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Afghanistan’s window of opportunity is closing fast. A new constitution and national elections are on the horizon, and warlords and abusive military commanders are becoming more and more entrenched. The international community and the Afghan Transitional Administration must act soon to improve the human rights situation. After the elections, scheduled for June 2004, it may be too late.
This report, based on research conducted from January through June 2003, documents human rights abuses in the southeast of Afghanistan, the most densely populated part of Afghanistan. If allowed to continue with impunity, these abuses will make it impossible for Afghans to create a modern, democratic state. Although many observers have noted the harmful effects of chronic insecurity in Afghanistan, few have sufficiently appreciated the extent to which continuing insecurity, at its heart, is due to policies and depredations of local government actors. Human Rights Watch found evidence of government involvement or complicity in abuses in virtually every district in the southeast. These include the provinces of Kabul, Wardak, Ghazni, Logar, Paktia, Paktika, Laghman, Nangarhar, Kapisa, and Kunar.
The three main types of abuse documented in this report are violent criminal offenses—armed robbery, extortion, and kidnappings—committed by army troops, police, and intelligence agents; governmental attacks on media and political actors; and violations of the human rights of women and girls. Many of these violations are preventable, but solutions will require the concerted attention and action of international and Afghan authorities alike, which to date has not been sufficiently forthcoming.
The report details specific accounts of the daily abuses suffered by Afghans: farmers in Paghman district in Kabul province staying awake at night in shifts to guard their property from thieving soldiers and police; bus and taxi drivers from Gardez in Paktia province being hijacked or beaten for not paying bribes to soldiers and police; people in Jalalabad being arbitrarily arrested by police or soldiers, accused of bogus crimes or “being a member of the Taliban,” and freed only after they or their family pay a ransom. It documents arbitrary arrests of and death threats against journalists by intelligence agents, police, and army officials, and detentions and intimidation of political opponents by government forces. It explains that many girls in areas such as Ghazni and Paghman are still unable go to school, and why women in areas such as Laghman fear attacks by local armed men if they speak about or promote women’s rights. These abuses are impeding the delivery of humanitarian aid and keeping some refugees and internally displaced persons from returning to their homes. The accumulation of cases, from an array of districts, demonstrates the problem’s pervasiveness and urgency.
Many prominent Afghan commanders, officials, and former mujahidin leaders, including officials in the Afghan ministry of defense, ministry of interior, and the intelligence agency, the Amniat-e Melli, are responsible for or are implicated in many of the abuses. Many of the abuses documented in this report were committed by soldiers belonging to militias and other forces under the command of high-level officials or political leaders. Several former mujahidin political leaders and military commanders who are not officially part of the Afghan government but who maintain military or quasi-military forces and exercise de facto governmental control of certain areas have also been implicated in violations. In some cases, officials or political leaders are responsible because they knew of the abuses but did little or nothing to prevent them. In other instances—especially cases of threats and arrests of journalists and political actors—some officials and political leaders were directly involved.
Serious human rights violations of the kind detailed in this report are not confined to the southeast—they are taking place throughout Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch has received information throughout 2003 about serious human rights violations in the southern province of Kandahar by troops under governor Gul Agha Sherzai; abuses in northern provinces around Mazar-e Sharif by troops under Atta Mohammad and Rashid Dostum; and continuing crackdowns on basic human rights by the governor of Herat, Ismail Khan. In this regard, the abuses documented here are emblematic of problems across the country, and the recommendations offered at the end of this report apply in many cases to the country as a whole.
Much of what we describe may at first glance be seen as little more than criminal behavior. But this is a report about human rights violations, as the abuses described were ordered, committed, or condoned by government personnel in Afghanistan—soldiers, police, military and intelligence officials, and government ministers. Worse, these violations have been carried out by people who would not have come to power without the intervention and support of the international community. And these violations are taking place not just in the hinterlands of Afghanistan. The cases described here took place in areas near the capital, Kabul, and even within Kabul itself.
Human Rights Watch believes that the situation leading to many of these violations was preventable, and that changes can be made to reduce ongoing violations of human rights. Most notably, past and current support for local forces by the U.S. government, along with support by Pakistani and Iranian government agencies, has done much to entrench the warlords responsible for the worst abuses. All international actors involved in Afghanistan—not only the United States but also other key United Nations (U.N.) member states, particularly those of the European Union (E.U.) and Afghanistan’s neighbors—share the blame for failing to expand international peacekeeping forces beyond Kabul to problematic areas such as Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and others. This could have done much to improve the security situation and help sideline the warlords.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and other international bodies, including some donors, deserve credit for identifying the shortcomings of the U.S.-led coalition’s strategies, but must also take responsibility for ultimately acquiescing and not being vocal enough in their complaints. The leadership of the U.N. mission in particular persistently attempted to convince the United States of the need to expand ISAF beyond Kabul, but the mission was slow to realize the scope of the problems created by U.S. support for warlords. President Karzai and his political allies in Kabul also deserve credit for attempting to pursue Ministry of Defense reform and planning for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) under difficult circumstances, but they, too, have been overly cautious in their attempts to remove warlords and rotate or dismiss military commanders responsible for human rights violations.
