AFGHANISTAN: Report exposes continuing human rights abuses

Green Left Weekly
, August 13, 2003

In late July, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report entitled Killing you is a very easy thing for us, a 101-page documentation of the chief forms of abuse prevalent today in Kabul and the densely populated provinces in the southeast of Afghanistan.

These are violent armed robbery, extortion and kidnapping by armed troops, police and intelligence agents, government-led attacks on fellow politicians and the media, and Taliban-like persecution of women and girls. According to the report, the abuses are not restricted to Afghanistan's southeast, but are “emblematic” of what is happening throughout the country.

HRW assigns blame for this situation to Afghanistan's infamous warlords, many of whom are remnants of the late Ahmad Shah Masood's United Front (the patchwork of the Mujaheddin or holy warrior factions which is currently referred to as the Northern Alliance) which, bankrolled by the US, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia, overthrew the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah in 1992.

These factions introduced a reign of terror until they were ousted by the Taliban in 1996. In HRW's words: “Past and current support for local forces by the US government, along with support by Pakistani and Iranian government agencies, has done much to entrench the warlords responsible for the worst abuses.”

HRW concludes that the responsibility for Afghanistan's post-Taliban terror belongs chiefly to the US administration of President George Bush, and to a lesser extent the country's US-imposed President Hamid Karzai. The report chides Washington for “propelling the Northern Alliance back into power, failing to take steps against abusive leaders, and impeding attempts to force them to step aside”, and Karzai and his political allies within Afghanistan's interim government for being “overly cautious in their attempts to remove warlords and rotate or dismiss military commanders responsible for human rights violations”.

The overall impact of human rights abuses in Afghanistan is starkly obvious. A climate of terror prevails in a country which has already suffered immensely. Washington's promise of security for Afghan men, women and children remains a distant dream. So does the country's reconstruction.

Amidst the nightmare, troops and police loyal to Afghan political and military figures have taken over most of the country's major cities and villages. They invade private homes, usually at night, to rob and assault civilians, hold residents hostage, terrorise them with weapons, steal their valuables and sometimes rape women and girls.

Outside their homes, under the threat of beatings, arrest, torture and ransom, Afghans face extortion on the roads and at proliferating official and unofficial checkpoints, as do shopkeepers in the market place. The rape of women, girls and boys is common but seldom reported.

The liberty for Afghans promised by Washington at the 2003 constitutional loya jirga [which constructed the current Kabul regime] — and supposed to be extended following the June 2004 national election — appears doomed as high-level officials in Kabul and warlord commanders in the south-east intimidate journalists and women's rights activists into silence. Those attempting to create political parties or non-government organisations are confronted with death threats and/or arrest.

Many of Afghanistan's journalists have been harassed, threatened, arrested and beaten during the first half of 2003. This has resulted in the country's journalists deciding against publishing critical or objective commentaries.

With the majority of the Afghan population unable to read, and few able to afford television even if they had electricity, radio is the more crucial means of circulating information. Local radio stations broadcast in many cities, but almost all are under the control of the warlord and Northern Alliance-affiliated authorities. One former journalist, now a rickshaw driver, told HRW that he had ceased working as a journalist “because here in my taxi, to some extent, I am by myself and independent. Journalists, however, have no security.”

Women and girls interviewed by HRW admitted that life in 2003 was better than that under the Taliban, as regulations barring women and girls from studying, working and going outside without wearing a burqa or unaccompanied by a close male relative had gone. However, many, especially in rural areas, explained that they prefer to remain at home rather than risk beatings, rape, abduction and/or forced marriage at the hands of armed men. For example in Jalalabad and Laghman, government officials threatened to beat or kill women not wearing a burqa.

Although around 1 million girls are now enrolled in school, many millions more are not. Many families explained to HRW that they declined to send their older girls to school, even where one was available, for fear that they might be attacked or kidnapped. Returning refugee families who felt it safe to send their girls to school in Pakistan or Iran said they were afraid to do the same in Afghanistan.

"...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. Cases of sexual violence are also noted in other sections of this report in the contexts in which they occur."

“Killing You is a Very Easy Thing For Us”
HRW report

Residents in one district outside of Kabul reported that soldiers were actively discouraging girls from seeking an education. A number of women believed that the troops were acting on orders from the likes of former United Front leaders Abdul Rabb al Rasul Sayyaf and Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose appalling persecution of women pre-dated the Taliban's atrocities.

According to HRW, the fears of many Afghans stem not only from current abuses, but have their roots in the crimes committed by the Northern Alliance rulers in the pre-Taliban days. As one woman explained: “We are afraid because we remember the past!”

Immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) warned that “until yesterday, the US and its allies were Jihadi [Mujaheddin]-fostering, Osama-fostering and Taliban-fostering. Today, they sharpen the dagger of the Northern Alliance, a policy which plunges our people into immense fear at re-experiencing the dreadful happenings of the years of the Jihadis' `emirate'.”

Almost two years on, the HRW report has confirmed RAWA's fears.

[Dr Lynette Dumble is the international co-ordinator and director of the Global Sisterhood Network.]

HRW Report is available publicly at:

h t t p : / / w w w . r a w a . o r g