Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s appointment in December of Asadullah Khalid as defense minister should have rung alarm bells not only in Kabul, but in the capitals of Afghanistan’s major donors. That it didn’t says a lot about how little human rights matter to an increasingly shaky government, and to donors looking for an exit from the long Afghan war.
Credible evidence of serious human rights abuses and war crimes linked to Khalid have followed him throughout his government career. Reports first came to light during Khalid’s tenure as governor of Kandahar – a time when thousands of Canadian troops were based in the province. An official internal Canadian document described the allegations of human rights abuses attributable to Khalid as “numerous and consistent.” Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin testified to a Canadian parliamentary commission in 2009 that Khalid perpetrated enforced disappearances and held people in private prisons. The testimony included evidence of Khalid’s personal involvement in the torture of detainees. Chris Alexander, a senior Canadian official working with the United Nations in Afghanistan at the time, alleged that Khalid ordered the killing of five UN workers in a roadside bombing in Kandahar in April 2007.
There is also strong evidence directly implicating Khalid in acts of sexual violence against women and girls when he was governor of Ghazni and Kandahar. Khalid allegedly threatened his victims, saying “they would be killed and their families destroyed if they told anyone what had happened.”
Ghani’s opportunistic and callous move in appointing Khalid appears aimed to score short-term gains in the upcoming presidential election. Khalid had enjoyed the protection of former President Hamid Karzai; in 2009 a US official described Khalid as a “bag man” for the role he played buying votes for Karzai’s 2009 re-election effort.
The Afghan government has proved unwilling to criminally investigate Khalid, but Afghanistan’s donors can act. The US and Canada have authority under their respective Magnitsky laws to impose sanctions on any foreign official against whom there is credible evidence of responsibility for serious human rights abuses. These sanctions include freezing their assets and banning them from entry. The European Union and other donors should impose similar sanctions to send a clear message that returning a known human rights abuser to a position of authority is simply unacceptable.