A north-eastern Taleban leader has been in touch with AAN to condemn the execution of unarmed aid workers in Badakhshan ten days ago. His statement reveals unease and disagreement within the leadership about this extreme act of violence. According to the Taleban’s own new code of conduct – a copy of which AAN has also obtained – it is clear that these killings were in clear contravention of Taleban rules. In other words, their spokesman should have condemned, rather than claimed responsibility for them. At the same time, as AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, reports, there has been near silence from the Government side about what was probably the worst attack on humanitarian workers in Afghanistan in the last thirty years.
The message from the north-eastern Taleban leader was short but clear:
“ I offer my condolences (tasaliat) for the families of the ten people killed in Badakhshan. The killing of these people was a crime. I know that they were working for the health of poor people in our region.”
His words were carefully chosen: he believes the victims were health workers, they were helping the poor of his region and that killing them was a crime. He also acknowledges the humanity of the dead: they were people with families who need sympathising with. The leader asked not to be named, but AAN can confirm that he is a commander of significant clout, politically and military, in the north-east.
His message directly contradicts the claim of responsibility which was made by the Taleban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahed on Saturday 7th (the murders took place on the morning of the 5th). He said a Taleban patrol had encountered the group, whom he said were “Christian missionaries” and killed them all. He claimed they had been carrying Persian language Bibles, maps and satellite tracking devices. Mujahed later changed his story to say the group had been spying.
There are two issues here: one, as evidence about the murders is gathered, it is clear that the Taleban claim is dubious to the point that we can say the spokesman was almost certainly lying. But secondly, according to the Taleban’s own rules, he should have been apologising – if fighters from within the group had been responsible – or condemning the killing – if the killers had come from another group outside the IEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) chain of command.
First the evidence on the killings. Little information has been released publicly, but it is clear from those who have seen the bodies and the testimony of the one survivor (a police report was leaked to Associated Press) that the ten aid workers had been unarmed and were ambushed in a professional manner, while they had got down from their cars after crossing a river in flood. They were shot at close range in the back, face or back of the head (some were hit with rifle butts first). They were given no opportunity to negotiate, plead or justify themselves. Very little appears to have been stolen. Personal bags, for example, were left behind. One Afghan was spared, he believes, because he was reciting from the holy Qoran. Another appears to have been killed mistakenly: he was trying to hide under the car and they may not have been able to identify him as an Afghan. The third Afghan was a Shi’a Muslim, distinctly Hazara and may, like the westerners, have been deliberately killed as another ‘infidel.’
In other words, this was not a robbery. It was pre-meditated and Mujahed’s tale is patently absurd. There was no sort of judicial attempt to let those targeted answer for whatever wrongdoing they may have been suspected of. This was mass execution and the motivation was, in all likelihood, a desire to kill non-Muslims, regardless of what they may or may not have done.
The killings were not only a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions (Articles 3 and 24 of the 1949 First Geneva Convention), but also of the Taleban’s own rules of war. As the north-eastern Taleb who spoke to AAN, this was a crime.
AAN aims to publish a full analysis of the Taleban’s newly released code of conduct in a future paper. Here, we just scrutinise the way Taleban – called mujahadeen in the code – are required to deal with prisoners, including what to do with them and who has the authority to release, execute or exchange them. The code deals specifically with foreign combatant prisoners and does not mention foreign civilians. However, it seems reasonable to assume that the protections given to foreign soldiers would be a minimum which civilians could also expect to enjoy. The following are the relevant clauses:
SECTION 2 Code of Conduct for the Mujahadeen 2010*
9. When an enemy – whether foreign or national – is captured, he shall immediately be handed over to a [high-ranking] provincial official; after that, the [shadow, Taleban] Provincial Governor has the authority to decide whether he wants to keep him with the mujahedeen [who captured him] or [hand him over] to others.
10. Deals with Afghan prisoners
11. Deals with Afghan prisoners
12. If a military infidel is captured, the decision whether to execute him, exchange him for [Taleban] prisoners, release him because of expediency or whether, for the sake of Muslims’ needs, exchange him for money lies with the Imam or Deputy Imam; no one else has this right. If a captive converts to Islam then the Imam or Deputy Imam is allowed to release him, provided there is no risk of him returning to infidelity.
