Human Rights News
  FREE    Join the HRW Afghanistan Mailing List 
Afghanistan: Return of the Warlords
Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper
June 2002

(download PDF version - 20 pages)
Key Sections

I. Introduction

II. Subversion of the loya jirga process

III. Threats to women's security and their rights

IV. General Insecurity and Lawlessness

V. External Factors in the Reemergence of the Warlords

VI. Conclusion and Recommendations

  • Halt assistance to the warlords
  • Expand security forces
  • Counteract the influence of warlords during the loya jirga process
  • Institute a system of accountability for violations of human rights in Afghanistan

Related Material

A Human Rights Watch Question and Answer on Afghanistan's Loya Jirga Process
April 17, 2002

Afghanistan: History of the War
Backgrounder, October 2001

"Taking Cover: Women in Post-Taliban Afghanistan,"
A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, May 9, 2002

Afghanistan: Human Rights Watch Key Documents

V. External Factors in the Reemergence of the Warlords

The resurgence of the warlords is fueled in part by international factors. In the case of Western troops, the unwillingness of the international community to deploy peacekeeping forces outside of Kabul to rein in the warlords combined with the frequent presence of U.S. troops and their apparent cooperation with the warlords has left the impression among many Afghans that the warlords enjoy U.S. support. Unconfirmable reports abound of financial and military support. In addition, Human Rights Watch received unconfirmed reports of active Iranian and Pakistani involvement.

The United States and its coalition forces have an active presence in southern Afghanistan and have used local troops supplied by warlords in combat operations. These activities have fostered the impression that the United States is supporting the warlords, directly or indirectly. In Zabul, for instance, Observer O, who has been traveling throughout southern Afghanistan to monitor the loya jirga process, described the perceived link between U.S. coalition forces and Governor Tokhi:

Because the United States does not have any troops - no land troops - to deploy, it was only bombing, and they used these people as land troops to capture and take the place of the Taliban. Therefore they came into power, and then Hamid Karzai had no police and no army and he was compelled to accept their authority and their power in Zabul. The U.S. gives them satellite telephones, financial support, and enough weapons. On our way back from Qalat [after elections were cancelled due to Governor Tokhi's repressive tactics], we saw that American troops were on their way to Qalat.66

An international member of a loya jirga observation team described a similar perception of the link between U.S. coalition forces and local warlords in Oruzgan province, and the widely shared belief that "the U.S. forces are helping to protect the governor in Tirin Kot [the governor of Oruzgan]... in Helmand... in Kandahar."67

Official U.S. policy in Afghanistan is driven by a desire to avoid entanglement in Afghanistan and minimize the commitment of American combat troops there, necessitating a reliance on local commanders - regardless of their human rights records - to provide security. While the U.S. government does not view this policy as actively supporting local warlords, the distinction is often lost on Afghan civilians who see coalition forces openly interacting with warlords.

A senior member of the loya jirga observation team for the southern region of Afghanistan repeated the widespread sentiment that commanders across the area west of Kandahar were directly using American support to intimidate local populations. He told Human Rights Watch that commanders in Gholistan, Farah, north Helmand, and Nimroz have used satellite phones, many given to them by coalition forces, to threaten opposition leaders or other villages with bombing:

The commanders who the United States have supported, there is no one to stand up to them. The commanders all around this area very easily threaten the local population. Many of them have been given satellite telephones, and they use these to scare everyone. They say to people, "If you do not do what we say, we will tell the Americans you are Taliban or Al Qaeda, and have the Americans bomb you." They misuse the phones, they intimidate people. [We hear this from] all the people who have been nominated for the loya jirga process, who have complaints about the commanders, and who come to us.68

Residents of Sanzari district, in Kandahar province, told Human Rights Watch that their fear of their local commander Habibullah was in part based on their perception that U.S. coalition forces, as well as provincial governor Gul Agha, supported Habibullah. One man explained the roots of this belief:

These people got their weapons from Gul Agha. Gul Agha did get support from the Americans, and Habibullah got the support from Gul Agha, so you can decide for yourself... Gul Agha has been out to Sanzari some times, to have lunch with Habibullah. The American troops have come to Habibullah about ten times. Sometimes with two trucks, with three trucks, or four trucks, sometimes just with one truck. Many times they have come.69

Such fears about the involvement of U.S. troops are stoked by incidents such as the assault on the village of Band-e Temur, when some fifty local villagers were arrested and their elderly leader was killed while being taken into custody of U.S. troops, apparently because of a case of mistaken identity.70

Although U.S. forces were clearly visible to our researchers, Human Rights Watch during its mission could not independently confirm allegations about active agents from other governments. The consistent and broad nature of the testimony raised serious concerns about recurring interference of Afghanistan's neighbors in the country's domestic processes. International and local observers of the loya jirga expressed their strong belief that agents of these two governments are active throughout southern Afghanistan.71 Given the history of involvement and support by Iran and Pakistan with various Afghan factions, such allegations are eminently plausible and require proper investigation by the Afghan government, the United Nations, and international security forces.72

66 Human Rights Watch interview with Observer O, Kandahar, May 25, 2002.

67 Human Rights Watch interview with Observer M.

68 Human Rights Watch interview with Observer O.

69 Human Rights Watch interview with I, 27 years old, a resident of Sanzari, Kandahar, May 28, 2002.

70 Carlotta Gall, "U.S. Troops Release 50 Men From Afghan Village Raid," The New York Times, May 31, 2002.

71 Human Rights Watch interview with senior U.N. officials in Kandahar, May 29, 2002.

72 See Human Rights Watch, Crisis of Impunity: The Role of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in Fueling the Civil War in Afghanistan, July 2001.