"The War Lords Must Be Marginalised"

The new constitution expressly defines Afghanistan as a Muslim country. After years of civil war and fundamentalist tyranny, law and democracy are now meant to pave the way for a better future. Interview with Afghanistan expert Jochen Hippler

Afghanistan has a new constitution, one which expressly defines it as a Muslim country. After years of civil war and fundamentalist tyranny, law and democracy are now meant to pave the way for a better future. Interview with Afghanistan expert Jochen Hippler

What does the mention of religion in the new Afghan constitution imply? How Islamic is the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan?

Jochen Hippler: This is an important statement for legitimacy. You have to realise that since 1979/80 at the latest, the resistance against the Soviet Union – and against the Soviet-backed government a little earlier – was a ‘jihad’. As such, it was a religious mission, and so no political force in Afghanistan today can afford not to describe itself as Islamic.

So mentioning Islam in the constitution signals reverence for national tradition, does it?

Hippler: Yes – but religious hypocrisy is involved as well. We know that from out own societies. When US President George Bush makes all those references to God, it may be that he means every word he says, but it is also possible he is simply using religion as a political tool. Of course, the same tendency to instrumentalise religion is found in Muslim societies as well.

Is there a clear and precise notion of what being a Muslim means?

Hippler: In Afghanistan we not only have Shi'ite minorities, whose interpretation of Islam differs from that of the Sunnis; we also have extremely diverse notions of Islam among the Sunni communities. There is a fairly easy-going sense of religion among many people, there are also groups which are ideologically close to the puritanical Wahabi Islamists of Saudi Arabia – and there's every shade of religious conviction in between. Theologically, Islam is practised at a distinctly low level in many cases.

It is all jumbled up with remnants of tribal tradition and local prejudice. In Afghanistan, you can travel 50 kilometres down the road and suddenly find a completely different form of Islam. This is because the people are not theological sophisticates; they see Islam as a symbol of what they have always felt to be right. That's why I find it interesting to see the term ‘Islamic ’ without having the Sharia specifically adopted as the basis of the constitution.

Is the phrase ‘Islamic Republic’ needed to draw an ideological dividing line in view of the foreign troops in the country?

Hippler: I think that does play a role in some people's minds – but only to a limited extent. The American representatives and their troops accept the term Islamic Republic. Apart from that, Washington put up large sums of money to finance the jihad against the Soviet Union, which was, in part, based explicitly on fundamentalist Islamic principles.

After the jihad against the Soviet Union, there was a phase of religious fundamentalism articulated by the Taliban government. Does that play a role now?

Hippler: The Taliban weren't the only fundamentalists; many of those in today's Northern Alliance and the old mujaheddin were fundamentalists as well. There were various fundamentalist ideologies. You have to be careful when using words such fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist to distinguish between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance.

The Taliban seem to be gaining ground again.

Hippler: There is a trend – but it is not due so much to religious re-orientation as to dissatisfaction with the political situation. It is a reaction to the slow pace of reconstruction, the strength of the Tajiks in the government in Kabul or the tough occupation policy of the US military. But it also has to do with the fact that the Taliban's brutal and rather Neanderthal interpretation of Islam did not have the same impact in rural areas as it had in the towns, where there is a modern middle class.

Ten to 15 years ago, you could walk through Kabul as a European and be smiled at by Afghan women in high-heeled shoes. And people naturally listened to music. In the villages of central and southern Afghanistan, on the other hand, Taliban rule had a fairly limited impact on lifestyle. The Taliban were welcomed by many rural communities because they put an end to banditry and war; their reactionary political programme didn't really make much difference to people's lives.

After living with the constant threat of arbitrary violence, many people in Afghanistan presumably see stable government as a high priority. The Taliban were able to guarantee stability. What is the situation now?

Hippler: The situation differs considerably from one province to another, even from one valley to another. People in some areas are quite content with the warlord that rules over them because he is improving public facilities and infrastructures. In the south and south-east, however, the situation is still very strained. In many places it is not even clear who is in power. At the end, the Taliban had 95 percent of the country under their control. Now it's fragmented.

If that's the case, is the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan a good basis for a new start?

Hippler: What you are asking, I think, is really two different questions. First, does the constitution have strengths and weaknesses? Secondly – and this is probably the more urgent question – can any constitution for Afghanistan at present have any prospect of success? On that score I'm sceptical because the whole point of a constitution is to regulate government action and define the relationship between state and society. In some parts of Afghanistan, however, we still have a situation where governmental structures are not in place at all or present only in a rudimentary sense.

So when could the constitution become effective?

Hippler: When we talk about creating a functioning state apparatus in Afghanistan, the first key issue we need to address is the question of power. Matters of law come second. The issue of power is important because in most provinces regional warlords, backed by ethnic groups and other local constellations, are preventing the Kabul government from performing government functions. This is particularly true outside the big cities. Until these warlords – some of whom can even be described as war racketeers – are removed from power and politically marginalised, it will not be possible to create an Afghan national government.

What it boils down to is: Who's got the cannons? Who holds the purse strings? Certain figures need to be divested of power. And the international community is rightly wary about doing so because these warlords are naturally not going to hand over power without a fight. But creating new structures through elections and a constitution without tackling that problem first means skating on very thin ice.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan describes the security situation and UN experts doubt that elections can be held in Afghanistan this year at all.

