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Fueling Aghanistan's War
Press Backgrounder

What is New

Afghanistan: Taliban ID Policy Creates Second-Class Citizens
(New York, May 24, 2001) Human Rights Watch today condemned the decision by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban requiring Hindu citizens to wear distinguishing identification.

Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan, February 19, 2001
Human Rights Watch Report, February 19, 2001

Key Sections

The Systemic Violation of International Humanitarian Law

External Military Support to the Taliban

External Military Support to the United Front

Afghanistan has been at war for more than twenty years. During that time it has lost a third of its population. Some 1.5 million people are estimated to have died as a direct result of the conflict. Another 5 million fled as refugees to Iran and Pakistan; others became exiles elsewhere abroad. A large part of its population is internally displaced. Afghanistan has virtually the world's lowest life expectancy and literacy rates and the highest rates of infant, child, and maternal mortality. It is suffering from a devastating drought and, with Somalia, is one of the world's two hungriest countries.

Throughout the war, all of the major factions have been guilty of grave breaches of international humanitarian law. Their warmaking is supported and perpetuated by the involvement of Afghanistan's neighbors and other states in providing weapons, ammunition, fuel, and other logistical support. State and non-state actors across the region and beyond continue to provide new arms and other materiel, as well as training and advisory assistance. The arms provided have been directly implicated in serious violations of international humanitarian law. These include aerial bombardments of civilian targets, indiscriminate bombings, rocketing and other artillery attacks on civilian-populated areas, reprisal killings of civilians, summary executions of prisoners, rape, and torture.

Related Material

Letter to U.N. Security Council on Afghanistan
HRW Letter, December 15, 2000

Human Rights Watch has undertaken extensive research into the support provided to the two major forces who, as of December 2000, were fighting for control of the country: the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (IEA), established by the Taliban movement, and the Islamic State of Afghanistan, headed by the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (the "United Front"). By late 2000, the IEA controlled some 90-95 percent of Afghanistan's territory, with resistance continuing in the far northeast and other pockets throughout the north.

Human Rights Watch research in Afghanistan and adjacent countries has identified the major transit routes used to move arms and other equipment, the suppliers, the role of state and non-state actors, and the response of the international community. This memorandum summarizes these findings, setting out basic information concerning the provision of arms, munitions, training, and military advisory assistance-and the systemic violation of the laws of wars by all those receiving this assistance. This is presented as the basis for Human Rights Watch's recommendations to the United Nations and states who have influence in Afghanistan to stop the arms flow and other military assistance to all parties to the conflict there.

The principal supplier of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is Pakistan. Its official denials notwithstanding, Pakistan has assisted the Taliban forces by facilitating the recruitment of fighters, offering military training, and planning pivotal military operations, while allowing arms for the Taliban to transit its territory. The extent of this support, particularly during the Taliban's offensive in the north in late 2000, was criticized implicitly by the U.N. Secretary General in a report to the General Assembly in November. In the report, he expressed his distress that "a significant number of non-Afghan personnel, largely from Pakistani madrassahs, are…taking active part in the fighting, most, if not all, on the side of the Taliban," and that "there also appears to be outside involvement in the planning and logistical support of [the Taliban's] military operations."
Diplomatic observers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Afghanistan and Pakistan in July and October 2000 have also reported that Pakistani aircraft assisted with troop rotations for Taliban forces during combat operations in late 2000, and senior members of its intelligence agency and army were involved in planning military operations. Private and semi-private agencies in Pakistan, including political parties, religious institutions and business cartels, have provided enormous support to the Taliban with the full knowledge of government officials even when their actions violated Pakistani law. Finally, the Pakistani army has facilitated the recruitment of Pakistani madrasa (religious school) students, including children, to fight with the Taliban.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have also provided financial support to the Taliban. At least until 1998, Saudi Arabia provided funds and heavily subsidized fuel to the Taliban through Pakistan. Through their relationship with traders in the UAE and in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), the Taliban are also linked with local and provincial administrators and with officials in the UAE who benefit from the vast smuggling networks that link the three countries.

The parties that comprise the United Front obtain arms primarily from Iran and Russia. Iran has provided rockets, ammunition, and mines. Iran has also provided military training to United Front forces. The Russian Federation has enabled the transportation of Iranian aid, while providing considerable direct assistance itself, including crucial support services and, reportedly, helicopters recently. Tajikistan is the principal country through which assistance from Iran and Russia to the United Front transits, including through the joint Russian-Tajik military base at Kulab.

