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Former Warlords Defend Right to Participate in Afghanistan Elections

In Afghanistan, Sunday's elections for parliament and provincial councils are being hailed as historic. But the electoral process, organized with the help of the United Nations, has drawn criticism for organizers' decision not to ban warlords from the candidate list.

Haji Mohammed Muhaqiq left university in 1980 to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Even after the Soviet withdrawal, he continued fighting other Afghan factions, gaining a reputation and territory near the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

After more than two decades on the battlefield, he is not sure he wants to be called a warlord.

"If someone is fighting to defend his homeland, and you call him a warlord, that is OK, he says, "But not if it has another meaning."

Afghanistan is emerging from nearly a quarter century of conflict, marked by the division of the country into separate fiefdoms, ruled by powerful local warlords.

Now, observers fear that, perhaps, dozens of former warlords or their proxies may be among the 5,800 candidates running for seats in Afghanistan's new, 249-member parliament, or for slots in local councils in each of the country's 34 provinces. They worry that the electoral process will simply legitimize leaders with blood on their hands, setting a poor precedent for legal accountability in a country trying to establish rule of law.

Some also fear having warlords in government could undermine the process of democratization in Afghanistan, if candidates use intimidation or other strong-arm tactics to win votes, or deal with their constituencies.

Candidate Sayed Mustafa Kazami says, it is true that most former warlords and abusers of human rights in the previous regimes are now trying to change their image to that of simple politicians. He insists he never took up a weapon, although he is known as a former warlord to some.

Mr. Kazami warns, with so many candidates running, it is possible that some may fall back on 'rule by force' when they find that they have lost out in the elections.

He says, it all depends on whether the Cabinet and parliament organize themselves well after the election. If they work together well, then there should not be any violence, he says.

Under Afghanistan's electoral law, it is illegal for anyone with links to illegal armed groups to be on the ballot. So far, 21 candidates have been disqualified following complaints to the electoral commission.

At least four former members of the Taleban regime are also running for seats.

They are permitted to run under Afghan law, provided they did not commit human rights abuses.

US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann says the issue is not really one for the international community to worry about.

"The real responsibility for this is with the Afghan people," said Ambassador Neumann. "They have the ability to go vote for somebody else. The reason the ballots are being counted in the districts, and not in the local polling places, is so that a local warlord will not, and cannot, know how a given village, or a given community voted. I think that, with that safety, people should vote what they think. If you get warlords in the parliament, it will be because the Afghan people put them there."

There may be other reasons to be hopeful that democracy will take a firm hold in Afghanistan. Both Mr. Muhaqiq and Mr. Kazami say they would be in favor of holding a human rights tribunal in Afghanistan to try former warlords, if parliament agrees to it.