Human Rights Developments
Constitutional reforms in Afghanistan held out hope in 1990 for improved respect for civil liberties, although it was too soon to say whether the reforms had been put into practice. Fighting between government troops and resistance forces, or mujahedin, continued at a lower level of intensity than before, although violations of the laws of war continued to be committed by all sides.
In May, the government of President Najibullah in Kabul convened a loya jirga, or Supreme Council, to ratify constitutional changes proposed by the government. Among those changes were a commitment to political pluralism, a guarantee of the rights to counsel and fair trial, fewer restrictions on freedom of association and assembly, and a partial relaxation of controls on freedom of the press. In June, the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) renamed itself Watan, or Homeland, and renounced its historical commitment to Marxism.
As part of the effort to refurbish its image, the government allowed greater access to the country by human rights and humanitarian agencies. In July, Asia Watch became the first human rights organization allowed to conduct a fact-finding mission in Afghanistan since the Soviet withdrawal, including visits to the central prison in Kabul, Pol-e Charkhi, and the main detention and interrogation center, Sedarat. As of December, the International Committee of the Red Cross was still not authorized to visit persons under interrogation or those awaiting trial and held on order of the Ministry of State Security.1 Instances of torture during interrogation were reported from Kabul and other cities.
Some 644 people were arrested following a coup attempt in March, according to the government. According to sources interviewed by Asia Watch in Kabul, the total may have been higher. By July, the government said, over 200 had been released and the others tried. None of the defendants is believed to have had access to counsel. No executions have been carried out since 1989, according to the government; Asia Watch could not verify that assertion.
Developments on the civil liberties front were encouraging, but it was difficult to assess the impact of the 1990 reforms, as wariness and continuing fear prevented people from seriously testing the new freedom for political parties or demonstrations. There was less cause for optimism on the war front, where international laws of war designed to protect civilians were violated by all sides. All sides continued to use methods of warfare which result in indiscriminate killing. Government bombardments of villages were reported from the areas of Jalalabad and Khowst, largely in reprisal for guerrilla assaults or to protect strategic routes. At the same time, certain mujahedin commanders, backed by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), continued to launch rocket attacks against Kabul and other cities, resulting in widespread civilian casualties. The UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, Felix Ermacora, reported a claim by the Afghan government that 4,771 civilians had died in these attacks between March and October 1990.
Land mines continued to maim civilians throughout Afghanistan, and major de-mining efforts were underway, both by the United Nations and private agencies. All sides in the Afghan conflict laid fewer mines in 1990, according to experts interviewed by Asia Watch, but unexploded mines laid before the Soviet troop withdrawal constituted a major hazard. These mines, including the PMN, PMD and POMZ-2 anti-personnel mines, were not always placed to serve military objectives, nor were they always marked. The Afghan government stopped dropping the lethal "butterfly mine" which Soviet forces together with their Afghan allies had aerially disseminated by the thousands. Mujahedin commanders made no attempt to map areas where their forces laid mines.
During the year, the government employed paramilitary forces from various tribal groups to supplement regular troops. In Qandahar, Faryab and Badghis, these militias robbed returning refugees, looted property, including a hospital, arrested young men to serve in the army and illegally detained prisoners. The government took no measures, to Asia Watch's knowledge, to prevent these abuses.
Asia Watch received one unverified report from a mujahedin commander of a mass execution by government forces in Mahalajat, outside Qandahar, in June.
Mujahedin elements continued to execute prisoners summarily. In one incident in October, some 95 government soldiers who surrendered to the mujahedin in Tarin Kot were immediately shot. Two weeks later, according to diplomatic and guerrilla sources, 125 soldiers were executed after surrendering at Qalat in Zabul province.2 Numerous killings which Peshawar residents interviewed by Asia Watch attributed to the mujahedin also took place in Pakistan during the year. One victim, shot in July, was Dr. Mohammad Nasim Ludin, a refugee physician who operated several clinics in Peshawar. According to Asia Watch sources who requested anonymity, he had received previous threats and may have been targeted for execution by the Hezb-e Islami of Yunus Khales.
Mujahedin factions continued to operate prisons inside Pakistan. Torture was reported from a prison in Shamshatoo refugee camp, outside Peshawar, run by the Hezb-i Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. No international organizations had access to mujahedin prisons in Pakistan.
