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Afghanistan: Nothing says you’re in charge like an execution

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | August 18, 2010

According to Rod Nordland’s reporting in the NYTimes, the Taliban ordered and carried out their first public execution in Afghanistan in nine years this past Sunday, stoning to death a young couple charged with eloping. The victims, a nineteen year old woman and a twenty-five year old man had eloped after relatives refused their request to marry. She was pledged to another man, a relative of her lover, he was married and had two children (but polygamy is legal under Islamic law). After the couple fled to a different village, they were persuaded to return, only to be seized by the Taliban and after a judgment of some sort, stoned to death by an all male crowd of more than 200 men, including Taliban activists, but also relatives of both.

The barbarity of stoning is a cultural judgment call (I consider lethal injection its moral equivalent). What is telling however is the significance of a public execution, especially by a participatory method, in demonstrating not only that a particular group holds power, but that its power is increasingly legitimate (and thus approximating sovereignty). Planting bombs to kill government troops, executing a local mayor or government supporter after dragging them into the woods, or even collecting “taxes” at gun point in a village, only shows that a group has a certain amount of power. But when you can hold a trial (however summary), and then in public order and carry out an execution, you are demonstrating an intent not just to terrorize, but to rule. When that execution requires not just the passive acceptance, but the active participation of large numbers of people in the village, rule is becoming something more like sovereignty.

Even more worrisome for the government in Kabul, as well as the international forces risking their lives to keep that government in power, Nordland reports that a national Islamic council has recently issued a statement calling for more Islamic punishments (apparently including amputations and stonings). Since the government in Kabul, dependent on the approval of Western nations cannot oblige the Islamic authorities in this respect, the field of criminal justice is once again a very promising path to power for the Taliban.

Editorial: Western forces might do well to consider a similar path. The top Al Qaeda leadership and Mullah Omar, the former Taliban leader, stand accused of crimes no serious Islamic religious authority in Afghanistan has defended (to my knowledge). Perhaps a rapid withdrawal of Western forces should be offered in exchange for these men being either turned over to the United States, or judged and executed demonstrably by the Taliban themselves. That act would provide a strong signal that a future Taliban dominated government would not tolerate similar terrorist plots being launched from its territory. The West would have to abandon its claims to turn Afghanistan into a quasi liberal democracy, but that claim is proving a fantasy of extraordinary cost in blood and treasure.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s Governing through Crime site.