Though there have been numerous agreements by Afghanistan's neighbors and other states involved in the conflict to end arms supplies as part of a larger peace process, none of these agreements has been backed by any enforcement mechanism. On July 21, 1999, at a meeting in Tashkent of the Group of Six-plus-Two, comprising the countries bordering Afghanistan plus the U.S. and Russia, the delegates signed an agreement subsequently known as the Tashkent declaration in which they "agreed not to provide military support to any Afghan party and to prevent the use of our territories for such purposes," and called upon "the international community to take identical measures to prevent delivery of weapons to Afghanistan." Action by the United Nations to bar military support to all parties to the conflict could make effective the measures agreed previously by some of the states principally responsible for the ongoing flow of training and advisory support, weapons, and other military assistance.

Human Rights Watch holds that armed forces that commit serious violations of human rights or humanitarian law, be they government or rebel groups, should not be further armed by members of the international community. When it concerns gross violations of an ongoing nature, an international embargo with which states must be required to comply should be imposed on all parties that commit such violations. The objective of such an embargo is to compel the combatants to end their abusive conduct and to obviate further complicity by member states in the abuses. The record of all parties' failure to abide by the standards of international humanitarian law in the conflict is of such extreme severity that Human Rights Watch is calling for such an embargo and appropriate enforcement mechanisms as a matter of urgency.


Both the Taliban and the parties constituting the United Front have repeatedly committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, including indiscriminate aerial bombardment and shelling, summary executions, and the use of antipersonnel landmines. During the past two years, Taliban offensives have been accompanied by the use of scorched-earth tactics in the Shomali plains north of Kabul, summary executions of prisoners in the north-central province of Samangan, and forced relocation and conscription. Military setbacks have left United Front forces defending home territories in northeastern and central Afghanistan. There have nevertheless been reports of abuses in areas that have temporarily been held by United Front factions, including summary executions, burning of houses, and looting. The principal targets in these attacks have been ethnic Pashtuns and others suspected of supporting the Taliban. The various parties comprising the United Front also amassed a deplorable record of attacks on civilians between the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 and the Taliban's capture of Kabul in 1996.

Examples of violations of the laws of war by the Taliban and the United Front are set out below.

Examples of violations by the Taliban

  • August-October 2000: According to displaced persons who had fled to United Front-held Faizabad, the Taliban bombed residential areas of Taloqan and surrounding villages in the weeks before the city fell to them on September 5, 2000. Bombs, shells, and cluster munitions were heavily deployed throughout the city including residential areas, destroying many homes. After the Taliban consolidated control of the villages, they carried out summary executions of suspected sympathizers of United Front commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

  • May 2000: Taliban forces summarily executed at least 200 prisoners near the Robatak pass, northwest of the town of Pul-i Khumri. The prisoners were men taken during sweep operations throughout Samangan and neighboring provinces in late 1999 and early 2000.

  • 1999: After retaking the central city of Bamiyan in May, Taliban forces summarily executed civilians, primarily ethnic Shi'a Hazaras; burned homes; and used detainees for forced labor. The town of Dara-i Suf was bombed with incendiary cluster munitions, burning down the entire central market and destroying wells and homes.

  • July 1999: A Taliban offensive in the Shomali plains was marked by summary executions, the abduction and disappearance of women, the burning of homes, and the destruction of other property and agricultural assets, including the cutting down of fruit trees. According to a report by the U.N. Secretary-General dated November 16, 1999, "The Taliban forces, who allegedly carried out these acts, essentially treated the civilian population with hostility and made no distinction between combatants and non-combatants."

  • August 1998: After capturing Mazar-i Sharif on August 8, Taliban troops killed scores of civilians in indiscriminate attacks, shooting noncombatants and suspected combatants in residential areas, city streets, and markets. In the days that followed, Taliban forces carried out a systematic search for male members of the ethnic Hazara, Tajik, and Uzbek communities. Scores and perhaps hundreds of Hazara men and boys were summarily executed, while thousands of men from various ethnic communities were detained first in the city jail and then transported to other cities. Altogether, at least 2,000 civilians may have been deliberately killed in the city. Many others were killed in aerial bombardments and rocket attacks as they fled south of the city. There were reports that women and girls, particularly in certain Hazara neighborhoods, were raped and abducted during the Taliban takeover.