The Bush administration continued to negotiate with the Soviet Union over a transition administration for Afghanistan, the process for holding free elections, the establishment of a ceasefire and the cessation of weapons supplies. The sticking points were the powers that the transitional body would have and the role of President Najibullah. Both sides continued to provide aid to their respective clients, and the US continued to profess support for the Afghan Interim Government (AIG), an artificial coalition government-in-exile composed of warring mujahedin factions. As negotiations progressed, strains developed between the United States and the Pakistani ISI, which favored the abusive fundamentalist mujahedin faction of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
The ISI, operating without restraint after the dismissal of the government of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto on August 6, reportedly planned in September to make Hekmatyar defense minister of a reorganized Afghan Interim Government, but US opposition scuttled those plans. In late October, as Congress began for the first time to cut back the administration's already-reduced requests for aid to the resistance, the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Pakistani ISI encouraged the mujahedin to open a coordinated offensive in several parts of the country.
US diplomats on the ground, conceding that the offensive never had a chance of overthrowing the Kabul government, had hoped that it would shake the Soviet negotiating position and lead to a diplomatic agreement between the superpowers. By the end of October, the offensive had failed, at a cost of countless civilian lives.
The mujahedin's failure to deliver a victory appeared to be the reason for the $50 million congressional aid cut, the first since the war began, and for the decision to condition release of half of the remaining $250 million on another vote in 1991. The administration initially argued against an aid cut (which as originally proposed in Congress was far more substantial), saying that it would send the wrong signal at a time when negotiations toward a settlement were making progress.
On November 30, President Bush vetoed the 1991 intelligence authorization bill which had included the congressional restrictions on aid to the mujahedin. The ostensible reason for the veto was the President's dissatisfaction with a provision of the bill related to the Iran-contra scandal, which limited the executive's opportunities to solicit third-country support for covert operations. Congressional sources said that the Bush administration opposed as well the congressional language on Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia also contained in the bill. The House and Senate Select Intelligence Committees tentatively scheduled reconsideration of the bill for late January 1991, when they are expected to offer legislation which modifies the Iran-contra provision, but retains the provisions on covert operations in Afghanistan and other countries.
The administration's decisions on aid to the resistance did not take into consideration human rights practices of some of the mujahedin factions. In written responses submitted for a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs on July 18, the State Department stated that civilan deaths resulting from the mujahedin's attacks on the cities were "the regrettable result of attacks on militarily significant targets." In fact, the military impact of the rocketing of the cities was negligible, in part because of the notorious inaccuracy of the US-supplied SAKR rockets used by the mujahedin and the inadequate training of resistance troops. Again, in written responses submitted for a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Affairs on November 2, the State Department excused these attacks on the grounds that the "military installations" targeted were "located in or near residential areas" and that the mujahedin "express deep regret for civilian casualties." The administration should have used the opportunity of the hearings to call upon the mujahedin, and Pakistan, to desist from practices which incur such heavy civilian casualties.
At the November 2 hearing, the State Department also stated that "reports of human rights violations" by the mujahedin are brought "to the attention of Resistance leaders." Regrettably, such expressions of concern have not been made public, diminishing their force. The administration also acknowledged, in statements submitted for the November 2 hearing, reports of human rights abuses within mujahedin prisons. The administration's assurances that these reports were being investigated were welcome. However, statements calling for access to these prisons by international humanitarian organizations would go further toward ending these abuses.
The State Department made at least one other attempt to raise the issue of human rights with the resistance forces. In mid-November, a letter was sent to six of the mujahedin factions by the US Special Envoy to the Afghan Resistance, Peter Tomsen, regarding the massacre of government soldiers at Tarin Kot and other incidents. The State Department strongly condemned the execution of prisoners under any circumstances, calling such executions gross violations of the laws of war.
US officials made no public attempt to pressure Pakistani authorities to investigate the abuses reportedly committed by mujahedin leaders in Pakistan and to prosecute those responsible for torture and murder. In written responses submitted for the July 18 congressional hearing, the State Department went so far as to credit the Pakistani authorities with conducting "a serious investigation" into the 1988 murder of Professor Sayd Majrooh. In fact, the Pakistani police resisted following credible evidence implicating Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's faction in the murder. Dozens of similar murders have been carried out with impunity by elements of the mujahedin.
The Work of Asia Watch
In mid-1990, Asia Watch delegations traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to examine violations of the laws of war by all parties to the conflict, and to evaluate the human rights reforms undertaken by the government of President Najibullah.3
In Afghanistan, the delegation met President Najibullah and discussed the government's reforms and Asia Watch's concerns about the war, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians. A report on the Asia Watch missions is scheduled for publication in early 1991.
In October, Asia Watch representatives met with Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs John Kelly and other officials to discuss human rights concerns and US policy. Asia Watch staff also had discussions in Washington with Peter Tomsen, US Special Envoy to the Afghan resistance, regarding abuses committed by the mujahedin.