5 - 11 September 2002
Issue No. 602
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

Déjà-vu in Afghanistan

Fearing violent reprisal from the Northern Alliance, the Karzai administration and the UN are refusing to investigate the death of over 1,000 Taliban POWs, reports Iffat Malik from Islamabad

The recent discovery of what appear to be mass graves of Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan raises disturbing questions about the actions of Northern Alliance and United States forces, and poses a moral dilemma for the UN and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Is rebuilding more important than justice? There had been rumours last November that hundreds of Taliban fighters, captured by US and Northern Alliance forces in Kunduz, had been transported to prison in Sheberghan in freight containers. In the course of their journey, many died from lack of air and water. There were plenty of accounts of such an atrocity, but little physical proof. In May, however, the first of many mass graves was discovered at Dasht-e-Leili in the north of the country.

A UN team, which uncovered the site, exhumed three bodies and carried out tests on them. These confirmed that the cause of death was suffocation. The subsequent UN report concluded that the site "contains bodies of Taliban POWs who died of suffocation during transfer from Kunduz to Sheberghan".

Last week the Karzai administration finally gave its endorsement of the findings. According to a government statement, the deaths and mass graves appeared to be a "horrible atrocity that are a continuation of the bloody events that have gripped Afghanistan for the past two decades". It pledged government support for an investigation into "this and other similar atrocities".

The Uzbek warlord, Abdul-Rashid Dostum, who controls Northern Afghanistan, was notorious for human rights abuses even before the US- led war against the Taliban. His role in that war as the main US ally in the north added to his evil reputation. To cite one of the worst examples of his cruelty: several hundred Taliban fighters were killed by tank fire after they had surrendered at a school in Mazar-e-Sharif. It was Dostum's forces who escorted the Taliban prisoners to Sheberghan. Bearing in mind the war crimes the Dostum forces appear to have committed, the act of packing the POWs into airless containers came as no great surprise.

What would be shocking, though, is the possible involvement of US forces in the prisoners' transfer. General Peter Pace, vice-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was quick to distance the US from any misconduct. "There have been zero reported cases of human rights violations by the teams that we had on the ground," Pace told reporters in Washington last week. "I am comfortable that we have scrubbed the US side of it very carefully."

The Northern Alliance has also denied that any atrocities were committed. Dostum did concede that 200 men had died while being transported in the containers, but Mohamed Fahim, the powerful Afghan defence minister, rejected any suggestion of a mass grave.

The next logical step would be the launch of a full enquiry into what happened to the Taliban prisoners. All those involved -- the UN, the Karzai administration, the US and even Dostum and Mohamed Fahim -- have given verbal support to an investigation.

But translating that verbal commitment into an actual enquiry will be difficult, if not impossible. The biggest obstacle is Dostum and his Northern Alliance partners. They can hardly be expected to cooperate with an investigation that will most likely unveil massive abuses by their forces. Also, the launch of a full enquiry would endanger both investigators and witnesses.

Until security can be guaranteed, the UN is reluctant to expose its people. Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, made it clear, "We cannot take the risk of putting anyone's life in danger."

Meanwhile, Karzai is in no position to force Dostum's compliance. He might be president of Afghanistan, but everyone knows that the real power rests with the Northern Alliance. So far, they are working with the president, but if Karzai were to press them on this issue, it could lead to the withdrawal of their support for his fragile government, its collapse and open conflict. This is where the moral dilemma comes in for both Karzai and the UN: is rebuilding more important than justice?

Brahimi cited the examples of Chile after Pinochet and South Africa after apartheid to back his viewpoint that stability in Afghanistan had to be the number one priority. "I think we have a responsibility to find out what happened, but our responsibility to the living has to have precedence," he told reporters. "There are always decisions to be made about what can be done, and what cannot be done," he added, clearly implying that an investigation into northern Afghanistan's mass graves fell in the latter category.

Dostum's treatment of Taliban prisoners and the inability of both the Karzai administration and the international community, especially the US and UN, to take action against him, is symptomatic of post-Taliban Afghanistan.

The central government's authority is not complete in Kabul, let alone in the rest of the country, where regional warlords call the shots. As long as they cooperate with Washington in its hunt for Al-Qa'eda and Taliban fighters, the US will not challenge them. The international community is not prepared to make the huge commitment in personnel and money needed to bring all of Afghanistan under the control of the central government.

Giving the warlords a free rein has led to other problems. Earlier this month the UN warned of a massive increase in poppy production, which was banned by the Taliban in 2000 but, as soon as it became clear they were on their way out, Afghan farmers began replanting.

Karzai's interim government banned opium production in January, but by then, thousands of hectares had already been planted. The government then launched an incentive scheme for farmers to destroy their crops -- compensation was set at $1,250 per hectare. With earnings from poppy cultivation reaching an estimated $16,000 per hectare, it is not surprising that very few farmers took up the offer.

The UN is predicting a $1 billion crop this year, close to levels before the Taliban's ban when Afghanistan accounted for 70 per cent of the world's opium production. Human rights abuses, warlordism, factional fighting, large- scale poppy cultivation -- there is an ominous sense of déjà-vu about post-Taliban Afghanistan.

By failing to provide the necessary financial, military and other support for reconstruction, the international community is repeating the mistakes it made when the Soviets left Afghanistan. If the powers that be do not learn from those mistakes quickly, they may soon be witnessing the same outcome.

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