  • September 1997: Retreating Taliban forces summarily executed ethnic Shi'a Hazara villagers near Mazar-i Sharif, after having failed to capture the city. According to the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Afghanistan, in a report dated March 12, 1998, fifty-three villagers were killed in one city, Qezelabad, and some twenty houses set on fire. In the village of Sheikhabad, a total of thirty elderly people are reported to have been killed. Killings of a similar type were also reported in other villages in the area.

Examples of violations by United Front factions

  • Late 1999 to early 2000: Internally displaced persons who fled from villages in and around Sangcharak district recounted summary executions, burning of houses, and widespread looting during the four months that the area was held by the United Front. Several of the executions were reportedly carried out in front of the victims' family members. Those targeted in the attacks were largely ethnic Pashtuns and, in some cases, Tajiks.

  • April 1999: After taking control of Bamiyan city on April 21, forces belonging to United Front faction Hizb-i Wahdat beat and detained residents suspected of supporting the Taliban, and burned their houses. Hizb-i Wahdat relinquished control of the city to the Taliban, after heavy fighting in early May 1999.

  • September 20-21, 1998: Several volleys of rockets were fired at the northern part of Kabul, with one hitting a crowded night market. Estimates of the numbers killed ranged from 76 to 180. Although a spokesperson for United Front commander Ahmad Shah Massoud disclaimed responsibility, the attacks were widely believed to have been carried out by Massoud's forces, who were then stationed about 25 miles north of Kabul. In a September 23 press statement, the ICRC described the attacks as indiscriminate and the deadliest that the city had seen in three years.

  • Late May 1997: Some 3,000 captured Taliban soldiers were summarily executed in and around Mazar-i Sharif by two United Front factions: Junbish forces under the command of General Abdul Malik Pahlawan and Hizb-i Wahdat forces led by General Muhaqqiq. The killings followed Pahlawan's withdrawal from a brief alliance with the Taliban, and the capture of the Taliban forces who were trapped in the city. Some of the Taliban troops were taken to the desert and shot, while others were thrown down wells and then blown up with grenades.

  • January 5, 1997: Junbish planes dropped cluster munitions on residential areas of Kabul. Several civilians were killed and others wounded in the air raid, which also involved the use of conventional bombs.



The principal supplier to the Taliban is Pakistan. The Taliban have been receiving weapons on a regular basis to replenish supplies consumed during battles with the United Front forces; these weapons must have crossed Pakistani territory. There is strong evidence that Pakistan has otherwise assisted the Taliban forces by facilitating the recruitment of fighters, offering military training, and planning pivotal military operations. Former Pakistani military officers provide specialized forms of assistance, particularly with respect to the maintenance and use of artillery, with a view to increasing the Taliban forces' efficiency and effectiveness.

Recruitment of volunteer soldiers is organized by several Pakistani political parties who use madrasas as natural recruiting centers. This recruitment is performed openly, and some Pakistani government officials have repeatedly admitted knowledge of the paramilitary activities of the religious schools and have officially expressed discomfort regarding them. However, significant numbers of recruits, traveling in trucks and buses, regularly cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan in order to fight with the Taliban against United Front forces without any interference from Pakistani border officials. These recruits cross the border on the main roads, where Pakistani border controls are quite vigilant. Boys under the age of eighteen are among those recruited.

The former Afghan Army base of Rishikor, southwest of Kabul, was until recently the main training center for Pakistani volunteers brought to Afghanistan to fight for the Taliban. A guarded area within the camp held the living quarters for Pakistani military and intelligence personnel. A typical forty-day training cycle in the camp covered physical training, weapons maintenance, instruction in the use of weapons, including Kalashnikovs, RPK light machine guns, ZSU anti-aircraft cannon, 82mm and 120mm mortars, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, as well as religious instruction.

Pakistani private companies, often run by retired military officers, carry out significant procurement of munitions and spare parts for the Taliban, buying considerable quantities from Chinese manufacturers through dealers in Hong Kong and also from dealers in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Arms purchased in this manner appear to move primarily by ship. Sealed containers are brought into the port of Karachi and then moved by truck to Afghanistan without inspection, as per the trade agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA).


Despite its forces' relative isolation and extended lines of communication, the United Front has nevertheless continued to receive military assistance from outside governments. This assistance has come in a variety of forms, ranging from the direct transfer of military materiel to the provision of limited numbers of military advisors and support personnel. Almost none of these transfers have been publicly documented via submissions to the United Nations register on conventional arms, and, in fact, much of the United Front's military support comes from nations participating in the so-called "Six-plus-Two" contact group, whose members have publicly pledged not to provide military support to any Afghan combatants and to prevent the use of their territories for such purposes. The main culprits are Iran and Russia, with secondary roles played by Tajikistan, Uzbekistan (at least until 1998), Turkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan.


