NATO's Shame in Afghanistan

Human Rights Watch
, June 25, 2004

Absent Security, Elections At Risk

New York - NATO should immediately expand its forces in Afghanistan to provide security for elections scheduled there this fall, Human Rights Watch said today. U.S. President George W. Bush and other top NATO leaders will discuss Afghan security at the major NATO summit that opens in Istanbul on June 28.

Human Rights Watch said that with three months to go before what could be Afghanistan's first-ever democratic election, the country remains plagued by insecurity and political repression and urgently needs more NATO support to allow for registration of voters and protection of vulnerable political actors and voting sites.

Mr. Bush's blunders in Afghanistan followed decades of shortsighted American policies that built up the power of warlords.... they began fighting one another, terrorizing civilians and opening the way for the Taliban.

The warlords got an unexpected chance to rebuild their power when the Bush administration chose to rely mainly on their private armies to eject the Taliban from Kabul in late 2001.

A prime target should be Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a militant Islamist, long backed by Saudi Arabia, whose fighters have been responsible for multiple human rights abuses and war crimes over the years, including a 1993 massacre of civilians in Kabul.

Another dangerous warlord is Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, who, in addition to being the government's defense minister, commands a private army of at least 50,000 fighters.

New York Times (Editorial), , July 15, 2004

"If the elections don't take place because of insecurity, or if they are conducted but are not free and fair, the blame will rest squarely on the heads of the U.S. and its NATO allies," said Sam Zarifi, Deputy Director for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "Contrary to what was promised to the Afghan people, NATO's foot-dragging has contributed to a worsening security situation and major shortcomings with reconstruction."

Human Rights Watch said that journalists and independent candidates in the upcoming Afghan elections face serious threats from local warlords who control much of Afghanistan. In most provinces outside of Kabul, local military strongmen control the security forces and use them to maintain political power. Human Rights Watch has issued numerous reports in the last two years about political repression by military strongmen across Afghanistan.

NATO officially took over the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in August 2003, the organization's first mission outside the European/Atlantic area. Before that, individual NATO members had provided troops for ISAF, beginning with the United Kingdom, and followed by Turkey and a joint German/Dutch mission.

"Recent experience in Afghanistan shows that the warlords will take power when there is a security vacuum," said Zarifi. "For the elections scheduled later this year to come off, NATO will need both to provide additional security for vulnerable candidates and voting sites, and to help to disarm militias."

NATO currently has only some 6,500 troops in Afghanistan, compared with the 40,000 strong force that provided security in Kosovo, a region a tenth of the size of Afghanistan. Of NATO's small contingent in Afghanistan, 6,200 are limited to the confines of the city of Kabul, with a significant portion dedicated to protecting European embassies. Some 200 German troops are stationed in the northern provincial city of Kunduz, generally considered one of the safest areas in the country, although eleven Chinese construction workers were recently murdered there by Taliban sympathizers.

"At this point, the outcome of Afghanistan's elections and NATO's credibility are totally intertwined," said Zarifi. "But so far NATO countries have done little to establish credibility in Afghanistan."

Human Rights Watch pointed out that the Istanbul Summit gives NATO the opportunity to remedy several commitments it has failed to keep in Afghanistan:

- NATO should provide the security necessary to create an atmosphere conducive to free and fair elections. Despite estimates by the U.N. and the Afghan government that they will need at least an additional 5,000 NATO troops to provide security for the elections, NATO countries have not yet committed extra troops. Canada, which has fielded one of the largest troop contingents in Afghanistan, is pulling out about half of its 1,900 troops from Afghanistan in August, weeks before the scheduled elections. Canadian Foreign Affairs sources told Human Rights Watch in mid-June 2004 that NATO had not asked Canada to maintain its troop strength in Afghanistan.

- NATO should assist the Afghan government to provide general security around the country, pursuant to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1510. Except for the small contingent now placed in Kunduz, NATO has utterly failed in this regard. As recently as the end of April, NATO had promised to assume responsibility for five additional provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs, small missions with a combined military and reconstruction mandate) by the Istanbul Summit. As of this writing, this has not occurred. Requests by NATO commanders in Kabul for basic logistical support necessary for expanding and protecting troops outside Kabul, specifically, ten helicopters and one C-130 transport airplane, have not yet been fully met by NATO countries.

- NATO should assist and accelerate the process of disarmament of militias. Afghan warlords still command tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of armed men, as well as heavy weaponry, artillery, missiles, and armored vehicles. Even in Kabul, where ISAF has been operating for over two years, less than half of these forces have been decommissioned. Outside of Kabul, disarmament has proceeded at an even more anemic pace.

On June 23, NATO officials in Brussels said publicly that NATO would deploy in coming weeks in several northern provinces in Afghanistan, but no specifics were given on troop levels or areas of deployment.

Human Rights Watch noted that over fifty humanitarian and human rights organizations working in Afghanistan called on NATO members last week to increase their troop commitments to ISAF.

On June 21, Jean Arnault, the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which is helping to organize the Afghan elections, also called on NATO to increase its support to ISAF.

Human Rights Watch emphasized that Afghanistan's security problems, although overshadowed by events in Iraq, were still extremely severe and that international actors need to respond quickly to improve the situation.

"The Istanbul summit is NATO's last real chance to show that it takes its responsibility toward the people of Afghanistan seriously," said Zarifi.

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