Crimes of War: Afghanistan

Patricia Gossman

Conflict has raged in Afghanistan since April 1978. It has been marked by brutality on a massive scale. Although the major fighting ended with the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, conflict continues especially in the south and east of the country, and many of those responsible for war crimes in earlier phases of the war continue to wield power. During every phase of the fighting, Afghan and foreign armed factions committed crimes against humanity and serious war crimes. These included large-scale massacres, disappearances and summary executions of tens of thousands of Afghans, indiscriminate bombing and rocketing that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians, torture, mass rape and other atrocities. There has never been any serious effort, international or domestic, to account for these crimes.

Afghanistan’s quarter-century of war began on April 27, 1978, when the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a small, Marxist-Leninist party, launched a coup, overthrowing and killing then-President Mohammed Daoud Khan and most of his family. The PDPA then embarked on an ambitious and ruthless campaign to transform Afghanistan into a modern socialist state. Mass arrests and executions began shortly after the coup. Among the thousands of victims were individuals (or entire families) that the new regime considered as potential opponents: leaders of social, political, or religious groups, professionals of every kind and other members of the educated class.

Lacking popular support to carry out its political agenda, the PDPA found itself in a situation spiraling out of control. The repression sparked uprisings throughout the country and mutinies within the Afghan army that threatened to destabilize the regime. The disintegration of the army marked a turning point for Soviet policy and led to the decision to invade on December 25, 1979, ostensibly in response to a request for military support from the exiled deputy prime minister Babrak Kamal, who was then installed as a puppet leader.

The Soviet occupation brought about a shift in tactics in the war as the resistance forces began to coalesce around a number of factions largely organized along ethnic lines. They did not control the cities, but moved mainly in the rural areas where they enjoyed popular support. Most of the factions maintained headquarters or political representatives in Pakistan or Iran, where they also established conduits for vast amounts of military assistance that began to flow principally from the U.S. through Pakistan. Aware that the mass arrests and executions carried out earlier by the PDPA had only fueled the resistance and nearly destroyed the Army, the Soviets employed more systematic means of intelligence gathering. The secret police, the KhAD, was modeled on the Soviet KGB. It engaged in widespread summary executions, detentions and torture of suspected mujahidin (resistance) supporters. Torture survivors from this period whom I have interviewed regularly identified Soviet personnel supervising the torture.

In the countryside, Soviet forces bombed routinely and indiscriminately; the aim was both to demoralize the civilian population supporting the resistance and to destroy its means of providing food and shelter to the mujahidin. Thus, irrigation systems, cropland and other rural resources were bombed as well as villages. The bombing killed countless civilians and devastated the countryside. From the early 1980s on, most refugees arriving in Pakistan reported they had fled because of the bombing. In all, some five million Afghans fled the country. In addition to the bombing, Soviet and Afghan forces carried out reprisals against civilians, executing any they believed to support the resistance. Soviet forces also sowed mines throughout the country; many remain a threat to Afghans living in rural areas today.

Desertions from the Afghan army had so decimated the military that Soviet forces and advisors were deployed in great numbers; Soviet personnel made decisions for the state, and for the PDPA officials who nominally governed it. Thus, some responsibility for war crimes committed during this period may rest with those Soviet officers as well as with senior Afghan officials. The members of the politburos of the two countries’ ruling parties could also be held accountable for the decisions and policies during this period. No one knows how many Afghans died in the ten years following the revolution, but the number may be as high as one million.

In February 1986 the Soviet Union, under President Gorbachev, reached a decision to withdraw its forces by the end of 1988. The head of KhAD, Najibullah, was “elected” general secretary of the PDPA and subsequently became president of the Revolutionary Council. The Geneva Accords, outlining the provisions of the Soviet withdrawal, were signed on April 14, 1988, by Afghanistan, Pakistan, the U.S. and the USSR. Military and economic aid from the U.S. and USSR continued to their respective clients.

