Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page


The Return to Warlordism in Northern Afghanistan
On November 9, 2001, the Taliban fled from northern Afghanistan's largest city, Mazar-i Sharif. This ended more than two years of brutal Taliban rule in this part of Afghanistan that began with the massacre of thousands when the Taliban first took control of Mazar-i Sharif in August 1998. The Taliban's fullscale retreat left Mazar-i Sharif and surrounding areas in the hands of three rival commanders and their soldiers-the predominantly ethnic Uzbek Junbish-i Milly-yi Islami of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the predominantly ethnic Tajik Jamiat-e Islami led in Mazar-i Sharif by Ustad Atta Mohammad, and the smaller ethnic Hazara Hizb-i Wahdat, led in the north by Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq.1

On February 3, 2002, the three parties signed a U.N.-backed agreement establishing a 600-person security force for the city. The force, headed by Junbish commander Majid Rouzi, is to include 240 officers from Jamiat, and 180 each from Junbish and three Hazara parties, including Hizb-i Wahdat. Since the agreement went into effect, the remaining troops have begun withdrawing to their respective bases on the city's outskirts, although it remains uncertain whether they will fully comply with the withdrawal agreement.2 Even in Mazar-i Sharif, the balance of military fire-power remains firmly in the hands of the three ethnic parties, and not the lightly armed 600-person security force they have agreed upon.

Outside of Mazar-i Sharif, competition for territory between the factions remains acute and skirmishes initiated by low and mid-level commanders present recurrent security problems. During the last two weeks of February, for example, fighting between Junbish and Jamiat forces broke out at least twice in Sholgara, south of Mazar-i Sharif, and in Khulm, to its east.

In other parts of the north, commanders affiliated with the three major parties have established de facto authority over large areas. Jamiat forces have taken effective control of Baghlan province, while Junbish is dominant in Faryab, Jowzjan, and most of Samangan province. Kunduz and Balkh, the province that includes Mazar-i Sharif, remain contested, and at the time of Human Rights Watch's visit, gaining the support of ethnic Pashtun commanders was becoming a decisive factor in this power struggle. In Balkh, a realignment of Pashtun commanders-many of whom supported General Dostum in the pre-Taliban period-with Jamiat was underway, while their counterparts in Kunduz were mainly allied with Junbish.3 This represents, however, only a rough overview of the territorial fragmentation of northern Afghanistan; at a local level, and on a district level in cities, the picture is considerably more complex. In many districts of Balkh province, for example, Junbish, Jamiat, and Hizb-i Wahdat forces control villages within the same vicinity, creating an intricate patchwork of shifting alliances.

The Major Parties
Junbish-i Milli-yi Islami-yi Afghanistan (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, hereinafter known as Junbish) brought together northern, mostly ethnic Uzbek, former militias of the communist regime who mutinied against President Najibullah in early 1992. It also included former leaders and administrators of the old regime from various other ethnic groups, mainly Persian-speaking, and some Uzbek mujahidin commanders. In 1998 it lost all of the territory under its control, and some of its commanders defected to the Taliban. Its founder and principal leader remains General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who rose from security guard to leader of Najibullah's most powerful militia. This group took control of Mazar-i Sharif in alliance with other groups in early 1992 and controlled much of Samangan, Balkh, Jowzjan, Faryab, and Baghlan provinces. A coalition of militias, Junbish was the strongest force in the north from 1992 to 1997, but was riven by internal disputes. Junbish became largely inactive in 1998, until Dostum returned to northern Afghanistan in April 2001. General Dostum currently serves as deputy minister of defense in the interim government.

Jamiat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Group of Afghanistan, hereinafter known as Jamiat) is one of the original Islamist parties in Afghanistan, established in the 1970s by students at Kabul University where Jamiat's leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was a lecturer at the Islamic Law Faculty. Although Rabbani remains its official head, Jamiat's most powerful figure was its military commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, until his assassination by suspected al-Qaeda elements on September 9, 2001. As the dominant faction of the Northern Alliance that controlled the key supply routes, Jamiat has received significant military and other support from Iran and Russia. Massoud was succeeded as defense minister of the Islamic State of Afghanistan, the administration established by the Northern Alliance, by Mohammad Qasim Fahim. Fahim retains that post in the interim government. Both Massoud and Fahim were ethnic Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, the dominant group within Jamiat.