Iran is known to have supplied at least the following weapons to the United Front: 100mm and 115mm tank ammunition for the T-55 and T-62 tanks, respectively; YM-II antitank mines; D-30 122mm towed howitzers and ammunition; 122mm rockets for the BM-21 and BM-21V "Grad" multiple-rocket launch systems; 122mm mortar bombs; rockets for RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade launchers; F-1 hand grenades; and 7.62mm rifle ammunition. All of these weapons systems are in wide use in Afghanistan, where they have been seen deployed.

Both the route and the means of transportation taken by Iranian weapons and material transfers to the United Front have shifted in the wake of Taliban military victories. Following the fall of Herat and Kabul (in September 1996) to the Taliban, the supply of weapons, men and other material from Iran was redirected to other United Front-held cities, most notably Bamiyan and Mazar-i Sharif. Both cities possess airfields capable of handling mid-sized cargo aircraft such as the Soviet-designed An-24 and An-32 and American-designed C-130 Hercules, all in service with the Iranian military. Numerous eyewitness accounts have identified Iranian military cargo planes taking off from and arriving at the Bamiyan and Mazar-i Sharif airports during the period 1996 to 1998. Following the capture of Bamiyan and Mazar-i Sharif by the Taliban, Iran has been forced to rely on a circuitous land route to deliver supplies of weapons and goods to its friends in Afghanistan. An Iranian engineering team was involved in the construction of a new bridge across the Amu Darya river at Dasht-i Qalah in 1999. Such a bridge would allow for high-volume traffic to reach United Front forces in Afghanistan from Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as well as from the Russian-Tajik military base and airfield at Kulab in Tajikistan, a key supply transit point.

Iran provides military training to United Front forces via small teams of approximately five to eight military instructors who arrive from Iran periodically to lead courses at a training center near the village of Farkhar in Takhar province in northern Afghanistan. An estimated 80-150 men-roughly the equivalent of junior-level officers-train at the camp at any given time, receiving instruction in tactics, leadership skills, logistics, and other military skills.


Russia has played a crucial enabling role in the resupply of United Front forces by arranging for the transportation of Iranian aid, while providing considerable direct assistance itself, including crucial support services.

Military assistance to United Front forces crosses the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border with the active collusion of the Russian government, which maintains border forces there and leads the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) peacekeeping forces (201st Division) within the country. Witnesses have described seeing stores of rocket and artillery rounds awaiting delivery at the border ferry crossing at Dasht-i Qalah, stacked in plain view of the Russian Border Guard troops manning the Tajik side of the crossing. The rocket projectiles were most likely 122mm rockets for BM-21 truck-mounted multiple-rocket launch systems, while the artillery shells were most likely for M-30/D-30 towed howitzers. Other witnesses have observed BM-21 and BM-21V truck-mounted multiple-rocket launch systems, as well as wooden crates with hand grenades and large-caliber rockets stacked up on the Tajik side of the crossing, partially covered by tarps. On one occasion a witness described seeing a BM-21 being ferried across the river on the barge ferry at Dasht-i Qalah. The consistency, volume, and lack of subterfuge or concealment of shipments crossing the border strongly imply that the Russian role is not the result of isolated, unit-level agreements or arrangements, but rather the result of a broader government policy. A high-level Russian government commitment to resupply the United Front is further confirmed by reports that many of the supplies crossing into Afghanistan at Dasht-i Qalah originated from the Russian military base at Kulab, Tajikistan.

