When the United States-led coalition overthrew the Taliban in November 2001, Afghans were promised a new era of democracy and respect for human rights. The cycle of violence bred by decades of war and armed conflict would be tamed, warlords would be disarmed and removed from power, and the routine use of torture and arbitrary arrests would be proscribed. Afghans would now be able to speak freely, read newspapers of their choice, and organize private and professional associations. Perhaps most poignantly, odious restrictions on women, the medieval signature of the Taliban, would disappear.
For many Afghans, the end of the Taliban's uniquely oppressive rule was indeed a liberation. Yet almost one year later, the human rights situation in most of the country remains grim; the hopeful future Afghans were promised has not materialized. This has happened not simply because of the inherent difficulties of rebuilding an impoverished, devastated country, but because of choices the United States and other international actors have made, and failed to make.
In most parts of the country, security and local governance has been entrusted to regional military commanders-warlords-many of whom have human rights records rivaling the worst commanders under the Taliban. The United Nations (U.N.) pursuit of a "light footprint"1 has proven inappropriate and ineffective to protect human rights. American military forces have maintained relationships with local warlords that undercut efforts by U.S. diplomats and aid agencies to strengthen central authority and the rule of law.
Far from emerging as a stable democracy, Afghanistan remains a fractured, undemocratic collection of "fiefdoms" in which warlords are free to intimidate, extort, and repress local populations, while almost completely denying basic freedoms. Afghanistan, a textbook definition of a failed state under the Taliban, now runs the risk of becoming a state that fails its people, except this time on the international community's watch.
This report, which focuses on western Afghanistan and the city of Herat, documents a pattern of widespread political intimidation, arrests, beatings, and torture by police and security forces under the command of the local ruler and warlord, Ismail Khan. The report also documents an almost complete denial of the rights to freedom of expression and association in Herat. (Women and girls in Herat continue to suffer extreme forms of discrimination, including many Taliban-era practices that are now being revived. A separate report on women's rights in Herat is forthcoming.) This report's recommendation section discusses some of the changes in the U.N. and international mandate in Afghanistan that are necessary to address the worsening rights situation countrywide, and provides further guidance to the Afghan Transitional Administration and to Ismail Khan. It also makes recommendations directed at the U.S. and Iranian military presence in western Afghanistan.
Ismail Khan and his forces took power with the backing of the U.S.-led military coalition that attacked the Taliban in late 2001 in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Once in power, Ismail Khan has proven impossible for the national government in Kabul to dislodge. Ismail Khan's de facto government is comprised of fighters and commanders of the mujahidin and subsequent Northern Alliance (or United Front), which fought against the Taliban in the late 1990's. During the war against the Taliban, these forces received direct military and financial assistance from the United States and Iran. The U.S.-led bombing campaign in October and November 2001 allowed Ismail Khan's forces to advance on and then take Herat. U.S. and Iranian aid has helped him to consolidate his power.
Ismail Khan has now created a virtual mini-state in Herat, with little allegiance to Kabul. Herat has remained much as it was under the Taliban: a closed society in which there is no dissent, no criticism of the government, no independent newspapers, no freedom to hold open meetings, and no respect for the rule of law.
Though 2002, politically motivated arrests and violence have been common. In addition to political cases, ordinary criminal detainees have been held for days, beaten severely or tortured, intimidated, and insulted. This report documents also a pattern of arbitrary arrests, especially of the Pashtun minority.
Ismail Khan directs and is aware of much of this activity. There is convincing evidence that he personally ordered some of the political arrests and beatings. In one case, Ismail Khan himself struck a political prisoner and then ordered him to be tortured. In several other political cases, Amniat (intelligence) agents tortured or beat detainees as punishment for challenging Ismail Khan's rule-often after explicit threats had been communicated from Ismail Khan himself. The regularity of beatings and torture demonstrates that these cases are neither spontaneous nor the acts of "rogue" officers or agents. Rather, the abuses seem to be part of Ismail Khan's policy to create terror in the population in order to ensure their obedience and acquiescence.
A climate of fear now exists in Herat. People are afraid to challenge the government, or even to engage in activity that might lead to harassment. Women avoid meeting with men in public, non-political civic groups have stopped gathering, and university students refrain from discussing political issues. There are no independent newspapers or local radio programs.
A man who was severely beaten by Ismail Khan's forces described to Human Rights Watch the effect of the repression: "At any time I feel that I am in danger. When I leave my house, I do not know if I will return. I do not know whether something will happen to me, if there will be some car crash, or that I will be hit in the back of the head."3 Another witness talked about how his community's hopes after the hated Taliban regime was ended have been deflated: "What has changed in Afghanistan? All our hopes are crushed. We are completely disappointed. Look-all the same warlords are in power as before. Fundamentalism has come into power, and every day they strengthen their power."4
Women and girls were supposed to be among the chief beneficiaries of the removal of the Taliban. After years of Taliban repression, which included bans on work and education, there have been some improvements. In Herat, women and girls now have greatly improved access to education. They are no longer beaten in the streets for violating discriminatory rules.
