The Afghanistan Justice Project is a human rights organization. Our goal is to expose human rights violations, and by doing so exert pressure on international donors, international and Afghan policy-makers and government officials to account for the crimes of the past.
In addition to the reports AJP will publish, AJP publishes opinion pieces. We also make available on this website analytical articles written by members of our staff that explore aspects of the conflict in Afghanistan.
KABUL: The fledgling efforts toward establishing the rule of law in Afghanistan took a great leap backward last month. In secret, President Hamid Karzai ordered the execution of Abdullah Shah, a man who could have revealed atrocities committed by one of Karzai’s closest advisers.
Before Shah was executed, he said that he was responsible for war crimes during Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s but that he had been acting under orders. With his death, the truth about some of the horrors of Afghanistan’s past – and who in the top leadership might have ordered those crimes – has been buried.
Shah, who was convicted of several murders including the killing of an infant, died April 20, but the execution was made public only after Amnesty International condemned it. Shah was widely known to be a commander under Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of a militia that human rights groups say was involved in mass rape and the disappearance of hundreds of people.
When I interviewed Shah in jail in February, he did not deny his part in war crimes, but said Sayyaf gave the orders. He did not ask for the release or claim that he was innocent – only that he be transferred to the custody of another ministry where he might have some protection from what he said were plans to silence him.
Shah is far from the only person to describe atrocities. I have also interviewed women who describe in detail the actions of Sayyaf’s troops in the civil war: one saw her small son die while militia members raped her. I have interviewed men held in makeshift jails at Sayyaf’s headquarters in Paghman, west of Kabul. Those who survived say they bought their way out. These survivors describe how their less lucky fellow prisoners were forced to dig their own graves before being shot. Human rights observers told me that Shah had offered to show them exactly where these mass graves in Paghman are.
Afghanistan’s leaders, and their American supporters prefer for now that the victims of Paghman and the rest of the past remain buried, lest it imperils “stability.” But it is a vicious circle: Efforts to bury the past aggravate the very security risks cited as reasons to avoid addressing the past. In Afghanistan, those who benefit most from the international community’s silence on accountability for war crimes include many powerful figures with links to criminal or extremist networks, or both.
Since the defeat of the Taliban, Sayyaf has had extraordinary power over Karzai. Shortly after the interim government was established in December 2001, Sayyaf leaned on Karzai to appoint as Supreme Court chief justice Mawlavi Fazl Hadi Shinwari, an extremely conservative former head of a religious school in Pakistan. Shinwari has since appointed like-minded mullahs as judges across Afghanistan, with the power to ban any law they deem contrary to the “beliefs and provisions” of Islam.
In a revealing move, Shinwari said that Shah should be executed, even before the trial was over. And the trial, Amnesty International said, fell short of international standards: Shah had no defense counsel and witnesses were not subject to cross-examination. The execution, Amnesty said, “may have been an attempt by powerful political players to eliminate a key witness to human rights abuses.”
If Karzai argues that by executing Shah he was serving the cause of justice or the wishes of the Afghan people, he is fooling himself. But Afghanistan’s donors should not be fooled. There is no doubt many of Shah’s victims wanted to see him executed, but they also want the truth to be known about everyone responsible for war crimes in Afghanistan.
The former mujahedeen both within Karzai’s administration and outside it have grown powerful as the world has shut its eyes to their crimes. The international actors involved in Afghanistan’s reconstruction need to send Karzai an unequivocal message before national elections are held: Cover-ups cannot bury the truth for long. What Afghans want from the international community is assistance in disclosing the truth. As long as the truth is buried in Afghanistan, any hope for the future will be jeopardized.
A government of warlords threatens Kabul
By Patricia Gossman
International Herald Tribune
Thursday, October 16, 2003
KABUL: Finally some good news on Afghanistan: the UN Security Council has approved for NATO to expand its peacekeeping mission.
President Hamid Karzai, along with the United Nations and other agencies working in Afghanistan, has been calling for an expanded force for over a year. But it will be months before extra troops are actually on the ground, and so far only Germany has committed forces.