Hippler: Their doubts are legitimate. Who is going to run for office? How can a Pashtun stand for election in a Tajik area, or vice versa? The idea of creating party structures and drawing up electoral rolls is pretty much wishful thinking at present.

Is there any prospect of the constitutional process helping to disarm the warlords and strip them of legitimacy within the fairly near future?

Hippler: It's certainly important to try and do that but I doubt whether the constitution will affect their legitimacy. At the moment, all signs indicate that the legitimacy of local rulers very much depends on practical things. Warlords get local media to present them as the ones who open schools, build roads, repair bridges.

Whether the Kabul government puts up the money or not, it is not perceived as an actor. It has no local presence – or its presence resides in the very warlord who takes the credit. In such cases, legitimacy in the eyes of the public is defined not by process but by perceived performance, which may not be the same as actual performance.

How do you rate the content of the constitution?

Hippler: If I picked it up and judged it outside the context of Afghanistan, I'd say it contained more positives than negatives. One thing I find remarkable, for example, is that women's rights are upheld more vigorously in the constitution than anticipated. Women are even guaranteed at least a quarter of the seats in parliament. This is something certainly not achieved by a lot of parliaments in Europe. Sadly, though, it probably doesn't make much difference what the constitution has to say about women's rights.

Does that normative judgement extend to the whole constitution?

Hippler: Other provisions are more complicated – like the question of the strong position of the president. This is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, of course, it will be important for creating an effective government. If a government is divided and the fragmented ethnic make-up of Afghan society is reflected in proportional systems within the apparatus of state, the government will be weakened automatically.

Conversely, however, if the country has a very strong president who belongs to a particular group – like the Pashtun Hamid Karzai – there is a very great risk of setting other ethnic groups against him. And that in turn will weaken the foundations of the constitution. Why should Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others accept the authority of a government, which they consider to be a Pashtun government?

You once wrote that one of the salient features concerning the balance of power in Afghanistan is an opportunist mercenary mentality. Does that mean the various warlords today are going to go along with the constitutional process as long as they see a prospect of profit for themselves?

Hippler: That is the key mechanism. What we are witnessing at the moment is an attempt by the international community to pump money and support into Afghanistan and thus keep bribing local rulers until structures are created which they cannot ignore. Warlords are being given government posts in the hope that they will not rebel against a government in which they themselves take part.

Money is pumped in and they are allowed to steal two thirds of to make sure that they have no incentive to oppose the ongoing process. At some point, the international community will decide to stop sending money to Afghanistan. But then there will hopefully be structures and bureaucracies in place which are strong enough to withstand any storms after the bribe money for the warlords runs out.

During the last few decades, a war and drug economy has become established in Afghanistan. What impact will it have on the constitution, the elections and the peace process?

Hippler: It will slow things down. Drug production offers warlords a private source of income, which reduces their dependence on money from Kabul. So they don't have to accept everything that is decided in the capital. In addition, local communities are dependent on the war economy. The militias are the biggest employers.

Even so, the constitution can help the country make a positive new start, can't it?

Hippler: Yes, it can. If the warlords can be marginalised, bought and eventually tamed, this constitution could play a very important role at a later date. But if the venture fails because the international community gets fed up with allowing itself to be robbed and working with criminals – some of them responsible for genocidal massacres – the process will collapse no matter how good the constitution may be.

How much depends on Karzai personally? Is he the key player or is he – as satirists claim – merely the mayor of Kabul?

Hippler: Karzai is certainly a key figure because he is in a position to organise Western support. Without him, or someone like him who is deemed to have clean hands and speaks good English, aid would not be forthcoming at such a rate. On the other hand, he falls between two chairs. The Tajiks don't like him because he is a Pashtun and a lot of Pashtuns don't like him because they reckon he is a Tajik stooge. Nor does he have his own power base like the warlords. He depends on Western support.

Is there a realistic alternative to trying to set up a central government with Karzai?

Hippler: There are basically only two options. The first is to try and impose a government on the country from outside. That is something that has never succeeded in Afghanistan in the past. The British didn't manage it, nor did the Soviets. But it is an option worth trying; failure is not inevitable. And with Karzai it is worth trying. The alternative is to stay out of Afghanistan altogether.

Looking back a quarter of a century, if big foreign powers had not meddled in Afghanistan, there would not have been so much bloodshed and devastation. If a hands-off approach were adopted now, there'd be a couple of years' more of war and then someone or another would gain control. That is a cynical way of creating stability. Unfortunately, both options are fairly unappealing. But contrary to what we tend to think in Europe, not every problem can be solved.

After September 11, 2001, staying out of Afghanistan ceased to be an option. In US eyes, the chaotic state of the country made it a direct threat.

Hippler: In that sense, any failed or failing state has that potential. What about Somalia, the Congo and other countries? It is presumptuous to think that intervention and nation-building is possible in all those instances. That would be too much even for the United States. Some people in Washington even put Lebanon in that category. Do they think troops can be sent in to establish order everywhere? The idea borders on hubris.

Questions by Norbert Glaser

Dr Jochen Hippler is temporary professor of international relations
at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

This article originally appeared in Development and Cooperation 05/2004