However, many Taliban-era restrictions remain in place or are being reinstated in Herat. Women and girls continue to face discrimination, particularly in the areas of freedom of expression, association, employment, and movement. According to a U.N. official working with women's groups throughout the country, "Herat is the worst province for women in Afghanistan."5
Ismail Khan has made additional moves toward creating a closed society. In recent months his administration has announced an increasing number of restrictions and prohibitions on everyday conduct, said to be based on shari'a (Islamic law). Both men and women are instructed by the government to wear non-western, Islamic dress: women must wear the burqa or closed chadori; men have been forbidden from wearing neckties. All men, whether foreign or Afghan, are told not to shake hands with Afghan women; Afghan men are not supposed to shake hands with foreign women. Persons who commit "vice crimes," such as drinking alcohol, are subject to public humiliation-their heads are shaved or they are denounced on television. Western music and movies are not supposed to be sold, shown, or played. In October 2002, reconstituted "Vice and Virtue" squads entered Herat's main bazaar and closed several music and video shops, confiscating hundreds of videos, music cassettes, and movie posters. They then made a pile, poured gasoline on it, and set it on fire.6
Weaknesses of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)
UNAMA has applied the "light footprint" policy in an inconsistent manner that disadvantages human rights. The sense of lightness in the policy is supposed to apply to, among other things, the presence of international staff, yet the U.N. presence-staff from UNAMA, the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), among other agencies-around the country is quite large. But human rights workers are extremely scarce. In each regional center in Afghanistan (there are eight, of which Herat is one) there are only two UNAMA international staff members with human rights responsibilities as part of their job description. One is a civil and political affairs officer; the other works on humanitarian assistance. Neither can work full time monitoring human rights conditions. In Herat, as in other areas of Afghanistan, there are far more U.N. international staff devoted to food security than to human rights protection or monitoring.
To monitor the human rights situation in a province with as much violence and repression as Herat-and many provinces in Afghanistan have similar problems-requires a much higher level of staffing. The U.N. should also be willing and able to provide a protection function to persons in danger when necessary. Yet there are no current plans to create a strong, effective human rights monitoring mechanism in Herat or elsewhere, leaving U.N. regional staff with the responsibility of responding to serious cases but without the tools to do so in an effective manner. UNAMA officials told Human Rights Watch that they do plan to expand human rights monitoring staff, so that each regional office (including Herat) will have one international monitor and two Afghan officers exclusively dedicated to monitoring. Given the serious ongoing human rights problems in Afghanistan, this planned staffing increase is woefully insufficient.
UNAMA's overall approach to human rights monitoring and protection is inadequate. While some UNAMA officers work at times beyond their job descriptions to protect vulnerable persons, they have no capacity to address the systematic rights violations faced by average Afghans. This weakness is prevalent throughout Afghanistan. Senior officials in Kabul, including Lakhdar Brahimi, are aware of serious cases of politically motivated arrests, torture, extortion, and increasing violations of women's rights in Herat, but there is little sign that they consider human rights to be a priority. Having spent years learning hard lessons in places like Bosnia, Rwanda and Cambodia about the primary importance of human rights to long-term development and political stability and the need for trained international peacekeepers to take an active role in the protection of human rights, the U.N. seems to be reverting to a preference for political stability over human rights. The seminal "Brahimi Report" of 2000 argued that human rights and development are indivisible. According to the report, "the human rights component of a peace operation is indeed critical to effective peace-building."7 The author of that report now seems to be ignoring the cogency of his own arguments. The U.N. and its special representative must take the lead on human rights in Afghanistan. They are signally failing to do so.
There is no immediate domestic solution to this problem. The Afghan Human Rights Commission, created by the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, does not have any meaningful authority and lacks trained staff and the resources to deal with such a complicated human rights situation. With greater political and donor support the commission may be able to fulfill this role in the coming years. But at present it is unable to do so.
A light footprint has failed to protect human rights in western Afghanistan. It is now time to make a larger imprint on the ground in Herat and other parts of Afghanistan experiencing serious human rights violations.
The Need for Expanded Peacekeeping
It is vital that ISAF be expanded as soon as possible. Herat is a good example of how the absence of peacekeeping in Afghanistan has allowed human rights conditions to deteriorate. Instead of putting security into the hands of a trained and professional force, it has been put into the hands of Ismail Khan. The results have been predictable: insecurity has persisted and human rights abuses have continued.
