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Afghan intimidation

THE PROSPECT of a presidential election in Afghanistan on Oct. 9 has provoked a surge of Taliban attacks, primarily in the provinces near the border with Pakistan. The most ominous threat to security, democracy, and rule of law comes not from Taliban remnants but from the warlords and armed factions that rule most regions of the country as their private fiefdoms.

One nasty irony of the coming election was disclosed this week when the United Nations undersecretary general for peacekeeping said warlords and local leaders "have been requested to both provide security and work with local councils to ensure that those attempting to disrupt the process are deterred."

That official, Jean-Marie Guehenno, was probably right to say that expected incidents of voter intimidation "will not be such that they damage the credibility of the elections." And he was merely being realistic when he added: "A perfect exercise, certainly not. An honest and credible one? Very likely so." Nevertheless, the staging of a presidential election, even if it results in a popular mandate for the moderate Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, must not be mistaken for a sign that conditions have been created to build a pluralist democracy. The opposite is true. The Afghans most able and eager to enact the values of free debate, political organizing, and press criticism to hold the powerful accountable are being intimidated, discouraged, or silenced by warlords and their proxies.

This is the sobering picture drawn by a recent Human Rights Watch report on political repression in Afghanistan aptly titled "The Rule of the Gun." Reflecting what Afghans and human rights workers have been warning about, the report describes patterns of mafia-like power exercised nearly everywhere outside Kabul, the capital. In most other areas, to criticize one of the strongmen who run military factions is to court death threats. Women in particular are threatened or attacked for trying to promote their rights.

So pervasive and overt is the intimidation that on Sept. 22 a tribal official in one province felt free to announce on the radio: "All Terezai tribespeople should vote for Hamid Karzai. . . . if any Terezai people vote for other candidates, the tribe will burn their houses."

There is no basis for President Bush to claim that Afghanistan is approaching true democracy. Before that can happen -- and before April's parliamentary elections -- the United States must cease collaborating with abusive, gangster-like warlords and instead defend human rights and the rule of law. 

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