The Russian base at Kulab serves as the linchpin for United Front forces in the Panjshir Valley and northern Afghanistan. The base has been an assembly point for military supplies headed to the de facto United Front capital at Taloqan (until September 2000) via the crossing at Dasht-i Qalah. The base also has provided logistical support and maintenance services for United Front aircraft and helicopters. In 1997 and 1998, Antonov-12 cargo planes based in Kulab were being used to ferry military supplies from Mashhad, Iran to the United Front via Kulab. Supply flights of Mi-17 helicopters, ferrying ammunition and weapons from Kulab to Takhar province, Panjshir Valley, and other areas under United Front control, are commonplace. Moreover, Western military experts in the region have alleged that Russia recently provided helicopters to the forces of United Front commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Another resource employed by the Russian government to expedite shipments of military materiel to anti-Taliban forces is the Russian Army's transportation battalion based in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. The battalion is responsible for road maintenance and security during the final portion of the trip that brings arms cargos from Mashhad to the rail terminus at Osh, and from there to Afghanistan via trucks. Not only does it appear that bulk arms shipments are sent into Afghanistan from Tajikistan across the Amu Darya river with Russian cooperation, it is unlikely in the extreme that the one hundred to 140 (or more) heavy trucks required to transport the 700 tons of arms and 300 tons of flour arrived by train in Osh in October 1998 (see section on Kygyzstan) could travel from Osh to Khorog or Ishkashim without the knowledge and permission of the Russian military and foreign ministry.


Until the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif to Taliban forces in August 1998, Uzbekistan supplied its main Afghan ally, the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (NIM), or "Junbish," forces under General Dostum, with arms, ammunition, and fuel. The garrison town of Termez, home to a large Uzbek military air and land presence, was the main base for this assistance, serving both as a supply point for arms transfers as well as a maintenance depot. From Termez supplies were transferred across the bridge over the Amu Darya river to Mazar-i Sharif and elsewhere. Moreover, Junbish combat aircraft-both fixed-wing jet aircraft and helicopters-used to receive maintenance and servicing at Termez airport.

With the destruction of the Junbish forces in 1998, Uzbekistan's leaders apparently decided upon a strategic shift, giving up active support of any faction in Afghanistan in favor of fortifying the border and a more energetic pursuit of a diplomatic solution to the conflict. And on at least one occasion, in September 1998, Uzbekistan allowed a large shipment of Iranian military goods for United Front forces to cross its territory. Uneasy about the prospects for an increased Russian influence in the area, Uzbek officials have recently increased their diplomatic contacts with the Taliban. They remain concerned about possible Taliban support for the radical Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).


Although Turkmenistan is not known to have provided direct military assistance to any of the warring parties in Afghanistan, it has allowed its border to be violated by both sides in the Afghan civil war. In July 1998, Taliban forces transited Turkmen territory to attack the Junbish-held towns of Andkhvoy and Maimana from the rear. And on at least one occasion, in September 1998, Turkmenistan allowed a large shipment of Iranian military goods for United Front forces to cross its territory. Turkmenistan has recently increased diplomatic contacts with the Taliban but appears to favor neither side in the war.


Although there is no indication that Kyrgyzstan provides direct military assistance to any warring factions in Afghanistan, there is evidence that suggests the Kyrgyz government, at least until October, 1998, gave its permission for weapons cargos to transit through its territory to United Front forces in Afghanistan. These cargos arrived by train in the town of Osh and were then loaded onto trucks and transported to Afghanistan. Between October 4 and October 6, 1998, two shipments from the Iranian city of Mashhad arrived at the Osh-1 station by train, one shipment carried by six wagons, the other ten. Another wagon with identical documentation arrived as part of a train during the night of October 12-13. The seventeen boxcars contained 700 metric tons of armaments, hidden amidst humanitarian aid supplies (300 tons of flour). The weapons included anti-tank mines, F-1 grenades, 122mm artillery shells, mortar bombs, and 122mm rockets. It is highly unlikely that a shipment of this size, involving both train and truck transport, could have occurred without the knowledge of Kyrgyz authorities.


The government of Tajikistan itself does not appear to be providing direct military assistance to United Front forces in Afghanistan. Where Tajikistan has extended assistance to the United Front forces, it has done so with a distinctly commercial flavor. The United Front forces have contracted with Tajik Airlines, a state-owned concern, to provide servicing of United Front Mi-17 helicopters at the civil airport at Dushanbe. In addition, the Tajik authorities sell aviation fuel to the United Front at the rate of U.S.$400/ton. Helicopter flights from Dushanbe to Taloqan (until Taloqan's capture by the Taliban in September 2000), although primarily used for the carriage of civilian passengers, have carried a variety of military equipment, including rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms ammunition. Return flights from Taloqan to Dushanbe have carried seriously wounded United Front soldiers for treatment in Tajik hospitals.

On the whole, Tajikistan's role has been more of a facilitator of military assistance from Russia and especially Iran intended for the United Front forces, including by not preventing Russian forces on its territory from expediting resupply and other operations for United Front forces. The latter is done primarily from the Russian-Tajik military base and airfield at Kulab.