The use of warlords to provide security in the short term, instead of international peacekeepers, is the weakest part of the current strategy of the United States and other coalition partners in Afghanistan. Simply put, security has been put in the hands to those who most threaten it. The situation would be greatly improved by an immediate expansion of ISAF peacekeepers to patrol areas of concern, including Herat city. Besides providing better security, expanded forces could work in cooperation with UNAMA to protect vulnerable persons and help train a new and independent police force.
Iranian and U.S. Presence in Western Afghanistan
The United States also appears to have significant influence over Ismail Khan. It has a significant military presence in the province, including an overt presence near Herat city, and has supplied Ismail Khan with military and financial assistance in the past. U.S. military forces have also been seen patrolling in several areas in the neighboring Badghis and Farah provinces.11 The U.S. military presence in the west of Afghanistan is composed of Special Forces troops, members of the U.S. Department of Defense Civil Affairs office, and one or more State Department officials.12
U.S. military officers, State Department, and Treasury Department officials have met with Ismail Khan at his office or residence, and with other senior Herat officials, including the head of Amniat-Nasir Ahmed Alawi-whose complicity in political intimidation and violence is discussed in this report.13 Sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch that Ismail Khan received U.S. military and cash assistance in late 2001 and early 2002.14Ismail Khan received U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Herat on April 29, 2002 at Herat airport. Rumsfeld's public comments about Ismail Khan (calling him "an appealing person.... thoughtful, measured and self-confident."), as well as references to the "Great Khan" by the commander of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Daniel McNeill, in July, indicated to Afghans U.S. official support for a leader who, in their view, is brutal and repressive.15 Regrettably, this sort of deference to Ismail Khan was also expressed to Human Rights Watch by several NGO, U.N., and government officials. Ismail Khan cannot fail to be aware of these sentiments, or the fact that both the United States and its coalition partners appear to be putting good relations with a warlord over respect for human rights.
In the absence of an expanded ISAF force (or even in addition to one), U.S. troops stationed around Herat could make a valuable contribution to the security of the region. U.S. forces should take on a greater role in peacekeeping activities, patrolling Herat and other sensitive areas in the west, and using civil and political affairs officers to identify and assist vulnerable persons. The U.S. military has units and personnel with considerable peacekeeping and indispensable logistical capabilities on which peacekeepers from other countries would need to rely. These forces and capabilities could be put to use-not only in Herat, but also in other areas in Afghanistan with similar security problems.
1 A term coined by the U.N. secretary-general's special representative to Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, to describe his plans for implementing a small U.N. presence in Afghanistan with substantial local input.
2 Human Rights Watch interview with UNAMA official, Kabul, September 8, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with a senior humanitarian NGO official, Herat, September 16, 2002.
3 Human Rights Watch interview with A.L., Herat, September 11, 2002. The names of persons interviewed for this report have been disguised with initials not derived from their real names, to ensure their security.
4 Human Rights Watch interview with D.A.H., Herat, September 11, 2002.
5 Human Rights Watch interview with U.N. official, Kabul, September 9, 2002.
6 Human Rights Watch telephone interview with G.Z.K., October 10, 2002.
7 United Nations, Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, U.N. Doc. A/55/305-S/2000/809, August 21, 2000, para. 41.
8 Human Rights Watch interview with J.G.S., Kabul, September 25, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with a senior UNAMA official, Kabul, September 24, 2002.
9 Human Rights Watch interview with J.G.S., Kabul, September 25, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with H.H.G., Herat, September 16, 2002.
10 Human Rights Watch interview with F.I., Herat, September 17, 2002.
11 Human Rights Watch interview with a senior UNAMA official, Kabul, September 24, 2002.
12 Ibid. A small number of British military and diplomatic staff have also been observed in those areas.
13 Human Rights Watch interview with W.D.H., Herat, September 14, 2002; Human Rights Watch interview with L.H., September 13, 2002. Human Rights Watch researchers observed U.S. officers meeting with a senior Herat government official in Herat on September 18, 2002. See also "Afghan and U.S. delegations visit western Herat Province," BBC Monitoring Service transcript of Bakhtar News Agency radio broadcast, 1318 GMT, September 23, 2002.
14 Human Rights Watch interviews with Afghan government officials familiar with military activities during the war against the Taliban, Kabul and Herat, September 2002. The Pentagon has never denied that it supported warlords during the war against the Taliban and has publicly admitted that it continues to supply warlords in Afghanistan with weapons taken from seized Taliban or al-Qaeda caches. See e.g., Chris Hawley, "U.S. arms warlords with seized weapons," Associated Press, October 22, 2002.
15 See Linda Kozaryn, "`On the Edge' with Rumsfeld in Afghanistan," American Forces Press Service, April 29, 2002; Susan B. Glasser, "Karzai Team Sent to Calm Unruly Area; Afghan Militia Leader Evasive About Truce," Washington Post, July 25, 2002.