While NATO's new campaign against the Taleban dominates the news from Afghanistan, a more important political crisis brewing in Kabul is overlooked.
Thanks to Pakistan's opportunistic support and more than a nod and a wink from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Taleban may be able to continue making mischief in Helmand and a couple of other provinces for months, if not years.
What is certain, however, is that their historic moment has come and gone. However, that does not mean that Afghanistan's fragile democracy does not face other threats.
The most urgent threat to this new democracy is popular disillusionment. Billions of dollars worth of foreign aid has been poured into Afghanistan since 2002 with mixed results. The number of children attending school has increased fourfold, and more than tenfold for girls. Some 4000 kilometers of new roads have been built along with hundreds of rural clinics and community service centers.
Nevertheless, the average Afghan still feels largely unaffected by development projects. Unemployment remains at a staggering 40 percent, and at least half the population survive on less than $2 a day. Worse still, the injection of massive foreign aid has generated corruption never before imagined in Afghanistan.
Much of this is caused by foreign companies and aid donors that are often accountable to no one. A Western so-called expert may end up getting a million dollars for producing 10 pages of banalities, presented as "technical advice" on a mythical project. Afghanistan has become an Eldorado for Western consultants, lawyers, middlemen, fixers, influence peddlers and other parasites in $5000 suits.
If that was not enough to give democracy a bad name, the Afghans also have to face the often hypocritical reprobation from Western governments and NGOs on the theme of human rights.
The issue that may bring Afghan frustrations to a head concerns a law passed by both houses of the Afghan Parliament last month. This is an amnesty law inspired by the South African truth and reconciliation process. It envisages a closure of the painful 30 years that preceded the overthrow of the Taleban in 2002.
However, several Western governments, a number of Western NGOs, and the United Nations' High Commission for Human Rights have launched a campaign to prevent the amnesty.
So far they have succeeded by persuading President Hamid Karzai not to sign the act of Parliament, effectively preventing it from becoming law.
The argument of the opponents of the amnesty is deceptively simple: The new law would allow "the warlords" to escape justice for their misdeeds under Soviet occupation and during the civil war that followed the fall of the Communist regime in Kabul in 1992.
Last month some 30,000 people demonstrated in Kabul, demanding that Karzai sign the act immediately. There is much anecdotal evidence that a majority of Afghans support their Parliament's decision to call an amnesty. But who are the "warlords"?
To Western do-gooders and the UN, the term "warlord" evokes mass-killers modeled on Fumanchu, with blood dripping from their fingernails.
Afghans, however, do not recognize that definition and see the men who led them during the anti-Communist struggle and in the subsequent civil war either as national heroes or, in the very least, as imperfect human beings who had to deal with the hand dealt them by history.
If we adopt the do-gooders' definition, President Karzai himself is a "warlord", albeit one who played a cameo role in the Afghan tragedy. The speakers of both houses of Parliament are also former "warlords" as are several members of the Karzai council of ministers. More broadly, millions of Afghans may be said to have blood on their hands, if only because they stayed and fought for some three decades. It would not be easy to try a few so-called "warlords" without implicating large numbers of their respective ethnic and religious communities.
In any case, Afghanistan does not have the means to investigate, prosecute and try tens of thousands of so-called "warlords". The country's Prosecutor General Abdul-Jabbar Sabet has just revealed that Afghan prisons are filled with "tens of thousands" of people who have either never been charged or have already completed their sentences but cannot be released for lack of legal tools. The western city of Heart alone holds over 2000 "prisoners who shouldn't be in prison", according to Sabet.
For some inexplicable reason, Italy has been assigned the task of building the new system of policing and justice in Afghanistan. And the results are catastrophic. Fewer than 10 percent of the jurists and judges required under a NATO plan have been trained and deployed while most parts of the country are not even covered by any court of law. Under these circumstances, dealing with the cases of those already in prison could take up to a century or so.
There really is no need to keep a legal sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of millions of Afghans who could be labeled "warlords" and prosecuted in a mythical future. The only effect of the current ambiguity is to keep alive hopes of revenge, to encourage denunciation, and to destabilize the lives of countless individuals who seek closure.
Karzai should sign the amnesty bill into law and embark on a campaign of explanation aimed at the public in the West. It is not right for Western powers to blackmail Karzai by hinting that aid might be cut if he signs the bill.
The large majority that supported the amnesty in both houses of Parliament indicates the desire of the Afghan people not to let the past divide them. The amnesty is supported by all shades of opinion — from the former Communists, now sitting in the Parliament, to former radial Islamists, to nationalists and ethnicists. Most Afghans now look to the future ad try to emphasize their Afghan-ness, as opposed to ethnic and religious sectarianism. And this is precisely the foundation that Afghanistan needs to build a new sense of nationality and statehood. To divide the Afghans based on what they did in the past is a typically tribal attitude, more suitable to the Taleban than to a democratic regime.
There are times when a nation decides to let history be the judge of what its children did. Afghanistan had made that choice. Karzai should endorse it.