Militiamen in Kunduz province, Afghanistan.

(Washington, DC) – Afghanistan’s new government should prosecute officials and commanders whose serious human rights abuses have long gone unpunished, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. US officials should press President Ashraf Ghani to take up justice for past abuses as a top priority during Ghani’s expected March 2015 visit to Washington, DC.

“The previous Afghan government and the United States enabled powerful and abusive individuals and their forces to commit atrocities for too long without being held to account,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “The Ghani administration has already taken the welcome step of launching a national action plan to eliminate torture. The United States, which helped install numerous warlords and strongmen after the overthrow of the Taliban, should now lead an international effort to support the new government to remove serious human rights abusers from their ranks.”

The 96-page report, “‘Today We Shall All Die’: Afghanistan’s Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity,” profiles eight “strongmen” linked to police, intelligence, and militia forces responsible for serious abuses in recent years. The report documents emblematic incidents that reflect longstanding patterns of violence for which victims obtained no official redress. The impunity enjoyed by powerful figures raises serious concerns about Afghan government and international efforts to arm, train, vet, and hold accountable Afghan National Police units, National Directorate of Security officials, and Afghan Local Police forces.

The government of former president Hamid Karzai failed to bring these individuals and their forces to justice, fostering further abuses and fueling local grievances that have generated support for the Taliban and other anti-government forces. Ghani has pledged to hold security forces accountable for their actions and end official tolerance for torture, but will need the full support of Afghanistan’s international supporters to carry out this politically sensitive task.

The report is based on 125 interviews Human Rights Watch carried out since August 2012 with victims of abuse and their family members, as well as witnesses, government officials, community elders, journalists, rights activists, United Nations officials, and members of Afghan and international security forces. It does not look at abuses by the Taliban and other opposition forces, which Human Rights Watch has addressed in other contexts.

A resident of Kunduz province whose father was murdered by a local militia in 2012 told Human Rights Watch, “I went on the roof of the house and saw we were surrounded by armed men.... My father was sitting there and said: ‘Say your whole kalima [the Muslim profession of faith], because I think today we shall all die.’”

Officials and commanders whose forces have a history of abuses typically go unpunished. For instance, forces under the command of Hakim Shujoyi have killed dozens of civilians in Uruzgan province, yet despite a warrant for his arrest he remains at large and evidence suggests he has enjoyed the support of US forces. In Paktika province, Afghan Local Police forces under the command of Azizullah,an ethnic Tajik who, as of June 2014, was a commander of the local ALP in Urgun district, have committed multiple kidnappings and killings. Azizullah has worked closely with US Special Forces despite their awareness of his reputation for unlawful brutality.

The provincial chief of police in Kandahar, Brig. Gen. Abdul Raziq, has been directly implicated in ordering extrajudicial executions. And when the former head of the National Directorate of Security Asadullah Khalid sought medical care in the United States, he received a personal visit from President Barack Obama, sending a powerful message of US support for a notorious human rights violator.

“Since the defeat of the Taliban government in late 2001, Afghanistan has made limited progress in developing institutions, such as professional law enforcement and courts, that are crucial for the protection of human rights,” Kine said. “Afghanistan’s international allies have exacerbated the problem by prioritizing short-term alliances with bad actors over long-term reforms. It’s time for this pathology to end.”

Human Rights Watch urged the Afghan government to investigate all allegations of abuse by Afghan security forces, and remove from office and appropriately prosecute officials and commanders implicated in serious abuses. The Ministry of Interior should disband irregular armed groups and hold them accountable for abuses they have committed.

The United States and other major donors to the Afghan security forces should link continued funding to improved accountability, including prosecutions for killings, enforced disappearances, and torture. Donors should ensure that direct assistance to Afghan security forces is benchmarked to improvements in justice mechanisms. The US should fully implement the Leahy Law, which prohibits the provision of military assistance to any unit of foreign security forces where there is credible evidence that the unit has committed gross violations of human rights and that no “effective measures” are being taken to bring those responsible to justice.

“The Afghan government and its supporters should recognize that insecurity comes not only from the insurgency, but from corrupt and unaccountable forces having official backing,” Kine said.  “Kabul and its foreign supporters need to end their toxic codependency on strongmen to give Afghanistan reasonable hope of a viable, rights-respecting strategy for the country’s development.”