The situation today—widespread insecurity and human rights abuse—was not inevitable, nor was it the result of natural or unstoppable social or political forces in Afghanistan. It is, in large part, the result of decisions, acts, and omissions of the United States (U.S.) government, the governments of other coalition members, and parts of the transitional Afghan government itself. The warlords themselves, of course, are ultimately to blame. They have ordered, committed or permitted the abuses documented in this report. But the United States in particular bears much responsibility for the actions of those they have propelled to power, for failing to take steps against other abusive leaders, and for impeding attempts to force them to step aside.
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A number of serious consequences flow from the security problems and impunity documented in this report, consequences limiting freedom of expression as well as the rights of women and girls to liberty of movement, education, health care, privacy, and work. As this report shows, in many cases the violation of certain basic rights engenders secondary human rights violations. For instance, the impunity enjoyed by security forces who commit violent acts in turn facilitates violations of freedom of expression, as many people now fear being targeted if they speak openly. Targeting of women and girls by police and soldiers on the streets not only impairs their liberty of movement, but also has the effect of restricting their access to education, health care, and jobs, and keeps many from participating in Afghanistan’s political and civic life and reconstruction. This report documents both primary abuses and their secondary effects.
Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about threats and abuses against journalists and political actors in the heated political environment in Afghanistan, particularly in the lead-up to and during the upcoming constitutional convention (the constitutional loya jirga) and planned June 2004 national elections. As this report shows, several commanders in the southeast and some high-level officials in Kabul have repeatedly targeted Afghan journalists and media officials over the last year. Political organizers seeking to create political parties or civil society organizations have been arrested or given death threats. Women’s rights activists have been intimidated and silenced.
The threats are working. Many publications in Afghanistan censor themselves, withholding articles critical of certain leaders or reports about human rights abuses. Where critical articles are written, journalists often are afraid to name names, writing instead in general terms (for instance, criticizing “warlordism” generally instead of naming specific individuals).
The group Shura-e Nazar—a military-political structure consisting of several former mujahidin forces that fought with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces before the fall of the Taliban—is particularly culpable. Most cases of harassment, threats, and arrests of journalists in Kabul have occurred after those journalists have published articles critical of Shura-e Nazar members or those closely allied with Shura-e Nazar, such as the mujahidin leader Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf. Shura-e Nazar agents in the police, military, and intelligence forces have threatened members of several nascent political parties. Shura-e Nazar leaders, including Defense Minister Fahim and Education Minister Qanooni, have been implicated in these abuses.
Moreover, the fears of many Afghans, and the accompanying chilling effect, stem not only from ongoing abuses, but also from the memory of abuses committed by current rulers when they were previously in power in the early 1990s, before the Taliban seized power. As one woman in a rural area explained: “We are afraid because we remember the past.”1
There are many other culpable parties. Outside of Kabul, local commanders also stifle media activity. In several provinces, Human Rights Watch documented local leaders threatening journalists and found a climate of pervasive fear among journalists and political and civic activists, including women’s rights activists. This has created in many places an atmosphere in which free expression and political organization are essentially impossible. To cite but one example, the military leader of the Eastern Region of Afghanistan (including Nangarhar and its capital, Jalalabad), Hazrat Ali, has been implicated in arrests of political actors, chilling the expression of independent-minded activists throughout the area under his control.
Almost every woman and girl interviewed by Human Rights Watch in southeast Afghanistan said that life now was better than it was under the Taliban. Many women told us there were no longer government regulations barring them from studying, working, and going outside without wearing a burqa or without a close male relative (a mahram). However, on many occasions when Human Rights Watch asked women and girls if they were, in fact, studying, working, and going out without burqas, many said that they were not. This was especially true in rural areas. Most said this was because armed men have been targeting women and girls. Men and women told Human Rights Watch that women and older girls could not go out alone and that when they did go out they had to wear a burqa for fear of harassment or violence, regardless of whether they would otherwise choose to wear it. And in Jalalabad and Laghman, certain government officials have threatened to beat or kill women who do not wear it.
“We couldn’t go out during the Taliban,” said a woman in rural Paghman. “Now we are free and we can go out, but we don’t.”2
In many areas in the southeast and even in some parts of Kabul city, sexual violence against women, girls, and boys is both frequent and almost never reported. Women, girls, and boys are abducted outside of their homes in broad daylight and sexually assaulted; in some areas girls have been abducted on the way to school. Women and girls are raped in their homes, typically during the evening or night during armed robberies. One attack was seemingly intended to silence a women’s rights activist.
The consequences are dire for women and girls. In addition to the terrible physical and psychological harm caused by these attacks, they also serve to limit the participation of women in civil society and the public sphere. Sexual violence curtails their rights to education, to work, to privacy, and to health care. Many women and girls are essentially prisoners in their own homes.
While over a million girls are now enrolled in school, millions more are not. Many families said that they were unable to send their older girls to school, even where one was available, for fear they would be attacked or kidnapped. Residents in one district outside Kabul said that soldiers actively discouraged girls’ education, and staff at several private language institutes in Kabul told Human Rights Watch about harassment by police. Not all women and girls in a given area face identical restrictions, but in areas where armed men are targeting them, they all experience the effects.
