The " sins" (both real and occasionally exaggerated) of Afghanistan's Taleban are becoming more and more well known as a result of the United States' 2001 undeclared (officially speaking) "war against terrorism" that followed the World Trade Center bombing of 11 September. On the other hand, those of the United Front (UF, generally called the "Northern Alliance" in the media) are not so well known.
This lack of information (not in any small way aided by its nearly MIA status or "glossing over" in the vast majority of the news media) needs to be remedied, particularly because of the possibility of "support" being given it in its civil war against the Taleban. If a nation (and its desired support by its citizens) or nations lend supporteven if it isn't substantialto a group such as in this case, the nature of said group should be known. It is far too easy to say that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" or use fighting people as a matter of convenience to avoid getting one's own hands dirty.
Since there was similar support of those fighting during the invasion of the Soviet Union, which upon its end (and withdrawal of the support), led to the destabilization and eventually the current regime that is being branded a rogue nation (the irony of that aside), uninformed support of the UF would be follyparticularly if, once the "goal" is accomplished, the region is left to its own devices following the devastation of the "war" and already suffering with serious refugee, hunger, medical, economic, and other problems.
The call for support is there. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that "There are any number of people in Afghanistan, tribes in the south, the northern alliance in the north, that oppose Taliban. And clearly we need to recognize the value they bring to this anti-terrorist, anti-Taliban effortand where appropriate, find ways to assist them" (30 September 2001). As noted by Human Rights Watch "the administration declined to comment on reports that the United States was offering covert financial support to the United Front."1 On the other hand, Russia and Iran have been giving funding and weapons (and continue to do so) to the UF for years without denial of that fact. This is also interesting since some of the members and leaders of the UF were part of the guerilla forces that fought against the Soviet invasion.
For all the atrocities and human and civil rights violations committed by the Taleban, the UF is guilty of nearly as many, though smaller in scale than in kind and (obviously) having fewer related to being an "established" government with a larger number of members/followers (to note, the majority of the population are neither Taleban nor UF and generally do not support the civil war).2
Human rights abuses have been shown to be both "widespread or systematic" (HRW) and committed by both sides in the civil war. Among them but not limited to are "indiscriminate aerial bombardment and shelling, direct attacks on civilians, summary executions, rape, persecution on the basis of religion or ethnicity, the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, and the use of antipersonnel landmines" (HRW; also cited by other Human Rights organizations as well as the United Nations Commission on Human Rights). Few examples are specific to a single side.
Noted by HRW, the UF (or factions of it) have been reported to have engaged in "summary executions, burning of houses, and looting, principally targeting ethnic Pashtuns and others suspected of supporting the Taliban. Children, including those under the age of fifteen, have been recruited as soldiers and used to fight against Taliban forces," in areas it had under its control. The worst of the atrocities (by either side), as can be imagined, were and are perpetrated against civilians.
"Disappearences" of civilians and "widespread rape" were committed by one of the factions of the UF in February 1993. Seventy to one hundred are thought to have been killed in the incident. In 1995, factions under Commander Ahmed Shah Masood captured one of Kabul's neighborhoods and participated in looting and rape. The US State Department's 1996 report on human rights practices in 1995 stated that "Massood's troops went on a rampage, systematically looting whole streets and raping women."
Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs in UN-speakpeople within a country that have been forcibly or necessarily "displaced" from their homes) have reported "summary executions, burning of houses, and widespread looting" while under UF control/occupation. Some executions were carried out in front of family members (almost by definition a method of "terrorism").
In September 1998, rockets were fired into Kabul, with one hitting a crowded market. Seventy-six to 180 casualties are estimated. While the UF denied targeting civilians, it is difficult to pretend firing into a populated city from twenty-five miles away (where the forces were situated) would not be an obvious source of civilian casualtiesdeliberately targeting or not, the consequences should be clear. The International Committee of the Red Cross issued a statement shortly after calling the attacks "indiscriminate" and the "deadliest that the city had seen in three years" (HRW). In January of the previous year, another "indiscriminate" act took place (this time an air raid), dropping "cluster munitions" in residential areas of Kabul. Not only would the claim to not be targeting civilians be difficult to pretend, it is near untenable under this kind of circumstance.