Without the Soviet army, the Najibullah government increasingly relied for its defense on regional militias, paying for their loyalty with Soviet-provided cash and weapons. Although some were regular army divisions, the militias operated outside ordinary chain of command within the military, and were largely autonomous within their areas of control. Militia forces were responsible for waylaying and robbing travelers, including returning refugees, extorting money from traders, kidnapping, looting property, forcibly taking land, and planting mines without mapping or marking them.

A number of mujahidin groups also committed war crimes during this period. Many of those based in Pakistan who had the support of Pakistani military and intelligence agencies operated with impunity and had considerable control over the Afghan refugee population. One of the most powerful of these was Hizb-i Islami, headed by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. These mujahidin carried out assassinations and maintained secret detention facilities in Pakistan; persons detained there included Afghan refugees who opposed the mujahidin leaders, or who worked for foreign NGOs, especially those employing women.

The demise of the Soviet Union meant the end of Soviet aid, and of the Najibullah regime. When the Najibullah government collapsed in April 1992, Kabul was engulfed in civil war as the multiple factions that had participated in the struggle against the PDPA regime and the Soviet occupation, along with the militias, fought for control of territory. Despite efforts by the UN and some of the neighboring countries to mediate, there was no agreement on a power-sharing settlement. The factional fighting fell largely along ethnic lines, and groups frequently targeted civilians from rival ethnic groups.

In many cases, the atrocities were carried out on the orders or with the direct knowledge of senior commanders and party leaders. However, senior commanders secured the loyalty of their subordinates at a cost, and operated with the knowledge that any effort to weaken the power of the commanders under them might lead them to switch sides, taking their troops with them. While this fact does not absolve the leaders of responsibility for the actions of their forces, it is critical in understanding command and control within the armed factions.

On April 26, 1992, most of the party leaders in Pakistan announced that they had reached agreement on an interim government that would hold power until a council could be convened and elections subsequently held. As defense minister of the new government, Ahmad Shah Massoud attempted to gain control first of Kabul itself—an objective that eluded him for three years. His principal foe was Hizb-i Islami, whose rocket attacks killed thousands of civilians between 1992 and 1995. Every major armed faction in Kabul had an arsenal of heavy weaponry that they used in battles that raged in the streets of Kabul during this period. Rape, as well as other targeted attacks on civilians, was ethnically based. In many cases, it was used as a means of ethnic cleansing. In one of the most notorious incidents of the civil war, hundreds of ethnic Shia Hazaras were raped and killed in a February 1993 massacre. Survivors I have spoken to identified commanders responsible for the killings and rape who continue to operate with impunity in Kabul. The leader of one of the factions responsible, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, was elected to parliament in September 2005.

The Taliban emerged out of the chaos of the post-1992 period. In this group’s first successful military operation, the Taliban disarmed and executed a notoriously predatory commander in Kandahar. The Taliban moved on to take on other commanders and very quickly attracted the support of Pakistan, who needed a client it thought would protect Pakistan’s interests. By 1995 the Taliban took control of Herat, and in 1996, Kabul. The Taliban’s actions with respect to women have been well documented, as they imposed harsh restrictions on girls’ schools and employment for women

The Taliban were highly centralized, with regional governors in all strategic provinces reporting directly to the group’s leader, Mullah Omar. The influence of non-Afghans over Mullah Omar increased after Osama bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996 and in 1997 moved to Kandahar.

In May 1997 the largest single massacre of the war took place. Mainly Uzbek troops under General Malik Pahlawan captured over 3,000 Taliban soldiers at Mazar-i-Sharif and executed them. Some were taken to a desert location and shot; others were thrown down wells. One of the few survivors described to me how he crawled from under the bodies until he reached a village where the residents were willing to shelter him. Gen. Malik continues to live in Kabul.