Many Afghan women believe that some leaders in Kabul—former mujahidin leaders like Abdul Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani—oppose women’s rights and support these restrictions on their liberty. Many women told us that the soldiers under these men’s control, many of whom who have terrible records of abusing women’s rights even before the Taliban, are encouraging these restrictions because of their leaders’ policies.
The combination of fear, renewed restrictions on freedom of movement, and sexual violence will have a significant effect on the reconstruction of Afghanistan. If women and girls are marginalized, by gunmen or policy, efforts at national reconstruction will necessarily be incomplete.
Not enough is being done at the national or international level to address the causes of Afghanistan’s ongoing human rights and security problems. President Hamid Karzai has taken positive steps in some cases, but for the most part he has been too weak politically to implement changes that might limit or end day-to-day abuses. Karzai’s recent efforts to sideline regional commanders have not been particularly effective, partially because of the lack of U.S. support. The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which significantly increased its activities in the first half of 2003, has little power to affect the situation beyond cautiously monitoring abuses and calling for change. The commission has little protection, and commission members are understandably fearful of challenging warlords on their own.
The United States and the international community, as major power brokers in Afghanistan, have put too little pressure on military leaders outside of Kabul to obey President Karzai’s authority, to uphold human rights standards, or to relinquish power. Their continued funding, joint operations, and fraternizing with warlords has sent, at best, mixed messages about their goals and intentions.
If the United States does not make it clear both in words and actions that it supports internationally recognized, reform-oriented national leaders, it may soon be too late for the United States to be able to have a significant and positive influence on the security, human rights, and political situation. When requested by President Karzai to support lawful efforts to remove warlords or other abusive officials from positions of authority, the United States must respond positively. If the warlords win and President Karzai and other reformers lose, much of the world may conclude that the United States was never serious in its promises.
Many U.S., U.N., and Afghan officials have asserted that the solution to Afghanistan’s security problems lies in the creation of a new Afghan army. This claim sidesteps the fact that this plan’s fruition lies years away and that one military faction—Shura-e Nazar—dominates the Ministry of Defense and, therefore, efforts to rebuild the army. Before former fighters and their commanders can be channeled into the new army or disarmed and demobilized into civilian life, the defense ministry must be reformed and made more politically and ethnically representative of Afghan society.
Plans for the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) of former fighters and commanders have been drafted (the Afghanistan New Beginnings Program or “ANBP”). However, as currently designed, the DDR plans lack adequate enforcement or monitoring mechanisms and do not offer sufficient incentives or adverse consequences to sideline entrenched commanders. The plans are oriented predominately toward providing incentives to low-level troops. They contain no provisions to deal with more powerful warlords. Indeed, the plans do not directly address how and when major commanders—such as Herat Governor Ismail Khan, Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, or Defense Minister Fahim himself—will give up their private armies. These issues, which are vital to the success of any DDR program, are considered “political issues,” distinct from the supposedly technical issues of DDR. The Karzai government, the U.S. military, and the U.N. have struggled to devise plans for enforcing the disarmament plan and dealing with any “spoilers” who might seek to not comply. For example, the United States has put some pressure on Defense Minister Fahim to loosen his grip on power, but it has been overly cautious in its approach.
The United States, in coordination with several European nations, including Germany, the United Kingdom, and France, is in the process of creating several more international military-civilian “Provincial Reconstruction Teams” (PRTs) to be deployed in cities outside of Kabul (U.S.-led PRTs have already been deployed in Gardez, Kunduz, and Bamiyan). However, given their current size and mandate, it is not clear that these teams—which number approximately sixty to one-hundred troops and officials, and focus primarily on humanitarian and development work—will be able to improve security significantly or to monitor disarmament. Human Rights Watch believes the way to address the limitations of ISAF is to expand it to provinces outside Kabul, as called for by the U.N. mission. Until this is done, Human Rights Watch urges the United States and other PRT contributors to expand the numbers of PRT teams and their size and to limit their mandates to security, disarmament, and human rights protection rather than humanitarian or development efforts. The latter are more appropriately handled by the Afghan government, the U.N., and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Afghanistan’s warlords—many of whom were leaders in the fight against the Taliban and Soviet Union—should step aside and allow civilian governance. The message should be clear from both Kabul and the world’s capitals: the future of Afghanistan does not lie in militarization and rule of the gun, but in demilitarization and rule of law. Tens of thousands of former fighters and their commanders have to be demobilized, disarmed, and integrated back into society, and Afghanistan has to be put firmly under civilian rule. Only then—when troops and commanders from the past are made civilians—will both endemic fighting and endemic human rights abuses by security forces be put to an end.
A recommendation section appears at the end of this report. Key recommendations include the following:
1 Human Rights Watch interview with H.D., Kabul, March 13, 2003. The names of persons interviewed for this report have been disguised with initials not derived from their real names to ensure their security.
2 Human Rights Watch interview with R.S., Paghman, March 16, 2003.