Hizb-i Wahdat-i Islami-yi Afghanistan (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, hereinafter known as Hizb-i Wahdat) is the principal Shi'a party in Afghanistan with support mainly from the Hazara ethnic community. Hizb-i Wahdat was originally formed by Abdul Ali Mazari in order to unite eight Shi'a parties in the run-up to the anticipated collapse of the communist government. Its current leader is Mohammed Karim Khalili. The leader of its Executive Council of the North, Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, commanded the party's forces in Mazar-i Sharif in 1997. Hizb-i Wahdat has received significant military and other support from Iran, although relations between Iranian authorities and party leaders have been strained over issues of Iranian influence and control. The party has also received significant support from local Hazara leaders.

Warlordism and the International Community
For the past two decades, international power politics have directly contributed to the growth of warlordism in Afghanistan. This occurred during the mujahidin war against Soviet occupation (1979-1989), the internecine factional fighting that followed the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the collapse of the pro-Soviet government (1992-1996), and the conflict between the Taliban government and the Northern Alliance that continued up to the collapse of the Taliban government (1996-2001). Outside powers such as Russia, the United States, Pakistan, Iran and others have directly and indirectly provided support for the warlords that they saw as advancing their interests.4 The abusive records of many warlords and their forces were often overlooked as international powers sought to advance their strategic interests in Afghanistan: During the mujahidin war, for example, the United States provided extensive support for some of the most extremist and abusive of the Islamist forces fighting in Afghanistan, ignoring ideology and human rights norms in their proxy confrontation with the Soviet Union.

During the U.S.-led military campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda that commenced on October 7, 2001, the international coalition again relied significantly on Afghanistan's anti-Taliban warlords to achieve its military objectives.5 The U.S. and its allies rearmed anti-Taliban forces, provided them with tactical support through U.S. special forces liaisons with them on the ground, and gave aerial bombing support. Afghan anti-Taliban forces did most of the fighting on the ground, and took military control of the areas they conquered.

In the process, ethnically based factions and individual warlords came, again, to virtually monopolize power in Afghanistan. Allowing the warlords to carve up the Afghan countryside among themselves may not have been the aim of U.S. policy during the anti-Taliban war, but it was an almost unavoidable consequence of the U.S. reliance on Afghan anti-Taliban forces. Ahmed Rashid, one of the best known authorities on Afghanistan, analyzed the impact of U.S. support on the renewed rise of warlords in Afghanistan:

In the 1980s, Washington backed anti-Soviet Afghan militias which in victory produced the factionalism that brought the Taliban to power. Now, the same forces, which with U.S. backing ousted the Taliban, are threatening to return the country to warlordism all over again.
Warlords whose armies acted as proxy U.S. ground forces in the Taliban campaign are now refusing to disarm or accept the writ of the country's fledgling interim government. They are even defying the Americans, say Western diplomats....
In the north, Gen. Rashid Dostum, also heavily armed by the Americans, is protecting former Taliban leaders and his own commanders, who are carrying out widespread pillaging and looting, making it impossible for U.N. agencies to start humanitarian relief. Dostum loyalist Hawaz, who was armed and trained by U.S. Special Forces in October as backup for the U.S. bombing campaign of Mazar-e-Sharif, was killed near there on Jan. 2 while looting villagers.... Gen. Dostum has refused to discipline Commander Hawaz's men, even though interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai appointed Gen. Dostum deputy defense minister in a bid to co-opt him.6

