Friday, September 24, 2004

Armed with chutzpah and the determination to “heal Afghanistan,” Masooda Jalal is taking on the might of Afghan warlords in the Oct. 9 presidential elections.

“The people of Afghanistan are fed up with constant wars and want a fresh start,” the lone female candidate told The Washington Times in a phone interview from her home in Kabul.

Her voice rising with passion and a need to be heard over a crackling phone line, the pediatrician-turned-politician said what sets her apart from her opponents is that “I don’t have blood on my hands, I haven’t destroyed any cities.”

A Tajik, Dr. Jalal soared to prominence when she challenged Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, during the emergency Loya Jirga — a grand council of tribal elders — convened in mid-2002 to prevent a power vacuum. At the time, she turned down an offer by Mr. Karzai to be his deputy.

Politics, said the 42-year-old mother of three and former United Nations World Food Program worker, “is a continuation of my humanitarian, social and community services to the people of Afghanistan.”

With U.S. forces mired in the insurgency in Iraq, analysts say President Bush is eager to portray a foreign policy success before he faces voters on Nov. 2. With the harsh winter and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan drawing close, October is the obvious time to hold an election in Afghanistan.

Yet, to many, the country is not ready for its encounter with democracy.

Afghanistan’s diverse warlords, who fought a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, are by no means now easy allies, said John Sifton, New Delhi-based researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch.

“Political repression and military factionalism are still very much a problem, and comprise a very real threat to Afghanistan’s future — a bigger threat than the Taliban,” Mr. Sifton cautioned.

If unchecked, the continuing factionalism could spark a new civil conflict in Afghanistan, Mr. Sifton said, and put at risk all of the gains and opportunities presented by the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001.

The uncertain security situation has restricted the campaigns of the presidential candidates.

“There are candidates who cannot walk around Kabul without security guards,” said Dr. Jalal in a pointed reference to the American guards that swarm around Mr. Karzai on the few occasions that he ventures out of his fortresslike presidential office.

She said she finds it ironic that in a country in which there are numerous restrictions on women, she is the only candidate who can campaign freely. “I have been visiting the districts and travel around Kabul unhindered. [President Hamid] Karzai cannot leave his office in Kabul without his American protectors, so how can he connect with the people?” asked Dr. Jalal.

In September 2002, Mr. Karzai narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in the southern city of Kandahar. The attack was blamed on the Taliban.

Throughout provinces outside Kabul, political factions and remnants of past Afghan warlord armies are strengthening their grip on political power.

Faced with death threats, politically active Afghan leaders are opting out of the electoral process or toning down their activities. “In many areas, voters have been told by regional commanders how to vote, and will likely obey,” said Mr. Sifton.

Conditions for a free and fair election do not exist, he cautioned. However, Mr. Sifton added, problems with intimidation and threats do not signify that the presidential election will end in failure.

“There are few signs that the election will descend into interfactional violence,” he said.

“Afghanistan is not democratic,” said Dr. Jalal. “If the situation continues, it will give democracy a bad reputation. It will turn elections into a sham.” She is confident that “if the process were democratic and free from the interference of warlords and their money, I could say that I would triumph in the election.”

Asked how her administration would differ from the present government, Dr. Jalal said she would pick a team of “specialists and professionals who believe in democracy. Civil society will be in power.”

Realistically, however, Mr. Karzai is expected to buttress his position as the head of the country. More than the votes of Afghans, Mr. Karzai counts on support in Washington.

For his rivals, success will hinge on the size of their clans.

Yunus Qanuni, a prominent Tajik in the Northern Alliance, which helped U.S. forces overthrow the Taliban in 2001, has the backing of Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, who was dropped by Mr. Karzai as his running mate.

Another key contender, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek, stepped down in July as Mr. Karzai’s military adviser.

“One candidate is surrounding himself by big powers to stay president,” Dr. Jalal complained, referring to Washington’s support for Mr. Karzai. “How can we call the results of such an election democratic? How can we say it represents the will of the people?”

As a leader in the international effort in Afghanistan, the United States has led incoherently said Mr. Sifton.

“Broadly speaking, U.S. strategy over the last two years has been divided into two dominant efforts. First, vaguely defined military operations to kill or capture remnants of the Taliban and non-Afghan militant groups; and second, assistance to help strengthen the government of President Karzai and help to reconstruct the Afghan nation.

“In execution, these goals have often been at cross-purposes, and in many cases the means employed to reach the goals have been insufficient, inappropriate, or contradictory,” said the Human Rights Watch researcher on Afghanistan.

Pointing to instances in which U.S. personnel have supported warlords like Hazrat Ali in Jalalabad, Ismail Khan in Herat, and Gen. Fahim in Kabul, while Mr. Karzai attempted to rein them in, Mr. Sifton called this policy “self-defeating.”

“The time to address this emerging crisis is now, as the world’s eyes are on Afghanistan’s first election,” he said. “By the national elections in 2005, it will be too late to undertake the necessary changes to improve the county’s political situation. The U.S. and its allies need to clarify their strategy, redouble efforts to disarm the factions, build up a new army as well as police forces, and start supporting Mr. Karzai wholeheartedly.”

According to Eurasianet, an online political analysis organization, the Religious Order Department of Afghanistan’s Supreme Court has twice tried to declare Dr. Jalal’s candidacy “un-Islamic” and illegal.

Dr. Jalal said she is the first woman in 5,000 years of Afghanistan’s history to run for the highest office in the land. “It is not new to have women leaders in Islamic countries,” she said. In South Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh, both Islamic nations, have been led by female heads of state.

During the constitutional Loya Jirga last December, Afghanistan adopted a constitution that specifies the equality of men and women before the law and encourages women’s political participation by guaranteeing at least 25 percent female representation in the lower house of parliament.

“I’m not doing anything that breaks the law,” said Dr. Jalal.

“In practice, there is no such thing as equal treatment of women — especially outside Kabul,” said Erlien Wubs, gender adviser with the International Labor Organization in Kabul. But, she added: “The picture is not all black and white. … On the bright side, more and more girls go to school, and women are gaining access to education and training, health services, and to a certain extent, to income-generating activities. The position of women in Kabul has changed for the better.”

But these changes are restricted to Kabul.

In Herat, Miss Wubs said: “The number of suicides by women has increased dramatically. The main reason seems to be that in Herat, many women had expected that their lives would improve, but, due to the very conservative warlord in Herat, their hopes did not come true and they literally didn’t know what else to do.”

Dr. Jalal is mindful of the odds stacked against her. If nothing else, she said, her candidacy will give a boost to Afghan women.

“I am role model for them. As a woman, I am giving courage to the women of Afghanistan,” she said.

After a pause, she added: “I have to be strong.”

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