NEW YORK--The case of the Afghan man who faced execution for converting to Christianity illustrates the conundrum of "regime change."
OK, so your army has just rolled into a foreign capital. You can do whatever you want. However, if you interfere with the internal affairs of a liberated country, and you tell them what to do--you haven't liberated them at all. But if you can't change anything, what's the point?
From a column I wrote over four years ago upon my return from Afghanistan, in February of 2002: "Nothing has changed in Afghanistan, simply because there has been no meaningful attempt to de-Talibanize. Well-known figures like Mullah Omar may be in hiding, but today's Northern Alliance-dominated regime is almost entirely comprised of Taliban defectors. So while prime minister Hamid Karzai cuts a dashing figure with his green Tajik robe and impeccable English, the heavily-armed men ordinary Afghans come into contact with on the streets are merely gussied-up Talibs. Some liberation."
A couple of months earlier, Ahamat Ullha Zarif, a top Afghan judge for the new U.S.-backed government, explained the differences between the old and new justice systems. "The Taliban used to hang the victim's body in public for four days," he recalled. Not anymore. "We will only hang the body for a short time, say 15 minutes." Adulterers were stoned to death under the Taliban legal system, which was based on strict Sharia, or Islamic law. They still would be, Judge Zarif explained, "But we will use only small stones."
Supporters of the post-9/11 war against Afghanistan dismissed my worries that nothing would change as alarmist. "Exaggeration, inaccuracy and outright lies," neoconservative writer John Giuffo called them. In fact, they proved deadly accurate. At least two women have been stoned to death for adultery in one district alone. The following Reuters wire service story, confirmed by the BBC, came out in 2005: "According to eyewitnesses, the 29-year-old, named only as Amina, was dragged out of her parents' house in Urgu District, Badakhshan province by her husband and local officials before being publicly stoned to death. The man accused of committing adultery with her is alleged to have been whipped 100 times and freed."
Badakhshan, a stronghold of the American-backed Northern Alliance throughout the 1996-2001 civil war, is not under the control of some rogue warlord. It is run by the central government in Kabul, which is wholly owned and operated by you, the American taxpayer.
Afghanistan's top law-enforcement official is Abdul Rahim Karimi. As justice minister, he reports directly to Hamid Karzai, who was installed as president by the Bush Administration in December 2001. From the beginning, Karimi insisted that the Afghan version of Sharia--the same legal system that condemned thieves to amputation in front of jeering crowds in soccer stadiums--would remain in full force in the "new" Afghanistan. "People would not understand if we got rid of it," he said. So they didn't.
The Taliban didn't have a Constitution. They used Sharia, Islamic law interpreted directly from the Koran, instead. U.S.-occupied Afghanistan has a 2004 Constitution that includes a key sentence: "No law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam." There's more paperwork, but nothing new: Sharia is still the law of the land.
The man who faced death for apostasy was freed as a result of political pressure brought upon Karzai by his American masters. "For the sake of the national interest of 25 million Afghans, the president is trying to solve the [Abdul Rahman] issue," his spokesman said before arranging the Afghan Christian's exile in Italy. But the law hasn't changed. Sharia lives.
From the viewpoint of the citizens of the most religiously fundamentalist country in the Muslim world, caving in to interference by Western infidels, including the pope, is the ultimate humiliation. "Abdul Rahman must be killed. Islam demands it," said senior cleric Fayez Mohammed. "The Christian foreigners occupying Afghanistan are attacking our religion." It's a widely held view. Releasing and exiling Rahman will inspire outrage, since "an overwhelming number of ordinary Afghans appear to believe Mr. Rahman has erred and deserves to be executed," the BBC reports.
The neoconservative theorists who dreamed up America's regime change policy point to post-World War II Germany and Japan as successful precedents. But we didn't create democracy in Germany from scratch. Before Hitler, there was the vibrant Weimar republic; removing him from power merely restored the prewar system. Japan had no such tradition, and it shows: one-party rule has been the norm for decades. Liberation works best when you kick a foreign army out of a country that had liberal values before its occupation. Eisenhower didn't have to worry about stonings in France.
After it came into possession of Afghanistan, with its long history of justice based on brutality and vengeance, the U.S. faced a choice between the harsh totalitarian Soviet and the hands-off "we liberated you, it's all yours" approaches. The Soviets sent girls to school and university, banned the burqa and prohibited the enforcement of Sharia law. We chose laissez-faire liberation, and spread theocracy instead of democracy.
P.S. Article 2(1)(a) of Iraq's new U.S.-backed constitution reads: "No law may be passed that contradicts the immutable rulings of Islam."
Ted Rall is the editor of Attitude 3: The New Subversive Online Cartoonists, an anthology of Web cartoons that will be published in May.