Territorial control by ethnically-based parties influenced the U.N.-sponsored talks in Bonn that resulted in an agreement for the constitution of an interim government on December 5, 2001. The Panjshiri Tajik leadership of Jamiat, the dominant element within the United Front (Northern Alliance), secured the three most critical government departments: defense, interior, and foreign affairs. Hizb-i Wahdat received control of the planning department, whose head-Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq-was also designated one of five deputy chairmen of the Interim Cabinent.7 Discontent over the allocation of portfolios proved to be a major source of friction among the major parties. Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ismail Khan, the military governor of Herat and an ally of Jamiat leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, immediately denounced what they characterized as the marginalization of their ethnic parties and regions, respectively.8 Dostum was subsequently offered, and accepted, the post of deputy defense minister, while Ismail Khan pledged to recognize the Interim Administration while proclaiming autonomy for five western provinces.9

The current competition and realignments involving armed parties in northern Afghanistan is in part driven by their desire to consolidate authority prior to the convening of the emergency Loya Jirga (Grand National Assembly). The Bonn Agreement itself provided that within six months of the assumption of office by the Interim Administration, an emergency Loya Jirga would be convened to appoint a transitional administration, which would in turn lead Afghanistan for up to two years, until a "fully representative government can be elected through free and fair elections."10 The Special Independent Commission for the Convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga, whose members were designated in late January, includes distinguished Afghan civil society representatives; under the terms of the Bonn Agreement, it has final authority for "determining the procedures for and the number of people who will participate," including establishing "criteria for the inclusion of civil society organizations and prominent individuals" and adopting and implementing procedures for "monitoring the process of nomination of individuals to the Emergency Loya Jirga to ensure that the process of indirect election or selection is transparent and fair."11 Despite these provisions, many Afghans interviewed by Human Rights Watch remained apprehensive about the prospects for a transparent selection process under the prevailing security conditions.

Abuses Faced by Pashtuns
In northern Afghanistan, one ethnic group was effectively left out of the new power arrangement: the ethnic Pashtun minority that had been closely identified with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. Most of the Taliban leadership had been Pashtuns from southern Afghanistan. As soon as the Taliban collapsed, Pashtun communities were quickly disarmed across northern Afghanistan, and soon faced widespread abuses at the hands of the three ethnic militias-Junbish, Wahdat, and Jamiat-as well as by armed Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras taking advantage of the imbalance of power created by the sudden disarming of Pashtun communities.

Throughout northern Afghanistan, Pashtun communities faced widespread looting, beatings, abductions, extortion, and incidents of killing and sexual violence. In some communities, these abuses continued for months. While the wave of violence and abuse against Pashtuns has somewhat diminished since the first months following the fall of the Taliban, Pashtun communities continue to face serious and regular abuses. In addition, Pashtun communities have been stripped of their assets, impoverished, and displaced by the abuses, and face a difficult future.

A team of four Human Rights Watch researchers traveled to northern Afghanistan in February and March 2002 to investigate the human rights situation in northern Afghanistan. The team visited dozens of Pashtun villages and communities in Balkh, Faryab, Samangan, and Baghlan provinces. The team also met with Afghan government representatives, members of the diplomatic community, and humanitarian aid workers to gather additional information.

The abuses documented in this report represent only a fragment of the overall abuses suffered by ethnic Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime. In almost all of the villages visited, Human Rights Watch researchers were approached by dozens of villagers who offered us more accounts of abuses similar to the ones documented in this report. Everyone in the village would try to get the researchers' attention, or give the researchers detailed list of the goods that had been looted from their homes. Because of time and resource constraints, our researchers were able to interview only a fraction of those victims, but their accounts are representative of the suffering of many more.

Our research was also geographically selective. There are hundreds of Pashtun villages and communities throughout northern Afghanistan, and it would have been impossible to visit them all. Instead, we visited clusters of villages in the different northern provinces that represented the major concentrations of Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan. All of the Pashtun villages we visited had been affected by the looting and violence, indicating just how widespread and serious the abuses faced by Pashtuns in northern Afghanistan were.

