Calls Mount to Prosecute Past Afghan Atrocities

As an unexpected resurgence of fighting by Taliban and allied forces against the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai is raising new concerns over Afghanistan’s stability, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has repeated its call for the prosecution of past atrocities by key warlords, a number of whom continue to hold senior posts under Karzai.

In a 133-page report released in Kabul Wednesday, HRW charged that many of those implicated in serious abuses that occurred in one of the worst phases of what has become a nearly 30-year-old civil war – the year after the defeat of the communist-led regime in April 1992 – are now well-ensconced in the country’s defense and interior ministries, while others are running for office in parliamentary and local elections set for September.

Still others continue to hold power as regional warlords whose authority remains, for the most part, unchallenged by either the central government or the some 30,000 U.S. and NATO-led soldiers who have been operating in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban government in late 2001.

"This report isn’t just a history lesson," said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director, of the intra-mujahedin fighting that virtually destroyed Kabul from April 1992 to March 1993 and that is the main focus of the new report. "These atrocities were among some of the gravest in Afghanistan’s history, yet today many of the perpetrators still wield power."

Based on two years of research and more than 150 interviews with witnesses, survivors, government officials, and former mujahedin soldiers, as well as the work of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), the report, "Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity," comes amid growing concern both here and in the Afghan capital over the resurgence of Taliban forces, particularly in the predominantly Pashtun southern and eastern parts of the country.

In the highest U.S. toll of the Afghan campaign, insurgents reportedly shot down a U.S. Chinook helicopter near the Pakistani border last week, killing 16 U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) troops. The helicopter was on a mission to reinforce a detachment of four other SOF troops, at least two of whom were also killed.

Several days later, as many as 17 civilians in the same area were killed as a result of a U.S. airstrike on a suspected terrorist compound, prompting a rare public criticism by the Karzai government, which is increasingly on the defensive from its political foes over many of the tactics used by U.S. forces, just three months before elections.

At the same time, more than 450 Afghan government troops have reportedly been killed in clashes with Taliban and allied forces since March amid indications that the insurgents are adopting similar tactics, such as the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and even suicide bombings, which have proven effective in Iraq.

"In all, the danger is growing that Afghanistan could begin to look more like Iraq, with an entrenched insurgency that seriously disrupts reconstruction and becomes a magnet for Islamic extremists," the Washington Post warned in a lead editorial Wednesday that captured the mood of rising alarm here.

Similarly, a New York Times article last week noted that the Taliban’s resurgence coincided as well with a sharp rise in anti-American sentiment exacerbated by Karzai’s failure to persuade President George W. Bush during a visit here in late May to give his government more control over U.S. military operations and detention practices, as well as reports of U.S. abuses against Muslim detainees and the Koran itself.

"Mood of Anxiety Engulfs Afghans as Violence Rises" read the Times article’s headline, a choice of words that could perhaps be particularly well understood by the readers of the latest HRW report about the atrocities committed in 1992-93 when the various mujahedin factions began fighting among themselves, setting the stage for the rise and eventual victory of the Taliban in 1996.

While the report itself does not suggest that the situation today compares to that of the 1992-93 period, it does hint that the continued impunity enjoyed today by mujahedin commanders and warlords of that time may be working against U.S. and Karzai’s hopes of stabilizing the country.

"If Afghanistan doesn’t begin a process of addressing its history now, the past may repeat itself," noted Adams, who strongly criticized Washington and its allies for not pursuing past perpetrators of atrocities when the Taliban was ousted almost four years ago.

The abuses committed during the year in question, Afghanistan’s calendar year of 1371, were among the worst of the entire civil war, and the first-person accounts offered in the report are harrowing, to say the least.

Among them were indiscriminate shelling and rocketing of civilian areas that reduced entire neighborhoods to rubble, and the robbery, abduction, murder, and rape of civilians, including women and children.

Amid the most-responsible commanders and leaders were Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf, a radical Islamist commander who currently acts as an adviser to Karzai and who has placed a number of key followers in the Afghan judiciary and elsewhere in the government. He was and remains the leader of the Ittihad-e Islami faction.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, the warlord and ethnic Uzbek who continues to rule over several northern around Mazar-i-Sharif, also holds a senior post in the defense ministry and has been also been implicated in atrocities committed against suspected prisoners during the U.S.-backed campaign against the Taliban in 2001.

Mohammed Qasim Fahim, a Tajik who served as defense minister from 2001 to 2004, also continues to play a leading role in the Jamiat-e Islami/Shura-e Nazar faction of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani and the late Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Karim Khalili, a commander of the Hezb-e Wahdat faction, is now one of Karzai’s two vice presidents.

All of these men played major roles in the 1992-93 violence, according to the report which details specific incidents. Former commanders of Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami and Fahim’s Shura-e Nazar factions are running as candidates in the upcoming elections.

Nor are individuals in the Karzai government the only ones who contributed to the mayhem. Another key commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose Hezb-e Islami faction received the greatest covert support provided the United States and Pakistan, committed some of the worst crimes of the period, according to the report. Self-exiled to Iran after the Taliban victory, he has now joined its insurgency.

The scale of the abuses was enormous, according to the report which cited an AIHRC survey that interviewed more than 4,000 Afghans around the country and found that 69 percent of them said they or their immediate families were direct victims of a serious human rights violation during the early 1990s.

The same survey found that 94 percent of the respondents considered that achieving justice for past crimes to be either "very important" (76 percent) or "important" (18 percent). Three in four said bringing war criminals to justice would "increase stability and bring security."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.