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KABUL -- Achter Mohammed was expecting quite a different kind of welcome when he returned home to Afghanistan from 15 months of exile in Iran. But what mattered to the Uzbek warlords in power in his hometown was that he was an ethnic Pashtun, and probably had brought back some money from work in Iran.

Three Uzbek commanders took Achter Mohammed straight from the bus to their military base and began beating him with heavy wooden sticks, repeatedly leaving him unconscious. They stole everything he had worked so hard for in Iran, including his presents for his family. When they finally released him, he returned home to find everything there gone, too.

Fourteen-year-old Fatima had begged the Hazara soldiers not to rape her, saying she was young and a virgin. One of the soldiers threatened her with his gun, ordering her to undress or be killed. Two different soldiers raped her, and then three others raped her mother. The mother asked why the soldiers were doing these things. She was told "You are Talibs and you are Pashtun." Before leaving, the soldiers beat Fatima's crippled father unconscious, and carried off all of the family's possessions. "There is nothing left for us; marriage and honor are gone," Fatima's mother told us.

For ethnic Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan, it is payback time. They are paying for the sins of the Taliban, simply because most of the Taliban leadership were also ethnic Pashtuns. In the past month, Human Rights Watch has visited dozens of Pashtun communities in northern Afghanistan, personally documenting the devastation. We visited village after village that had been stripped bare by ethnic militias who had sometimes even taken the window frames. We found case after case of beatings, looting, murders, extortion and sexual violence against Pashtun communities.

In one village 37 men had been killed in front of their families because they did not have enough money to buy their own lives. Many of the villages were like ghost towns, abandoned by hundreds of Pashtun families after weeks or months of attacks. And the violence has not stopped. Our sudden arrival scared off two armed Uzbek men who had come to extort money from the Pashtun elders in one village in Faryab province. In Samangan province, 200 miles away, a village elder had been forced to give up his flock of sheep to a local commander the morning of our visit.

Parts of Afghanistan today are beginning to look a bit like they did in the 1992-96 period when warlords carved up the country and brutally abused the civilian population. That era gave rise to the Taliban. Some of those same warlords are back in power in northern Afghanistan, and their forces are responsible for most of the abuses against Pashtun civilians in the north. Our research implicated all three major factions -- the ethnic Uzbek Junbish party, the ethnic Tajik Jamiat party, and the ethnic Hazara Hizb-i-Wahdat party -- in the offenses against Pashtun civilians.

America helped put these abusive warlords back in power: They provided the Afghan troops the United States needed to get rid of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Now America and its allies need to act fast to ensure that these same warlords do not destroy what has been accomplished so far.

Afghans are sick and tired of the warlords who abuse them and control their lives, but they can't challenge the warlords' monopoly on power without some outside help. In one abandoned village we found just one old man, but he spoke for many when he told us, "If the foreigners don't help us, we won't be alive."

Let us not forget that America walked away from Afghanistan once, leaving the country in the hands of the warlords, and that on Sept. 11 an unfathomable price was paid for that mistake. We owe it not only to the people of Afghanistan but to ourselves to see the job through this time.

Peter Bouckaert and Saman Zia-Zarifi are Afghanistan reseachers for Human Rights Watch.

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