The first thing I noticed when I walked into Jawed Kohistani's office was the gun in his hand.
It wasn't the weapon itself that surprised me, but its size. Traveling in Afghanistan, I became used to the sight of Kalishnikovs and weapons mounted on the tanks of the International Security Assistance Force, a NATO-led peacekeeping contingent that regularly moves through Kabul. During the constitutional loya jirga, some Afghan National Army soldiers patrolled the city with rocket-propelled grenade launchers slung over their shoulders.
Kohistani, president of the Freedom and Democracy Movement,
a new political party, seemed embarrassed as I eyed the small
pistol in a questioning way.
Jawed Kohistani, president of the Freedom and Democracy Movement, in his office during an interview with FRONTLINE/World Fellow Roya Aziz. He carries a gun, which is sitting on the table in front of him, for self-protection.
"I was threatened a few days ago by another political party
leader," he explained after putting the gun on a table between
us. "My friend gave this to me, just in case."
The other political party leader is a former general and powerful figure that Kohistani's party denounced in a press release for alleged war crimes. Kohistani is not the only one who worries about his personal safety. Another politician I interviewed, National Unity Movement president Abdul Hakim Nurzai, sleeps with an AK-47 next to his bed.
"The presidential elections will show that the gun no longer has the first word," Kohistani said. "Politics and dialogue will take its place."
The new parties are pinning their hopes on parliamentary and
local elections slated for spring 2005 -- a bigger democratic
test than the presidential elections, many people told me. But
the unchecked power of armed regional commanders continues to
undermine basic security and human rights, as well as political
The flag of the newly formed Republican Party of Afghanistan waves outside the party's headquarters in Kabul.
More than 60,000 militiamen operate under the control of factional leaders. The most powerful ones are called jangsalaran, or warlords. The U.S.-trained Afghan National Army, by contrast, has 14,000 soldiers.
A political parties law prohibits parties from having armed wings, but Human Rights Watch and other observers warn that some of the most powerful groups are proxies of various military factions. The Freedom and Democracy Movement is not affiliated with a militia, and it's these independent parties and dissident politicians who have been threatened to stay out of politics.
Afghan politicians and human rights advocates fear that if militias are not disarmed, Afghanistan could have a Parliament of warlords.
Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, an organization that bills itself as the only independent research organization headquartered in Afghanistan, argues that the international community has focused too much on election logistics and not enough on the substantive aspects of democracy, such as the development of political parties.
"I'm worried if we have parliamentary elections before disarmament,
the commanders and warlords and their candidates -- the old
faces -- will be able to win through force and intimidation
and will be legitimized by the elections," Wilder said. "I think
if your average Afghan could vote freely, fairly and secretly,
they would vote for political change, not for the status quo."
Thousands of small pamphlets about the National Unity Movement, one of 40 registered political parties in Afghanistan, sit in the home of the party's president, Abdul Hakim Nurzai.
Countrywide surveys are limited, but the few that exist -- like one conducted by Afghan journalists at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting -- show that security tops people's list of concerns. According to the survey, "in most regions, people live in fear of local commanders who kill, steal water and land, and demand money." Roughly 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas where militias hold the most sway.
Politicians like Kohistani face another big obstacle -- trying to win popular support in a country suspicious of political parties.
The new constitution sanctions the formation of political parties for the first time in Afghan history. By September 2004, about 40 diverse groups were approved as official parties by the Ministry of Justice, and 30 more had applications in progress. Most of them are new, but the member lists of some parties include familiar names.
In the recent past, Afghans have known only two types of parties:
factions of the Marxist-Leninist People's Democratic Party of
Afghanistan and various armed Mujahidin parties whose leaders
destroyed parts of Kabul in a four-year civil war, killing thousands
of civilians. Jailings, murder and torture have made Afghans
bitter towards factional politics.
The presidential election ballot included photos of each candidate because many Afghans are illiterate.
Like a majority of the new parties, the Freedom and Democracy Movement officially stands for democracy, gender equality and national unity, and claims to have wide support from a cross-section of Afghan society. Parties in Afghanistan are prohibited from having ethnic agendas, but many of them draw support from traditional bases centered around ethnic, tribal or regional loyalties.
The Freedom and Democracy Movement, formed in 2000, ultimately wants a secular government in Afghanistan. For now, Kohistani's party is concentrating on fielding parliamentary candidates, especially women, and on lobbying to have suspected war criminals sent to a court of justice.
"I've spent most of my life in jail," said Kohistani, who plans to run for Parliament himself. "I have been tortured. Most of our intellectuals were killed. Now I want to fight for the rule of law."
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