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Afghanistan: Rights Group Criticizes U.S. Support For Armed Factions

  • Ron Synovitz

The New York-based organization Human Rights Watch has issued a report detailing its investigations into alleged human rights abuses in the western Afghan province of Herat by the forces of the provincial governor there, Ismail Khan. But the U.S. military is rejecting the report. RFE/RL spoke today with a co-author of the report who says the United States and other Western powers are contributing to long-term instability in Afghanistan by legitimizing the powers of what she called "regional warlords."

Prague, 5 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Experts from the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch are warning that U.S. support for independent regional militia leaders in Afghanistan is having the opposite effect of Washington's stated policy goal of bringing peace and stability to the country.

Human Rights Watch has just issued a report detailing alleged human rights abuses and political repression in the western Afghan province of Herat by the province's governor, Ismail Khan.

Zama Coursen-Neff, one of the researchers and co-authors of the report, told RFE/RL today that evidence gathered during the study shows that Western military forces are focusing too much on the short-term goal of eliminating the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. As a result, Coursen-Neff said the alliances made by the United States with regional paramilitary groups are contributing to long-term instability in Afghanistan. "We think it's impossible to have stability without respect for human rights. And, in fact, the U.S. government and the Western powers, having put stability and security in the hands of the warlords, in the hands of those that threaten it the most, are doing a very bad thing for security and long-term stability in Afghanistan," Coursen-Neff said.

Senior U.S. military officials in Afghanistan have rejected the findings of the Human Rights Watch report on warlordism and human rights abuses.

U.S. General Dan McNeill, the commander of antiterrorism coalition forces in Afghanistan, said U.S. forces will continue to work closely with the independent leaders of Afghanistan's regional military factions, despite the allegations of human rights abuses, because they provide stability and security in the absence of a strong Afghan national army.

In an interview with the "Los Angeles Times," McNeill said he has urged Afghanistan's powerful militia leaders to respect human rights and support Afghan President Hamid Karzai's Transitional Authority.

McNeill also said that until a strong Afghan national army is created, the factional leaders who helped the United States oust the Taliban regime from power last year will continue to receive U.S. support.

Coursen-Neff takes issue with McNeill. She said the evidence suggests that those abuses are continuing today in Afghanistan at the hands of the very military groups that receive support from the United States as allies in the antiterrorism campaign. "General Dan McNeill said he feels he has to deal with some unsavory characters in the short term in order to promote security in Afghanistan. He [calls them] 'characters with unsavory pasts.' In fact, he is dealing with characters that have a very unsavory present and [who] will continue to have very unsavory futures, as we have documented in our report. We think the most important thing is to get security out of the hands of the warlords -- those who threaten the security of the people of Afghanistan," Coursen-Neff said.

The Human Rights Watch report urges an immediate expansion of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force so it can help provide security to areas outside of Kabul. The suggestion, which also has been made repeatedly by President Karzai, has been rejected by Washington and the European countries that contribute to ISAF.

The Human Rights Watch report focuses on one regional commander in particular, Herat Province Governor Ismail Khan. Coursen-Neff explained why Human Rights Watch sees the case of Ismail Khan as an important test case for the future of Afghanistan. "Human Rights Watch has also done research about human rights violations in the north and in the south [of Afghanistan]. But we picked Herat for [this study for] a number of reasons. One reason is because some of the security issues that are such a problem in the north and in the south are not present in Herat. We picked Herat, in part, because Ismail Khan has brought more security to the region, but at the same time, [he] has demonstrated what happens when you put power in the hands of a warlord. Since he gained control of that area, he has been incredibly repressive to the people that live under his control. In some ways, it's a bit of a prediction of what can happen to other parts of Afghanistan. In other ways, it's a good place to look at because it is considered one of the worst areas in Afghanistan for women's human rights and because there is such a range of repressions of civil and political rights in Herat," Coursen-Neff said.

As Coursen-Neff explained, the 51-page document produced by her organization presents evidence and witness testimony about political repressions, torture, arbitrary arrests, extortion, illegal road blockades, and violations of free speech in Herat Province. It also alleges that the violations are the result of direct orders from Ismail Khan. "One of the main tenets of the report is that Ismail Khan has a great deal of independent power in western Afghanistan, and that the West has enabled him to consolidate that power. He himself is wielding a kind of ministate out there with very little control from any other authority. And that's why we are calling on all actors to have influence on Ismail Khan, including the United States, Europe, donor governments, the United Nations, and the Afghan Transitional Authority to wield whatever power and influence they have over Ismail Khan to hold him accountable for the things he is doing out there in Herat," Coursen-Neff said.

Ismail Khan is an ethnic Tajik who commands a 30,000-strong militia that is considered to be one of the best-trained and -equipped private armies in Afghanistan. But since he took power, minority Pashtuns in the province have complained of looting and oppression by Khan's armed followers.

Ismail Khan in the past has denied the kinds of abuses Human Rights Watch accuses him of. In interviews earlier this year with Western journalists, Ismail Khan claimed the Pashtun-dominated Taliban committed atrocities against his own ethnic group, the Tajiks, and that any abuses by his men against Pashtuns were simply revenge attacks.

On 3 November, Karzai sacked 15 low-level provincial officials across Afghanistan after a probe by Afghan officials showed they were involved in corruption, abuse of power, and, in some cases, heroin smuggling.

Those sackings have been welcomed by many Afghans as a sign that Karzai is beginning to assert some authority outside of Kabul. But the most powerful of Afghanistan's regional militia commanders, including Ismail Khan, were left off of the list of those who were sacked.

Karzai has said more sackings will be announced in the coming days and that some could result in a backlash of violence.

But Human Rights Watch notes that Ismail Khan and other regional leaders have become so powerful that it will be difficult for Karzai to remove them from power.