The major war crimes of the Taliban were committed between 1997 and 2001 as they moved outside their ethnic Pashtun heartland. In areas where they encountered resistance, Taliban forces responded by massacring civilians and other noncombatants, and burning down villages. In August 1998, they massacred at least 2,000 people, mainly Hazara civilians, in Mazar-i-Sharif, exacting what they said was revenge for the massacre of their own troops the previous year. In July 1999, the Taliban launched a major offensive across the plain north of Kabul known as Shamali (meaning “North”), summarily executing civilians, and burning down villages, fields and orchards. The devastation was incalculable. In both of these operations, the Taliban had considerable support from Pakistan.

When the United States intervened in Afghanistan in late 2001, its forces sought allies on the ground among the commanders of the so-called “Northern Alliance” opposed to the Taliban. The U.S.’s overriding objective in Afghanistan was to defeat al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power with minimal U.S. casualties. The fact that many of these new allies had records that included not only grave breaches of international humanitarian law, but in some cases criminal ties to narcotics trafficking and other illicit activities, apparently posed no obstacle. The U.S. provided arms, cash and other support to commanders whom it believed could keep the Taliban and al-Qaeda at bay. But the U.S. failed to achieve that objective. Athough a new central government was established under President Hamid Karzai in 2002, the Taliban remain a lethal force, with support flowing across the border from the “tribal areas” of Pakistan. Meanwhile a number of the commanders the U.S. has backed have strengthened their positions against rivals, and have continued to engage in abuse and criminal activities.

In mid-November, 2001, Northern Alliance forces surrounded the last Taliban stronghold in Kunduz. When the Taliban forces and the Pakistani and Arab fighters with them surrendered, thousands were taken into custody and transported to prison facilities under the control of General Dostum at Shiberghan and Qala-i-Jangi, near Mazar-i-Sharif. At least two hundred detainees (and, according to some sources, many more) reportedly died en route in the overcrowded container trucks used to transport them and were buried in mass graves in the desert area of Dasht-i-Leili near Shiberghan. Gen. Dostum later acknowledged that some two hundred prisoners had suffocated due to inadvertent overcrowding. A full investigation of the incident has never taken place.

Not all Afghan commanders and leaders involved in the long years of conflict engaged in war crimes; many should enjoy the right to participate in politics. However, too many with criminal records have secured places in political office or security agencies. By allying itself—for the sake of political expediency—with local commanders with long records of past crimes, the U.S. has jeopardized prospects for establishing stable and accountable institutions in Afghanistan, and has helped reinforce a pattern of impunity that undermines the legitimacy of the political process.

U.S. forces have also committed grave abuses. These have included crude and brutal methods of torture that have sometimes led to death, the use of secret detention facilities that facilitate torture; and unacknowledged detentions that are tantamount to disappearances, in violation of prohibitions on prolonged arbitrary detention in customary international humanitarian law and human rights law. During Cherif Bassiouni’s tenure as UN Independent Expert on Human Rights in Afghanistan, the U.S. blocked his efforts to inspect U.S. detention facilities. Bassiouni had particularly condemned the United States’ use of “firebases” to hold detainees—facilities not accessible to the ICRC. Under U.S. pressure, in 2005 the UN Human Rights Commission did not renew Bassiouni’s mandate.

In January 2005, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission published the results of a national survey which showed overwhelming support for measures to keep war criminals out of power and to begin a truth process to account for past crimes. Before the September 2005 parliamentary elections, an electoral complaint commission received hundreds of submissions from Afghans charging candidates with war crimes and human rights violations. The fact that many candidates known to have illegal militias were not removed from the ballot was seen as one factor in the low voter turnout. After months of delay, in December 2005, the cabinet of President Hamid Karzai’s administration adopted an action plan on transitional justice that was based on the Human Rights Commission’s recommendations. A year later, few of the recommended steps had taken place. While some Afghans see the need to find a way to address the past, others, as well as some senior U.S. officials, argue that rocking the boat will lead to greater instability. In fact, the failure to scrutinize the records of those vying for power has led to the entrenchment of persons who continue to terrorize civilians and otherwise undermine the political process.

Photo: Cemetery of Martyrs - Taliban-captured in Mazar-i-Sharif 1998 - Photos
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