Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Baseless Words – or: A Little Coaching for Christopher Hitchens

Thomas Ruttig 5 min

A reply to Chistopher Hitchens’ under-researched rant against what he calls the human rights ‘activists’ community that ‘finally notices the Taliban’s war crimes’. AAN’s senior analyst Thomas Ruttig points to some reports that show how far this is from truth.

There we get it:

‘The human rights community finally notices the Taliban’s war crimes. […] The turning point, in the mind of the human rights “activists,” appears to have occurred in late January, when a Taliban suicide-murderer killed at least 14 civilians in the Finest Supermarket in Kabul.’

Thank you very much, Christopher Hitchens, for this brilliant human rights do-gooders bashing (note the quotation marks, in his text, I mean). Of course, some blame must also go to Rod Nordland of the New York Times (or his headline editor at home) who choose a similar, although a bit weaker headline: ‘Afghan Rights Groups Shift Focus to Taliban’ (see it in original here).

Not correct in the slightest way. But when you are one of the big names in journalism you can even get under-researched and biased stuff like this published on a respected website like Slate (you don’t really need to read Hitchens’ piece but you can find it here, with the column title ‘Fighting Words’).

Let me just point you to a short selection (you can have much more if you want).

I start with the most important Afghan human rights activists’ (without quotation marks here) report, the ‘Call for Justice’ published by theAfghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in 2005 and, therefore, rather a bit before the Finest bombing. I also do not hyperlink it; let Hitchens do his homework himself if he wants to check:

‘More than a million people lost their lives and almost the same number became disabled in the course of the war, as a result of antipersonnel landmines, indiscriminate bombing and rocket attacks by the former Soviet Union and the regime backed by them, and attacks by armed militia groups, including the Mujahideen and Taliban. […] The massacres of Yakawlang and Mazar and the horrible violations against the human dignity of the people, especially of women, by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001 still disturb the soul of this nation’ [my emphasis].

The Afghanistan Justice Project, a joint endeavour of Afghan and non-Afghan human rights activists, lists details about the pre-2001 Taleban massacres, in order to avoid wholesale amnesty now, in its report ‘Casting Shadows: War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity: 1978-2001’ (2004):

‘Massacres by the Taliban: Mazar-i Sharif 1998, Sar-i Pul 1999-2000, Robatak 2000, Bamyan 1999, Yakaolang 2001, Burnings and deliberate destruction: The Shamali campaign 1999, Yakaolang 2001’.

Second example, AIHRC again, some years later but still before the terrorist attack on a Kabul supermarket, and now about the post-2001 Taleban, ‘Insurgent Abuses against Afghan Civilians’ (December 2008):

‘Both anti government elements (AGEs) [i.e., Taliban] and other parties involved in the conflict are responsible for violence that affects the civilian population. This report documents how, in their attempts to weaken the Afghan Government, the Taliban and other AGEs are systematically terrorizing the civilian population with “night letters,” kidnappings, executions (often by beheading) and other crimes.‘

Third, and even earlier than both reports mentioned above, another not insignificant Afghan organization of human rights defenders, with another angle, ‘Speaking Out: Afghan Opinions on Rights and Responsibilities’ by the The Human Rights Research and Advocacy Consortium (November 2003):

‘The right to education, particularly for girls, was severely restricted under the Taliban, so perhaps it was not surprising that 94% of respondents said it was easier for their children to go to school today.’

Fourth, just in case Mr Hitchens is also referring to non-Afghan human rights activists, here a quote from a report of Human Rights Watch, ‘The Human Cost: The Consequences of Insurgent Attacks in Afghanistan‘ (April 2007):

‘Since early 2006, Taliban, Hezb-e Islami, and other armed groups in Afghanistan have carried out an increasing number of armed attacks that either target civilians or are launched without regard for the impact on civilian life. While going about ordinary activities—walking down the street or riding in a bus—many Afghan civilians have faced sudden and terrifying violence: shootings, ambushes, bombings, or other violent attacks.

These insurgent attacks have caused terrible and profound harm to the Afghan civilian population. Attacks have killed and maimed mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, parents, and children, leaving behind widows, widowers, and orphans. Many civilians have been specifically targeted by the insurgents, including aid workers, doctors, day laborers, mechanics, students, clerics, and civilian government employees such as teachers and engineers. Attacks have also left lasting physical and psychological scars on victims and eyewitnesses, and caused tremendous pain and suffering to surviving family members.’

Fifth, and finally, the following from Watchlist’s report ‘Setting the Right Priorities: Protecting Children Affected by Armed Conflict in Afghanistan‘ (June 2010):

‘Children have also been targeted by these armed groups [this refers to the Taleban] and executed on allegations of spying for government or international military forces, according to UN sources. There are also reports of armed groups deliberately using children as human shields.’

I know, Hitchens also criticises that the Taleban are not called the main perpetrators of such acts, as you see in his somewhat ironic conclusion:

‘It’s heartening to learn that, almost a decade later, they [the “activists”] are at least open to the awareness that the Taliban is the worst offender.’

Very unfortunately so, there were several years where the the Western forces and the Afghan army and police indeed were responsible for more civilian casualties than the Taleban (although I concede here that lack of access to Taleban controlled areas, of which there are not so many, officially, most likely led to underreporting). But it is not the point who is scoring the most own goals here – after all, one should expect our Western armies to behave much better than the (to put it mildly) pre-democratic Taleban.

Finally, there is also some display of superficial knowledge of recent Afghan history in Hitchens’ commentary. Like here:

‘The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in the first place by indiscriminate violence, played host to al-Qaida forces that murdered several thousand civilians in one day on American soil, and for almost a decade has been employing systematic cruelty against civilians and fighting an undeclared war, without uniforms or formal command structure, against a force that is upholding a U.N. mandate for the rebuilding of the country.’

Only the last of the three parts of this sentence is correct (although I find it a bit ludicrous to request the Taleban to wear uniform; usually this only happens at the very end of an armed uprising, like when the Sandinistas marched on Managua – and let’s hope we are not so far down the drain in Afghanistan already).

But when the Taleban seized power, it was because of the indiscriminate violence and total chaos displayed by the winners of that round of the latest Afghan wars, the mujahedin. If you go back to the archives, you’ll find that the Taleban were very often welcomed even by non-Pashtun populations. This is not to say that Afghans’ hopes for liberation and stability, put into this then new movement, were fulfilled.

Secondly, the fact that the Taleban hosted al-Qaida – and Mulla Omar stubbornly insisted on displaying ‘Pashtun hospitality’ to OBL – does not mean that they were involved or supported the attacks on 9/11. Their position on this is still disputed, at the least, but there are indications (read, for example, Strick/Kuehn’s paper here) that they were kept in the dark by their Arab ‘allies’ and co-funders. And the naïvité of 1990s Taleban is well known. (One big question is what their ‘non-governmental’ Pakistani advisors like Colonel Imam knew…) And not to forget: OBL was invited to Afghanistan by some mujahedin leaders to Jalalabad, one of whom is currently running for the Afghan parliament’s speakership. This was before the Taleban took over there.

Sometimes it really helps if you not only read the newspapers about but at least some background material from Afghanistan.


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