General Dostum ‘apologized’ on TV today for the ‘negative consequences’ of his ‘politics’ on the people of Afghanistan. He was referring to the tens of thousands of innocent civilians killed and injured during the civil war years in the early 1990s. Ask any victim – or their families if the victims didn’t survive – and they would tell you these were more than just ‘negative consequences’ of ‘politics.’ But this is the first time that a civil war actor has supposedly apologized to the victims, and the government must build upon the momentum this apology can create.
Dostum has been trying for a while to shed his image of a strongman who is often ruthless in his violence; he seems to have intensified those efforts now that he is officially in the race to become Afghanistan’s vice president. If we disregard his electoral motivations, his statement is a pioneering act of humility in a country where the perpetrators, emboldened by coddling from the government and the international community, passed a law in 2007 granting themselves legal immunity for past crimes.
But General Dostum’s call for such actors to also apologize to the people of Afghanistan is an opportunity to remind these actors that decades of atrocities cannot be wiped in a single TV apology, that true justice necessitates including the victim’s point of view, that nobody can ‘pardon’ a perpetrator but the victims. General Dostum has also given the government a good reminder to restart the justice efforts that it abandoned due to political expediency promptly after adopting the transitional justice action plan in 2006.
The government has long argued that holding the bad guys accountable will cause too much instability, so its strategy has been to bring them to power rather than to justice. But this house-of-cards argument is collapsing because over the last five to eight years, the more the government has coddled the bad guys, the worse the violence has gotten. Some journalists and the Independent Human Rights Commission’s field staff refer to perpetrators of this violence as “irresponsible armed groups” to distinguish them from the Taliban and other anti-government fighters. In many cases these irresponsible armed groups are connected with someone in power in the government through a network of patronage politics that stretches to the corridors of government in Kabul. It’s a trickle-down effect: you ignore the big guy in the capital and he starts to feel untouchable, so his minions in the provinces – where the government’s writ is thin anyway – feel covered and therefore completely immune.
Part of the government’s reasoning for this approach is that if you bring these people to justice, the shockwaves will cause the government to collapse altogether. But this reasoning is wrong. It is based on a premise that justice must be punitive (it doesn’t have to), that justice and stability are mutually exclusive (they are not). Justice in societies like Afghanistan that are transitioning from one form of governance to another doesn’t have to — in fact, should not — be punitive. Restorative justice that emphasizes on including the victim’s voice and having the perpetrators accept their mistakes is more effective than punishing, excluding and banishing the perpetrators. For large-scale crimes involving multiple perpetrators and multiple thousands of victims, only a truly national and inclusive process can heal old wounds and prepare the ground for post-conflict nation- and state-building. Ignoring grievances is not a strategy but a tactic that always backfires in the long run, and we are already seeing the consequences of such neglect.
It is time for a democratic government to heed the aspirations of the people of Afghanistan to finally focus on justice rather than delaying, side-stepping and ignoring it. It is time for the government to finally prioritize justice as a strategy to promote long-term stability, cohesion and a sense of nationhood as opposed to treating justice as a threat to stability.
The crimes of the last three decades have been large-scale and deliberate; the efforts necessary to address them must also be truly national and seriously pursued. The general’s apology is a commendable act of humility and courage, but it should be only the beginning.
Note: I have expressed a lot of views in this post. The views are all strictly personal and do not represent the views of my employers, current or former.