13. If the mujahedeen captures an enemy prisoner and they have not transferred him to their base and they face danger and cannot transfer him to a safe place, if this prisoner is a member of the opposition and was captured during fighting, or is a high-ranking official [literally authority], the mujahadeen are permitted to kill him. If this is not the case and the prisoner is only suspected [of being a high authority or member of the opposition] or he has been captured because of legal matters, it is not legitimate to execute him – even if he has to be left behind.
14. Deals with Afghan prisoners
15. Captives shall not be tortured, whether with hunger, thirst, cold or heat, even if he deserves to be executed. But whatever verdict has been decided according to sharia law shall be implemented.
16. Other than the Imam, Deputy Imam, or Provincial Judge, no one has the authority to issue a verdict against anyone. If a district judge sentences someone to death, the permission of the provincial judge must be obtained. Of course, if in some provinces there is no provincial judges appointed, the authority to execute or issue a verdict shall lie with the Provincial Governor.
The first thing to say is that the code recognises that the status of prisoners is different from those who are fighting (who can be lawfully killed on the battlefield.) Prisoners must be handed over immediately to a provincial Taleban official. The Code repeatedly stresses that executions can only take place after a court judgement. Moreover, no-one has the authority to issue a death sentence except the Imam (Mullah Omar), his deputy or the provincial judge or, if one has not been appointed, the Taleban provincial governor. In the case of the murdered aid workers, we know that the Taleban shadow provincial governor at least had not been consulted: he thought the official Taleban version of events was a lie, (see Semple’s blog on the AAN website).
Only if mujahadeen are transporting enemy combatant prisoners who are high-ranking officials or soldiers captured on the battlefield – and they then come under attack and cannot deliver the captives to a safe place, can prisoners be killed; even here, the permission is hedged around with safeguards – if the mujahadeen are doubtful about the prisoners’ status or if they had been captured for ‘other legal reasons,’ they must leave them behind, rather than kill them. In the case of the medical workers, this clause is irrelevant. The gunmen did not try to take prisoners, did not try to capture or transport them and were not under any threat themselves.
These killings are transparently outside Taleban rules, so why did the spokesman claim them rather than promise to investigate the crime? Any journalists whom Mujahed regularly calls, please ask him about this.
We live in dark and troubling times. Mujahed’s claim should have been a spectacular own goal – executing women and doctors, all them civilians, all unarmed is patently outside the bounds of ‘decent’ warfare, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. However, there have been precious few statements of shock and condemnation from senior Afghans. The north-eastern Taleban leader’s decision to speak up – albeit off the record – is an unusual breaking of ranks and indicates unease about the support showed for such extreme violence within high-ranking Taleban.
However, opponents of the Taleban have proved no more forthcoming. The ministries of public health and foreign affairs gave written statements condemning the killings and the ministries of public health and education sent letters of condolence to the aid agency. An official at the Palace said the presidential spokesman had expressed condolences on behalf of the President during his weekly press conference. The President himself, however, has said nothing. It was left to Dr Abdullah to make a proper defence of the dead. Almost alone among major political figures, he sought out the press to give interviews. Other NGO directors and one of the most senior Afghan journalists also spoke up (see blog 4).
Afghanistan may have arrived in a place where the premeditated execution of an unarmed, ten-member medical team, women along with the men, no longer shocks Afghans because they have seen so much blood and suffering already. But the Taleban accusation that the ten were preaching – however preposterous (see also blog 2) also seems to have succeeded in shutting down other Afghan voices, both inside and outside the movement.
As one Taleban commander told us, “Mujahed changed the dynamic and made it impossible for others to speak out, even if Taleban did not do the killing.” AAN noticed how some Afghans who knew those killed personally were happy to pay tributes – but refused to defend them against charges of preaching. This is why it was so important for senior politicians to speak publicly about this crime – to give cover to ordinary Afghans who fear ‘contamination’ by defending Christians. Instead, the President and others have allowed the Taleban to set the rules of what can publicly be said about this attack.
Outrage is important, not just so that the memory of the dead is honoured, but so that such extreme violence does not become even more the norm. At the moment, why should Taleban commanders elsewhere not see the spokesman’s claim as an encouragement to copy these killings? In the last few years, Afghanistan has seen a deterioration in how warfare is conducted, one reason, it seems, for the Taleban to update its code of conduct for Taleban fighters. The code is also an attempt to portray the movement as having the trappings of a state. But if it is to be anything more than the doodling thoughts of mullahs, the movement needs to hold itself to account.
* Translation from Pashto by AAN.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020