Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Loya Jirga Delegates Facing Intimidation

Herat's local power baron is locking up potential opponents in the run-up to the grand assembly.
By Rahimullah Samander

Will Ismail Khan, the long-time strongman in the key western province of Herat, participate in the imminent Loya Jirga process or try to wreck it?

That's a question that many here are asking. Concerns have been fuelled by the hard line that his men have taken with opposition delegates who have been elected in a two-phase process to attend the Loya Jirga, the grand assembly planned for June 10-16. The body is charged with setting up a transitional government ahead of nationwide elections in 18 months.

Several local candidates have been arrested in Herat, including Mohammad Rafiq Shaeed, chair of Herat's business council, and Mullah Mohammad Malik Khan Alizai, a religious leader in the provincial border town of Toreghundai.

Challenged to justify the arrests, Ziauddin Mahmoodi, the province's security chief, rejected criticism as "rumours from our enemies and al-Qaida. They only want to disgrace us. We have jailed only those who create problems and help terrorism".

But the United Nations has condemned the intimidation that has resulted in at least six Herat delegates resigning their grand assembly places within days of their election. The Loya Jirga Commission, supervising the voting, has been forced to repeat, or invalidate, several first-stage elections in districts where vote-rigging or intimidation was suspected.

The region's ethnic Pashtun minority has accused the commission of bowing to Khan, by refusing to increase the number of jirga representatives in districts where their community is large enough to win seats that they could not hope to secure elsewhere in Herat.

The province is alive with speculation, meanwhile, that Khan

has reached a deal with the interim authority and with the titular

head of the grand assembly, former king Zahir Shah, guaranteeing his continued authority over Herat after June 16, in return for his cooperation and participation in the event.

The once popular Khan has seen his support fall in the months since the defeat of the fundamentalist Taleban militia. He is said to be raking in millions of US dollars each week from the road tolls that his soldiers impose on the tens of thousands of truckloads of imported goods and commodities that come over the Iranian border into Herat. Khan is increasingly criticised for his failure to improve both public services and the local economy.

Then there are old disputes, dating back to the 1991 civil war that followed the collapse of the old communist regime, when Khan's troops battled the ethnic Pashtun Hezb-e-Islami forces led by the former prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Khan's forces also battled the Pashtun Taleban when they took over most of the country in 1996. He regards the former king and the present interim authority president, Hamid Karzai, both Pashtuns, with great suspicion. This has exacerbated his problems with Herat's Pashtun minority.

"The Herat authorities capture our leaders to frighten us," a Pashtun resident of the Kushk district said. "They say we are Zahir Shah's friends and that all Pashtuns are Taleban. They don't want our leaders elected because they are afraid votes will go to the king."

Pashtuns boycotted some phase-one elections after disputing the allocation of seats between the ethnic communities. In the district of Gulran, Pashtuns were allocated three of the 19 local seats for the second phase, though they say they make up 50 per cent of the area's population.

Population counts in the ethnically divided nation have become

propaganda tools. Owing to the sudden influx of returning refugees, the imprecise figures about nomadic communities and the lack of any systematic local government under the Taleban, no one has reliable data on which to base the election system.

In Gulran, the authorities relied on a recent vaccination programme for their figures, a local Pashtun named Haji Ahmed Shah said. He dismissed this information as "faulty", adding, "We have boycotted the election and will never take part in it."

There were even sharper disputes in Shendand district, where the brother of the local Hezb-e-Islami military leader, Commander Amanullah, was jailed along with the then favourite to win the district Jirga elections, Ghullam Farooq.

Jan Malakzada, the UN coordinator for voting in western Afghanistan, said the arrests had deterred many people from going to the provincial capital for the second phase of the elections. "They would say, 'If we go, he (Khan) will catch us, too'," he said.

Rahimullah Samander is a freelance journalist.

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