Afghans missing Taliban justice

Weary citizens blame Karzai government as violence unrelated to insurgency surges in the absence of jobs and fear of punishment.

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the site of an incident in Kabul November 3, 2008. Gunmen kidnapped a French aid worker in the Afghan capital on Monday and shot dead an Afghan driver for the national intelligence agency who tried to stop the abduction, a senior police officer said. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani (AFGHANISTAN)
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KABUL // Abdul Sabor is scared of talking to a foreigner about what he went through in the summer. The armed men who assaulted him and stole his money might be watching. "One of my friends was robbed and killed in his house," he said. "From the first years of [President Hamid] Karzai, we can see the situation has gotten worse year by year."

Suicide bombings grab the world's attention, but here in Afghanistan's capital crime is the real threat to everyday life. Killings, kidnappings for ransom and robberies are all a bigger problem than insurgent activity. Mr Sabor was targeted because, as a money-changer, he always used to carry large amounts of cash home with him. That September evening he had the equivalent of Dh15,000 and his attackers took it all.

"We blame the government. There are no jobs for the people and that's why they are doing these crimes," he said. Although the insurgents are not behind this kind of violence, it is still becoming a very real threat to Mr Karzai's rule. Today, nostalgia for the Taliban's method of justice is widespread simply because it is associated with an era of good security. The former regime's hardline interpretation of sharia meant murderers were shot and thieves had their hands amputated in public ceremonies at the football stadium.

Even with a growing number of police and military checkpoints in Kabul, criminals appear to act with virtual impunity. This city, a western security analyst said, is effectively run by the mafia. Unnerved at the discontent that has resulted, Mr Karzai has vowed to act. About 120 convicts are on death row and this month seven were executed - the first killings in a year. Local English-language newspapers have praised the president's tougher stance. An editorial in The Kabul Times said: "If a kidnapper sees that [he] will be hanged he would never keep an innocent countryman in a dark, cold well." The Afghanistan Times said human rights organisations must understand that "harsh penalties" are needed.

Abdul Wahid, a butcher, echoed this sentiment when he fondly remembered how criminals used to be dealt with. "We liked the Taliban because they were very strict. If they caught a robber, they cut his hand off. Under this regime, if someone is a murderer he is arrested and put in jail through one door, then he will pay money and be allowed to leave from another door." Kidnappings among Afghans in Kabul have been common for a few years now. The victims range from children to businessmen and political figures. One of the only people who seems to believe security is fine in Kabul is Ali Shah Paktiawal, the top investigator of criminal cases here. In a manner that can be politely termed as brusque, he was quick to dismiss the concerns of residents.

Wearing a woolly hat to hide the wounds from a bombing he narrowly survived during Ramadan, he said: "Everything is OK." Most Afghans would beg to differ. Indeed, the police and militia commanders linked to powerful officials are often accused of being responsible for much of the crime. Noor Mohammed, a taxi driver, said: "The government can do nothing; they don't have control. They brought in all these warlords and gave them positions, but ordinary people who have handed in their guns are just selling potatoes in the street." In provinces across southern and eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban have set up their own justice system. Villagers turn to the insurgents, not the government, to solve everything from land disputes to criminal matters. The verdicts are delivered quickly and those found guilty are punished. In the capital, even simple jobs now carry grave risks.

"During the day, it's OK for taxi drivers," Mr Mohammed said. "But whenever it gets a little bit dark they cannot go anywhere because there are lots of people who are trying to kill them, kidnap them or take their cars and money." Mr Mohammed said he supports capital punishment. "It's not the Taliban's law, it's the Quran's law." Now, with his regime hanging by a thread and presidential elections due next year, Mr Karzai is starting to agree.

Last week he said those responsible for an acid attack on schoolgirls in the southern province of Kandahar could be publicly executed.