Human Rights Watch researchers received credible reports of sexual violence against ethnic Pashtun women and girls. While the reports of sexual violence were widespread, Human Rights Watch was able to confirm only a small number of specific cases due to the difficulties inherent in documenting such attacks. According to independent studies, Afghan women symbolize their families' and societies' honor, with Pashtun communities, in particular, placing a high value on women's chastity.12 Historically, some of these communities have sanctioned "honor" killings in which a woman is killed by her own relatives for bringing "dishonor" upon the family by conduct perceived as breaching community norms on sexual behavior-including being a victim of sexual violence.13 This deep stigma may explain why most women and men were unwilling to provide details of specific incidents. In addition, some of the women and girls were unavailable since families had sent them to secure locations because of a fear of further sexual violence. Women doctors in the north confirmed that because of the shame associated with sexual violence, many Pasthun families do not seek medical attention for victims of rape, even if they are severely injured, except when a woman becomes pregnant.

Displacement of Pashtuns
Targeted violence against ethnic Pashtuns has led to the internal displacement of thousands across northern Afghanistan, with most moving from rural areas toward cities and towns that have larger concentrations of Pashtuns and where they believe there is greater security. Although some have taken up residence in private homes, others live in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) or in abandoned villages. Displaced ethnic Pashtuns face ongoing security problems; Human Rights Watch documented two cases in which members of armed groups abducted IDPs, in Mazar-i Sharif and on the outskirts of Baghlan city. Both displaced Pashtun communities and those who remain in their places of origin also reported persistent difficulty in securing humanitarian assistance. Pashtun villagers frequently said that they were systematically denied access to humanitarian aid by local authorities or non-Pashtun residents on the basis of their ethnicity.

Since early January 2002, newly displaced Afghans-the majority of whom have been Pashtuns-have sought refuge in Pakistan, mostly at the Pakistani border town of Chaman. While Pakistan's borders have been officially closed since the fall of 2000, the government of Pakistan has allowed vulnerable refugees, identified as such by Pakistani border guards, to enter at Chaman in fixed daily quotas starting from November 2001.

On several occasions the numbers of new arrivals to Chaman were far larger than the daily entry quotas set by the government. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized Pakistan's official border closure policy, and the policies that have prevented entry at Chaman, because they obstruct the right to seek asylum and can endanger the lives of refugees.14 Families waiting to enter at Chaman were left to subsist beyond the reach of U.N. or nongovernmental organization (NGO) assistance workers, in squalid and dire conditions in a "no-man's land" located just outside the Killi Faizo transit camp.15 Even with the difficulty in gaining entry to Pakistan, 47,000 Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan through Chaman between January and March 8, 2002.16

The human rights abuses perpetrated against Pashtuns documented in this report, together with a worsening humanitarian situation in certain areas, were at the root of this recent refugee flight. Pashtun refugees consistently reported fleeing because of ethnic persecution. By early January, for instance, Pashtun families described fleeing the southwestern city of Herat because of harassment, telling officials of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that "the soldiers were looting in the city and forcing people belonging to the Pashtun tribe to pay them money."17 Four weeks later, another wave of Pashtun refugees arrived at the border. "They claim that they were persecuted because of being Pashtuns," UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski said.18

In late February 2002, ethnic Pashtun refugees told UNHCR they decided to "seek safety after being robbed and intimidated in ethnically mixed villages in northern Afghanistan, often at the instigation of local commanders."19 U.N. Spokesperson Yusuf Hassan commented that UNHCR had "a substantial number [of new refugees] who have said that they have been forced off of their land, that their houses have been looted, that they have been violently attacked...and some of them say their relatives have been killed in what appears to be increasing attacks against Pashtuns in Afghanistan."20 Still other refugees from the camp for internally displaced persons at Spin Boldak, south of Kandahar, said the area was "teeming with gunmen and bandits" since the collapse of the Taliban regime.21

1 John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore, "For Now, Rival Warlords Put Aside Bitter Feuds of Past," Washington Post, November 12, 2001.

2 As of late February 2002, the security force had closed down approximately 70 to 80 percent of the unauthorized armed posts in Mazar-i Sharif. Human Rights Watch interview with a U.N. official, Mazar-i Sharif, February 23, 2002. However, armed gunmen who did not belong to the security force were still evident in significant numbers throughout the city.

