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Crimes of politics

Many members of Afghanistan's parliament are alleged war criminals. But the nation isn't ready to try them.

February 22, 2007

HOW DOES A government prosecute people for crimes against humanity when the suspects happen to be running the government? That's the question facing Afghanistan, where men suspected of horrifying acts of rape and murder sit in parliament and hold other high offices.

The question of what to do about these suspected mass killers heated up Tuesday when the upper house of Afghanistan's parliament passed a resolution calling for amnesty for those accused of war crimes. The same resolution has already passed in the lower house and will become law if approved by President Hamid Karzai. Its success is unsurprising because many of those voting on the resolutions were previously regional warlords who might otherwise be subject to prosecution.

Following the Soviet pullout in 1989, Afghanistan was torn by years of civil war, during which warlords who had fought in the resistance movement began battling each other -- and committing atrocities against civilian populations. Then, in 1996, the Taliban came to power, and it ruled until the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. At the time, the United States found these disaffected warlords to be convenient allies, but now they're creating some serious governance headaches.

The ideal solution for Afghanistan would be to create a body similar to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which, starting in 1996, helped heal the wounds left by decades of apartheid rule. Those who committed human rights abuses were granted amnesty if they publicly testified about their crimes. Yet South Africa, unlike Afghanistan, didn't have to contend with entrenched politicians who control large swaths of territory with armed militias. It also had the capacity to prosecute those who refused to step forward, while Afghan courts are a work in progress.

Nonetheless, the parliament's amnesty resolution is a step backward. It's hard for the Afghan people to have much faith in their government when many remember all too well the campaigns of terror waged by some of their current leaders. Where the government has no credibility, the rule of law doesn't hold sway.

So if court trials are an impossibility, reconciliation is impractical and amnesty is self-destructive, what's left? For now at least, the status quo. Karzai's best course would be to reject the amnesty law until the country is ready to face the horrors of its recent past. The international community, especially NATO, should be doing more to help Afghanistan build the institutions and civil society necessary for it to do so.

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