Even before the takeover of the Taleban, the factions that would make up the UF battled against themselves and others:
In 1994 alone, an estimated 25,000 were killed in Kabul, most of them civilians killed in rocket and artillery attacks. One-third of the city was reduced to rubble, and much of the remainder sustained serious damage. There was virtually no rule of law in any of the areas under the factions' control (HWR).
Another incident in 1997 involved two to three thousand captured Taleban forces being executed. Some were bulldozed into wells and covered or had hand grenades thrown in. While UN sources suggest some, if not many, of those found in the wells were war casualties (based on preliminary forensics, though little excavation has been done or allowed), that many were summarily executed is without doubt as the UN observer reported seeing bodies alongside the road, many tied together.
In 1998 (for the year of 1997), the UN reported widespread looting of World Food Programme warehouses (by both sides). These warehouses mostly contained wheat and cooking oilthings necessary for the civilian population, especially for the upcoming winter (many refugees and others, according to National Public Radio, cannot make the trips for supplies during the winter). Threats against UN workers came from both sides. Some reported to the UN that serious ethnic problems amounting to "ethnic cleansing" were also going on (again, apparently by both sides). Accounts of Taleban prisoners held by the UF stated that they were forced to give blood. Further:
They are said not to have received any medical treatment and some reportedly had pieces of cloth with salt placed on their wounds. Taliban prisoners detained in the Panjshir reportedly received only a small bowl containing a mixture of rice and peas per day. The Special Rapporteur was shown a small round piece of bread which was said to have constituted the average prisoner's daily diet.
In 2000, UF and Taleban forces engaged at Yakawlang and "in the course of this offensive, it is reported that both conflicting parties showed utter disregard for the well-being of the civilian population." UF forces also occupied a hospital and leprosy center (violations of the Geneva Convention and International Law).
Additionally, now that the Taleban has "clamped down" (though they reported admit that they can't stop production) on opium production in Afghanistan, the UF is now (as of October 2001) the leading producer in the country. According to the senior policy adviser at the UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention, they are producing "120 to 150 tonnes" a year (article found at www.rawa.org).
An instructive and interesting perspective on the situation can be gained by glancing at the US Department of State's "Afghanistan Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997." In it, there are several references that seem not only to condemn the UF, but to suggest that the Taleban are not as bad as currently demonized to be (later reports are far more critical, but regardless, it shows the State Department has been aware of abuses on both sides for years).
It notes that the serious problem with land mines are a largely UF problem:
the presence of an estimated 10 million land mines has restricted areas for cultivation and slowed the return of refugees who are needed to rebuild the economy. The laying of new mine fields, reportedly mostly by the Northern Alliance, exacerbated an already difficult situation.3
Also noting that "formal economic activity remained minimal and was inhibited by recurrent fighting and roads blocked by local commanders" and that the problem was "removed in territory taken by the Taliban." That reconstruction was continuing in "areas which are under firm Taliban control" but not in the northern areas where it was "largely reversed by fighting during the summer and fall. The northern areas all suffered from brigandage."
It also cites "indiscriminate bombardment of civilian areas" by both sides, though saying that Taleban forces firing rockets at a city "reportedly [causing] hundreds of casualties" while noting the January UF attack and the continued bombing of Kabul probably had "less effect."
Despite its description of rights abuses pertaining to women by the Taleban, it makes the effort to first state that "imposition of Taliban control in rural areas resulted in reduced incidents of rape, kidnapping, and forced marriage." In fact, after stating that at the beginning of the paragraph and then listing several of the abuses, it reiterates that "however, the imposition of Taliban control in rural areas resulted in reduced incidents of rape, kidnapping, and forced marriage."
Also noted is that "NIMA [National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, part of the UF] also has increased restrictions upon women...has requested that NGO's [Non-Governmental Organization] operating in areas under its control fire female employees, and Balkh University reportedly has segregated classes and barred females from teaching male students."
The report also cites " abductions, kidnappings, or hostage-taking for ransom or political reasons occurred in non-Taliban areas, but specific information was lacking" but that the "strict security enforced by the Taliban in areas under their control has resulted in a decrease in such crimes." While it is admitted that all sides used torture against prisoners of war, only the UF and Masood's commanders are specifically mentioned as "reportedly [using] torture routinely to extract information from and break the will of prisoners and political opponents; some of the victims were said to have been tortured to death." Also, "local authorities" on both sides "maintain prisons in territories under their control and [have] established torture cells in some of them." It additionally notes that, according to Amnesty International, there are "unconfirmed reports that some Taliban prisoners held by Masood have been forced to labor in life-threatening conditions, such as digging trenches in mined areas."