Meanwhile, renewed conflict and instability within Karzai’s government threaten to undermine prospects for a peaceful and democratic election next year. Without an immediate change in strategy by the United States, extra peacekeepers will be far too late to turn things around.
After Karzai announced his candidacy for president in elections due to be held next summer, key members of his cabinet seized the moment to signal their intention to cut ties with him and field their candidates – among them some prominent leaders suspected of war crimes during the early 1990’s. Though Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim denied that any revolt was in the works, it is clear that the Northern Alliance faction from the Panjshir Valley known as Shura-i Nazar, which controls all the key ministries in the government, has a political agenda of its own.
But Karzai has something that none of the warlords can claim: popular support. Until now he has never used that support to build a political base that could draw in more representative leaders from across the country and loosen the grip of the warlords. Whether he can stand up to the Shura-i Nazar will depend not only on his political acumen but political support from the United States.
Desperate to claim some kind of success in Afghanistan, the Bush administration may well short-change democratic reform once again. The loya jirga that elected Karzai as president last year was simultaneously an unprecedented achievement of grassroots democracy and a betrayal of the very principles of democratic process.
More than 80 percent of the elected delegates supported Karzai as president. But the stage-managed appointment of the cabinet, engineered by the United States and the Shura-i Nazar, left many delegates feeling betrayed.
More than one Afghan has told me that the last thing they wanted was a government made up of the same warlords who oversaw mass killings, rape and the destruction of much of Kabul in the early 1990’s. A year after the loya jirga, senior UN officials finally acknowledge that a critical opportunity to move away from the warlords was squandered for the sake of short-term stability, driven principally by the mistaken belief inside the Pentagon that it needed these warlords to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Precisely the opposite has resulted. In the past few months, a resurgent Taliban has mounted an increasing number of attacks both on coalition forces and on humanitarian organizations operating in the south and east of the country. The Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, dominate in these areas; it was from these villages that the Taliban first emerged.
The fact that the Shura-i Nazar-dominated transitional government has systematically excluded Pashtuns from significant roles has fueled resentment and is creating easy recruits for the Taliban. While not all Pashtuns support the Taliban, the Pashtuns’ alienation from the current power structure in Kabul is unlikely to encourage them to resist the Taliban’s return. And despite the promises of the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, little has been done to curb Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, whose leaders move freely in border areas of Pakistan – among them the former army chief of staff, who has a long record of massacring Afghan minorities.
But the threat from the Taliban and Al Qaeda is only half the story. Karzai’s rebellious cabinet includes some political leaders whose records on war crimes rival those of any Taliban. Several have maintained armed militias inside Kabul in violation of the Bonn agreement.
What can Karzai do to marshal public support in his favor against this crowd? He should take heart from the public response to last month’s land-grab scandal when government officials accepted public land to build homes and dispatched bulldozers to raze the huts of impoverished locals. Even Kabul’s cautious press condemned the officials of abusing human rights.
The delegates at last year’s loya jirga who supported Karzai because they believed in real democratic reform have not disappeared. Many have carried on unofficially in their districts. They should have had the support of the United Nations long before now, but the United Nations, like Karzai, has too often bowed to the Shura-i- Nazar.
When one group of former delegates met in Jalalabad about a year ago, the Shura-i Nazar pressed Karzai to condemn the group as Pashtun separatists. They were anything but. Groups like this from across the country are precisely the people Karzai needs if he is to build a popular and pluralist political base to counter the warlords.
If the Pentagon continues its short-sighted approach, backing the warlords in the cause of fighting terror, it will find itself right back where it started in Afghanistan. The Taliban will grow stronger, the warlords in the government will consolidate their hold on other key positions, and the Afghans will lose once again.
If however, the United States and the rest of the world signal that war criminals of any stripe have no place in Afghanistan’s future government, then the many Afghans who gambled on hope when they voted for democratic change a year ago might just have a chance.