3 Human Rights Watch interviews with U.N. officials, Mazar-i Sharif, February 2002.

4 See Human Rights Watch, "Crisis of Impunity: The Role of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in Fueling the Civil War in Afghanistan," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 13, no. 3 (C), July 2001.

5 See Human Rights Watch, "Dangerous Dealings: Changes to U.S. Military Assistance After September 11," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol 14, no. 1 (G), February 2002, pp. 6-8; Susan B. Glasser, "U.S. Backing Helps Warlords Solidify Power," Washington Post, February 18, 2002.

6 Ahmed Rashid, "Fledgling Afghan Government Faces Scourge of Warlordism-Local Leaders Who Ousted Taliban With Aid of U.S. Are Restoring Old Fiefs," Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2002.

7 "Afghan Deputy Leaders Reflect Afghan Ethnic Mix," Reuters, December 5, 2002.

8 Peter Baker, "Afghan Factions Criticize Accord: Some Leaders Vow to Boycott Regime," Washington Post, December 7, 2001; "Key Afghan Warlords Reject Bonn Deal," BBC World News, December 6, 2001.

9 "Afghan Warlord Given Top Job," BBC World News, December 24, 2001.

10 Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions ("Bonn Agreement"), December 5, 2001, Art. I, Sec. 4; "Kabul Sets June Meeting Date for Council on Ruling Nation," Associated Press, April 1, 2002.

11 Bonn Agreement, Art. IV, Sec. 2.

12 Hafizullah Emadi, The Politics of Women and Development in Afghanistan, (New York: Paragon House, 1993), p. 22; Anna M. Pont, "Eat What You Want, Dress the Way Your Community Wants: The Position of Afghan Women in Mercy Corps International Programme Areas," A Mercy Corps International Report, (May 1998), pp. 2-4.

13 Emadi, The Politics of Women, pp. 16, 23; Benedicte Grima, The Performance of Emotion Among Paxtun Women, (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 150-154, 163-165; Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. S., aged 40, Mazar-i Sharif, February 23, 2002.

14 See, e.g., "Refugee Crisis in Afghanistan: Pakistan, Tajikistan Must Reopen Borders to Fleeing Afghans," Human Rights Watch Press Release, November 11, 2001.

15 Once they are allowed to enter, refugees are processed and given humanitarian assistance in the Killi Faizo camp before being transferred to one of several permanent camps located in the area. In early December 2001, approximately 2,000 refugees were trapped in the no-man's land, subsisting without adequate food or water, and sleeping in freezing temperatures at night. See "Refugees Trapped in No Man's Land," BBC News, December 4, 2001. In January 2002, 13,000 newly arrived refugees were again trapped. See "Number of Afghan Refugees in No-man's Land Rises," UNHCR News Release, January 11, 2002. In both the December and January cases, the government of Pakistan eventually temporarily lifted the quota to allow the Afghan refugees to enter, but only after weeks of waiting, during which many refugees fell ill because of the harsh conditions. On February 21, the government of Pakistan again decided to close the border to all new arrivals at Chaman. This time, more than 10,000 refugees were left waiting to enter Pakistan.

16 See "UNHCR Gets Green Light To Register Afghans Fleeing Hunger and Insecurity," UNHCR News, March 8, 2002.

17 "New Influx of Afghan Refugees Arrives at Chaman Border Crossing in Pakistan," UNHCR News, January 29, 2002.

18 "Thousands of Afghans flee persecution to Pakistan-UNHCR," Agence France Presse via NewsEdge Corporation, January 29, 2002.

19 UNHCR spokesperson Kris Janowski, "Afghanistan: Dramatic Increase in Numbers at Chaman Border," UNHCR News, February 19, 2002.

20 Louis Meixler, "Thousands of Ethnic Pashtuns Fleeing Northern Afghanistan," Associated Press, February 21, 2002.

21 "UN Appeals to Pakistan on Refugees," Agence France Presse via NewsEdge Corporation, January 16, 2002.

Previous PageTable Of ContentsNext Page