Afghan Warlords Fix Sights on Political Power

Times Staff Writer

Staring down from campaign posters plastered around town, a familiar face taunts Zulmai Khan.

It is Abdul Rauf Mukhtar, a candidate for Afghanistan’s parliament in northern Takhar province. He is also the man Khan accuses of killing five members of his family 10 years ago.

Like many Afghans, Khan thought the Electoral Complaints Commission would prevent warlords from running in Sunday’s election for the 249-seat lower house of parliament and 34 provincial councils.

But the commission of three foreigners and two Afghans can act only against convicted criminals, those with current ties to militias, or violators of election rules. And Mukhtar, at least in the eyes of Afghanistan’s justice system, is none of the above.


“What exists in the law and what people expect are very different,” said Mohammed Farid Hamidi, an Afghan member of the complaints commission. “The standard of proof [for disqualification] is too high.”

On Monday, the commission banished 28 candidates, mostly because they had ties to illegal armed groups.

But warlords remain largely beyond the short reach of justice. Afghanistan’s courts barely function after more than 25 years of war and occupation and are deeply corrupt.

Khan said he couldn’t seek justice a decade ago because Mukhtar was the local police chief.

“There were no rules then, and no law. Anybody who had power could kill people he hated, and there was nothing we could do,” Khan said. “Nobody listened to us then, and no one is listening to us now.”

Khan alleges that Mukhtar killed two of his brothers, Daoud and Nowruz, and his nephew, a cousin and an aunt’s grandson.

“He shot one of my brothers in the bazaar, in front of everyone, and then he went to my house and killed my other brother,” Khan said by satellite phone from the remote northern town of Ishkamish.

“The murders of my brothers are very famous in our area,” he said. “Everyone knows about it. This person destroyed the lives of many people when he was a [militia] commander. And he will destroy the whole country if he becomes a member of parliament.”

Mukhtar was a local commander of the Jamaat-i-Islami militia faction, which dominated the Northern Alliance that helped U.S. forces defeat the Taliban government in late 2001.

The faction has disarmed and become a political party, headed by former presidential candidate Younis Qanooni. It is expected to do well in Sunday’s election for provincial councils and the national Wolesi Jirga, or House of the People.

Mukhtar said Khan’s allegations were lies spread by political opponents and contended that he had never killed anyone in the street. He said he remembered that Khan’s brothers were executed on the orders of a traditional council of elders, or shura, but said he did not know who carried out the sentence.

“If I have killed anybody or shot anybody, it was always the order of the court or the elders on the district shura,” the candidate said from Ishkamish.

Mukhtar said the shura found the brothers guilty of kidnapping women and children from a local Koranic school, called a madrasa. Khan says his brothers had done nothing wrong, and there was no reason to kill any of his family members.

Like most of the crimes committed during more than two decades of war in Afghanistan, the truth of what happened to Khan’s relatives may never be determined.

Unlike other regions that endured brutal conflicts such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia, East Timor and now Iraq, Afghanistan has seen no international effort to investigate or prosecute war criminals.

Instead, many of those who might have faced a court have been rewarded with positions as police chiefs, military commanders and politicians, said Mehdad Noorani, editor and publisher of the weekly Taraqi.

“I think no other country has been betrayed as Afghanistan is being now,” Noorani said.

Noorani believes that as many as 350 of 5,800 candidates in this weekend’s vote are criminals who shouldn’t be allowed to hold office in a democracy.

Only two of the candidates dismissed Monday by the complaints commission, a mid-level Kabul gangster named Qumandan Didar and Gul Hussein Khel Baghlani, a regional warlord, are suspected of significant crimes.

Haji Almas, another Kabul-area gangster who police suspect is running major heroin, kidnapping and burglary rings, is still a candidate for parliament despite numerous complaints about him to the commission.

Seventeen candidates were disqualified in July before ballots were printed, but it’s too late to strike the names of the latest rejections, which means any vote for them is wasted.

“We are not a criminal court or a transitional justice body,” Grant Kippen, the commission’s Canadian chairman, said Monday. “Ultimately, it is the right of voters in this country to choose, in a few days’ time, who will represent them in the Wolesi Jirga and provincial councils.”

The list of candidates reported to the complaints commission is secret. But sources familiar with it say the names include several former militia commanders who have a good chance of winning seats in parliament or on provincial councils.

Among them is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Pushtun follower of the extremist Wahhabi sect of Islam who headed a Northern Alliance faction. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks, was a member of Sayyaf’s militia in the 1980s Afghan war against Soviet occupation.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch blames Sayyaf for numerous crimes committed by his fighters during a vicious civil war in the 1990s.

In early 1993, Sayyaf launched an offensive against a rival ethnic Hazara district in the western part of Kabul, the capital, and his fighters committed crimes such as “intentional killing of civilians, beating of civilians, abductions based on ethnicity, looting, and forced labor,” the human rights group said.

“In one night, Sayyaf’s men killed 229 Hazaras, most of them civilians, and now there is a [campaign] picture of Sayyaf 3 yards high in the same area,” Noorani said. “And he wants to be a representative of the people in parliament!”

Sayyaf, who is an ally of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai, refused an interview request. His spokesman, Noor Mohammed Khan, called the human rights group’s allegations “a political conspiracy.”

“They made this report because they knew professor Sayyaf was going to be a candidate for parliament, and there are people who don’t want him in that position,” he said.

Wakil Ahmed Mutawakel, the former Taliban foreign minister, is a candidate for parliament in Kandahar province, the Taliban’s former stronghold.

Supporters say he was a moderate Taliban member, which opponents call an oxymoron. Opponents contend that a senior member of a government guilty of human rights abuses and war crimes has no place in the new Afghanistan’s parliament.

Mohammed Mohaqiq, an ethnic Hazara warlord who ran against Karzai in last October’s presidential election, is now running for parliament. During the civil war, Mohaqiq’s forces allegedly killed victims by hammering spikes into their heads, and then nailed their corpses together in macabre strings. He denies being a war criminal.

Qanooni, who finished a distant second to Karzai in the presidential balloting and is one of the most popular politicians in the current campaign, also has a cloud of allegations hanging over him. Human Rights Watch says that Qanooni, as a Northern Alliance subcommander during the civil war, should be investigated for any role in wartime atrocities.

Afghan critics such as Noorani, the newspaper editor, and foreign human rights activists accuse the U.S. of shying away from any postwar accounting in an effort to broker peace.

“The United States thinks that if they touch these people they might face a war like they are facing in Iraq, but indeed they are mistaken, because these people are really powerless now,” Noorani said. “They just want to be safe and happy now. They just think about spending their money.”

U.S. State Department officials did not return calls seeking comment.