too kind a word for them) are able to get away with it because our own politicians don't consider women's rights to be a priority. They have traded them for a chimerical "stability", symbolised by the odious policy of negotiating with "moderate" Taliban.

The outcome to this case also smacks of a typical Karzai manoeuvre. For two years he has prevaricated, playing the international community like a violin, posing as moderate and reformist while failing to lift a single finger out of any of his many pies to correct a manifest injustice. Just as he was happy to sign into law the Shi'ite Misogyny Act with only the most minimal changes as a nod towards the international (and, indeed, domestic) outcry against it. Ever since he was put in power - largely, I gather, on the strength of his smooth style and media-friendly taste in hats - he has persuaded Western governments and officials that he alone can fend off Afghanistan's descent into chaos. Meanwhile, he enriches himself and his family, cosies up to brutal warlords like General Rashid Dostum and does little or nothing to promote human rights. And now, when it looks like the Americans might finally be losing patience with his corruption and double-dealing, he decides it is finally time to release Pervez Kambaksh.

It's worth reviewing what happened to Pervez Kambaksh, if only to give a flavour of the benighted state of the country. He was arrested in October 2007 in Mazar-i-Sharif after some students and staff at his university accused him of disseminating material on women's rights which "insulted Islam". Three months later, after a forced confession and a "trial" at which he had no access to a lawyer, he was sentenced to death. It was only after a further year, "spent on death row in the grimmest conditions imaginable", while his case became internationally notorious and the Indy began collecting its signatures, that the Supreme Court in Kabul sentenced him to twenty years for what the paper notes is something "that no citizen of a democratic state would consider an offence". Even without the death sentence, he is lucky to still be alive.

Says an editorial, it is "a depressing reflection on the state of Afghanistan eight years after Nato forces intervened to topple the Taliban government that a young man has had to flee the country for the 'crime' of trying to engage people in a discussion on the dismal state of women's rights."
Cases like this explain why I oppose Western intervention in Afghanistan. If we cannot prevent such monstrosities from taking place, then our presence in the country is worse than useless. We betray our principles by standing by and watching - even if there is some pressure being applied "behind the scenes". The message conveyed is one of weakness and, worse, of complaisance: if the medievally-minded Afghan judges are permitted to conduct themselves in so Talibanic a fashion under our collective noses, how are they likely to start behaving once, inevitably, we leave? Getting one decision reversed isn't going to alter the mindset that produced that decision in the first place. And if altering that mindset is not seen as a vital part of our mission in the country, then our mission is doomed to failure.

Karzai is supposed to hold the ring between the moderates and the reformers - but he can only do so by giving the hardliners ever more of what they want, with the result that the cause of human rights slips inexorably backwards. Talks with "moderate" Taliban, in such a situation, are a logical next step, since this is increasingly a regime in which the Taliban can feel at home. At this present phase in Western policy, human rights are evidently seen as dispensible in return for "stability". But stability, represented by the Karzai balancing act, is fragile, wholly dependent upon Western power for its continuance. A consensus regime may just hold together long enough to persuade NATO countries that it is safe to pack up and go home, but it would inevitably fall to pieces within months.

Two possibilities offer themselves, neither particularly attractive. Either we could withdraw more-or-less straight away and allow the Afghan warlords to fight it out. That would be bloody, but at least it would not be our blood that was being shed, nor our bombs accidentally killing civilians - and there is at least a chance that a natural balance of power would emerge. Alternatively, the international community could decide to transform Afghanistan into a viable state. To achieve that, it would be necessary to impose direct rule, depose Karzai and transport all the warlords for trial in the Hague. That would be costly, in money and lives, and take many years. It would also, as undisguised neo-colonialism, be deeply controversial. But it would prevent future Pervez Kambakshs from fearing for their lives.