London ~~ Thursday February 21 2008, Page 32
In the line of fire
Bush Jnr ally, warlord -war criminal General Abdul Rashid Dostum
The plight of a journalist, contrasted with the swagger of a warlord, says a lot about Afghanistan
The contrasting fates of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh and Abdul Rashid Dostum say a lot about what is wrong in Afghanistan at the moment. Kambakhsh is a young journalism student at the University of Balkh in northern Afghanistan. A few weeks ago he was sentenced to death for blasphemy after a summary trial in which he had no legal representation and no opportunity to defend himself. His alleged offence is to have downloaded and distributed an article from the internet questioning why men can have four wives but women cannot have multiple husbands.
The sentence was passed in closed session at which he was again denied the right to speak in his defence. "The death sentence had already been written," he said. "I wanted to say something, but they would not let me speak."
His brother, a staff reporter for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says Kambakhsh neither downloaded nor distributed the material, which was written by an Iranian journalist. He believes that his brother was targeted because of his own work exposing the power of the warlords and political factions in the north.
One of the most powerful of these warlords is General Dostum, a senior military adviser to President Karzai and a key member of the Northern Alliance that ousted the Taliban in 2001. Earlier this month Dostum and 50 of his supporters attacked the home of one of his rivals, Akbar Bay, in Kabul. According to police reports they beat up members of Bay's family and abducted him. A tense standoff ensued. When police surrounded Dostum's own compound he appeared on the roof, allegedly drunk, to threaten and abuse them. President Karzai refused permission to make an arrest.
On Tuesday, Dostum was suspended from his role by the attorney general, but it is extremely unlikely he will ever see the inside of a prison.
Dostum and Kambakhsh are both from northern Afghanistan, which has been spared most of the violence that has gripped the south and east of the country during the growing anti-government insurgency. Yet events in the north show why Afghanistan's problems go much deeper than defeating the Taliban.
Last November around 70 people were killed - including 52 children - when security guards opened fire indiscriminately after a bomb attack on members of parliament visiting the northern Baghlan province. According to a UN report the majority of the casualties were inflicted after the initial blast, but local authorities hushed the matter up. The director of the local hospital stated that no patients had been treated for bullet wounds, but this was contradicted by UN findings.
Journalists, who have been at the fore in exposing such incidents, are finding themselves targeted for violence and intimidation. Six reporters were murdered last year, including Zakia Zaki, a female broadcaster, who was shot in the face and chest as she lay sleeping with her eight-month-old son. None of the killers has ever been caught. Other journalists have been threatened for writing about corruption, which is now reaching endemic levels among the police and government officials.
Although the fighting in the south and east of Afghanistan remains the focus of western concern, the reality is that President Karzai is losing control of the entire country. While the US and UK governments are right to warn that the consequences of defeat for Nato in Afghanistan would be catastrophic, it is hardly surprising that they are having problems drumming up support for its failing government.
· Conor Foley worked in Afghanistan in 2003/04 for a humanitarian aid organisation and recently returned for the first time in over three years