New Justice, No Peace

By Richard May, a former captain with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, is a fellow at the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 05/03/07):

LATE last month some 25,000 people held a rally in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Were they calling for more aid? Were they rallying to demand military action against the Taliban? No, they were urging President Hamid Karzai to sign a law providing legal amnesty for actions committed during the civil war that raged in Afghanistan during and after the Soviet occupation.

While the law has passed both houses of Afghanistan’s Parliament, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and several humanitarian groups have argued against it on the grounds that it eliminates any possibility for justice for the people killed, tortured and raped during that awful period. Some have made subtle threatens, saying that should Mr. Karzai sign the law, he might have a harder time getting international aid. I understand such humanitarian feelings and the calls for justice, but President Karzai should sign the law — for four good reasons.

First, while most international groups feel that the law is simply about absolving the most violent warlords, the fact is that almost all Afghans have blood on their hands. In a country that has been enmeshed in war for more than 25 years it is hard to find people who have not taken up arms at some point in their lives. Children drafted into militias and farmers who armed themselves to protect their homes could easily be called “soldiers” of the warlords at some point and face charges.

Second, political participation like the pro-amnesty rally is a good sign for the future. While many saw it as an effort to forgive warlords, I saw something much better: progress through participation. When the people of a country that has experienced only war and tyranny for 25 years feel free to go to the streets to have their voices heard, democracy is working.

It is worth noting that not a single person was hurt during this rally — not one police officer or soldier or marcher. Whatever the views of the crowd, they demonstrated their position through a nonviolent method — a tremendous advance in recent Afghan history. And, while the global humanitarian groups want to resolve the past, the rally showed that many of the survivors of those dark years want nothing more than to put it behind them and rebuild their country democratically.

Third, the rejection of the amnesty law could easily turn the people against the government and the coalition forces that operate in Afghanistan. Should Mr. Karzai refuse to sign, it would convince many Afghans that their government is more interested in the views of the international community than that of its own people.

Fourth, calls for justice tend to ignore the reality of the civil war. When Westerners hear the term “warlord” they think of tyrannical criminals who are self-serving instruments of death. But in Afghanistan things are more complex. Most warlords came to power protecting their families, clans and land from Soviet troops. The members of the militias the warlords commanded were cousins, sons and neighbors. The warlords were, and in many cases still are, closer to the people than the Kabul government has ever been. By negating the amnesty law, Mr. Karzai would effectively shun a large segment of the population and potentially turn it toward the Taliban.

The fragile government in Kabul cannot focus on dividing its country over past acts. It must look to the future with a vision that accepts all elements of its society. President Karzai should err on the side of unity and act not for the future of his government, but for the future of Afghanistan.