Granted, that the following year, the report is harsher on the Taleban (bear in mind that despite some of the "interesting" things noted above, the report in no way "takes it easy" on Taleban rights violations), that the same sorts of UF abuses are again reiterated, including this:
Abductions, kidnappings, and hostage-taking for ransom or for political reasons occurred in non-Taliban areas, but specific information was lacking. There were unconfirmed reports that girls and local commanders were kidnapping young women. Some of the women were then reportedly forced to marry their kidnappers. Others simply remained missing. To avoid this danger, some families reportedly sent their daughters to Pakistan or to Iran.
While not "forced" expulsion, there is the creation of conditions where many are left with few options other than breaking apart their family unity.
The report also cites both sides (yet again) for "harassment of domestic and international NGO's". These groups are in the country for "primarily humanitarian assistance, rehabilitation, health, education, and agriculture." The UF and "autonomous commanders" are charged with preventing "NGO's and international organizations from delivering humanitarian assistance"even though the area involved was "suffering from a Taliban-imposed blockade." Other areas are also listed as well as taxing or overcharging those making humanitarian deliveries, land-mining roads, blowing up a bridge used by workers and delaying convoys of supplies and aid workers.
1999 found (again) similar conditions and action by both sides as "armed units of the Northern Alliance, local commanders, and rogue individuals were responsible for political killings, abductions, kidnappings for ransom, torture, rape, arbitrary detention, and looting." Once again both groups are found guilty of a number of wide-ranging human rights abuses. The UF continued to bomb Kabul. 2000 (report released in February 2001) was more of the same. Abductions, torture, killings, bombing of areas with civilian population, rapes, destruction of property, looting (on top of IDPs, hunger, poor medical care, high mortality rate in all categories, et cetera)...it reads like some endless tape loop.
Recall this was all prior to the current support by the US government. This was not only information readily available, but should have been well-known to policy makers. It should also have been given to the public at large who rely on American newspapers and news services for their information (where most of this in regard to the UF is conspicuously absent). If the citizens are expected (and of course they are) to support the government's foreign policy, especially in the case of yet another undeclared war, the people deserve to be informed about those they are siding with to accomplish the "goal." There is currently not much to suggest that this "enemy of my enemy" is anything more than a convenient bedfellow to be dropped following the "action." And the Afghan people will continue to suffer as a result.
So it would seem that even if the Taleban is overthrown, without significant and fundamental change, the UF will just be another similar government slipping into the vacuum created by another's absence.
Or as Pete Townshend once wrote: "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
1About potential US monetary/financial aid to the UF (from HRW):
In the United States, assistance to units of foreign security forces that have committed gross violations of human rights is expressly prohibited by law. Known as the Leahy Law, this consists of two provisions in the appropriations acts for Fiscal Year 2001. The Leahy Law applies to the Islamic State of Afghanistan and its military arm, the United Front, because the ISA remains the internationally recognized government of Afghanistan. Section 563 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2001 prohibits the provision of funds available under the act "to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights, unless the Secretary determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the government of such country is taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice." Likewise, Section 8092(a) of the Defense Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2001 prohibits the provision of funds made available under the act "to support any training program involving a unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of Defense has received credible information from the Department of State that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights, unless all necessary corrective steps have been taken." This latter provision may be waived in "extraordinary circumstances."
2One hopes it should go without saying that such violations of human rights are in no way condoned by the Qur'an nor by the vast majority of Muslims around the world.
3The number may be too high. According to the Department of State's 2000 report, the UN estimates "5 to 7 million landmines and over 750,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance throughout the country" (most from the Soviet invasion era). Some estimates by NGOs say fewer than a million. It also estimates some 400,000 killed or injured by them and as many as 10-12 incidents a day (undoubtedly most of whom are civilian). The first four confirmed kills following the initial attacks by the United States were UN workers there for the purpose of mine disposal.
(Sources: Human Rights Watch at www.hrw.org, UN reports can be found through www.hri.ca/fortherecord1997/index.htm, State Department Documents from www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/drl_reports.html and http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2000/sa/index.cfm?docid=721)