[Photo: Dr Abdul Rahman (with dark glasses) standing behind German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (left) and later Afghan Minister of Economy Amin Farhang (r.) at the Bonn conference in 2001.]
Everyone has their watershed moments when alarm bells started ringing over the post-2001 political settlement in Afghanistan. For AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, one pivotal moment took place nine years ago in February 2002, when the minister for civil aviation, Dr Abdul Rahman, was murdered in public at Kabul airport. The newly deployed ISAF did not intervene. The same night the new Afghan leader, Hamed Karzai, named several suspects – all senior commanders in government posts – and promised that impunity would not besmirch Afghanistan again. Yet nothing was ever done.
Dr Abdul Rahman was beaten and stabbed to death at Kabul Airport in February 2002.(*) The murder was initially blamed on pilgrims, angered at having been forced to wait for two days for a plane to take them on hajj in Saudi Arabia. Kabul airport in early 2002 was dark and cold, unlit and unheated and not a place to be kept waiting in. And the annual hajj operations were known to be handled by corrupt officials. Still, it seemed strange that pilgrims would commit a murder. Then, late on the night of the killing, the press corps was summoned to the presidential palace. Speaking in front of his entire cabinet, Hamed Karzai, who was then the chairman of the Interim Authority, told a very different story.
‘He was killed by people who planned it,’ said Karzai. ‘Some of these people were working for the Afghan security services. We’ll put them behind bars, we’ll try them, and you’ll see that we’ll take them to whatever justice asks for.’
The men accused by Karzai were powerful, members of Shura-ye Nazar, the dominant faction of the Northern Alliance, which had captured Kabul in November 2001. At the Bonn conference, aside from the presidency itself, Shura-ye Nazar had ended up with the most powerful jobs in government – the Ministries of Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Justice, the Office for Administrative Affairs – a quasi-prime-ministry – and the National Directorate of Security. In 1984, as deputy to Ahmad Shah Massud, Dr Abdul Rahman, had been a founder of Shura-ye Nazar, helping it become one of the most effective anti-Soviet military organisations of the jihad. The two later fell out – whether he was pushed or left depends on who you speak to – but he ended up with the faction of the former king, Zaher Shah and for some, that made him a traitor.
Karzai told the press that this was an assassination and that he was seeking the extradition of three men for murder, who were then in Saudi Arabia on hajj. The men named were:
– General Abdullah Jan Tawhidi, in charge of the political office of the NDS;
– General Qalandar Beg, in charge of weapons at the technical department of the Ministry of Defence;
– Prosecutor Halim, Ministry of Justice.
Also under investigation and in Kabul was General Din Mohammad Jurat, head of public order at the Ministry of Interior. Karzai added that two other men had been sacked and were being investigated for failing to fulfil their duties: Lieutenant Faqir Mohammad, the security official at Kabul airport and General Gen Abdul Rab. This time, Karzai promised, there would be no impunity:
‘There is no way we will let Afghanistan go the ways of the past. These guys who think they can get away with looting or murder. These days are over. So, if I see that Afghanistan is not allowed to live peacefully, I will ask for a change in the mandate of ISAF. I will ask for every measure to bring security for the Afghan people. I will use international force. I will use Afghan force. If I’m told the international community cannot deliver I will say the international community is not helping.’
That night, I wrote that the killers appeared to have assumed they could get away with murder, but that Karzai’s stance might give Afghans more confidence in the interim government, if “even senior commanders from the most powerful armed faction are to face justice.”
But nothing happened. General Jurat was officially suspended from work, but continued to go to the office, telling everyone with smiles that he was innocent. A couple of months later, he was appointed head of Kabul police. He was finally removed from his post in the MoI 2006/7 police reforms, but stayed on as a major player in the private security industry (see here andhere for some allegations of wrong-doings which included the involvement of well-connected Americans). Whether or not the named men were innocent or guilty may never be known: there was never a trial and no-one else was convicted of the murder.
As to ISAF, newly deployed to Kabul and to Kabul airport in January 2002, it remains unclear whether its forces noticed the murder or not. They were aware of an “ongoing incident” said one spokesman, Captain Graham Dunlop, but he said the civilian area of the airport was, ‘not our jurisdiction.’ Another spokesman, Lt Col Neil Peckham, said they had not seen anything, ‘If we had had a request to intervene, we would have done our utmost to help out.’ When pushed to say what ISAF would do if government officials were the source of the security problem, he replied, ‘I’m not in a position to comment on what is clearly a political matter and an internal investigation by the interim authority at the moment.’
Abuses by powerful Afghans against their fellow Afghans were often explained away in those days as ‘political’, ‘internal’ or ‘green on green.’ So long as violence did not target international institutions or actors and was not committed by Taliban, it was usually ignored. The UK’s foreign minister, Jack Straw, visiting a few days after the murder, when asked about his government’s stance on working with the various warlords, including alleged war criminals who now had state jobs, explained that they had to accept Afghanistan as it was.
‘There are powerful people who have been able to exercise power through their forces. The more we can get people in who, yes, have occupied positions of force and strength in the past, but who now say they’re committed to a political process and the more we can close off the options for people who resort to violence, the better the future of Afghanistan will be.’’
The internationals’ attitude to justice was most precisely articulated by Lakhdar Brahimi who said (in relation to the still unexplained deaths of Taleban prisoners of war while in the hands of Junbish in 2001) that accountability had to take, ‘second place to peace and stability. You can choose to please yourself and make statements of principle, or you can see . . . in a given moment and place what is possible.’(For Brahimi’s mea culpa on mistakes made during his tenure and how, “We are now paying the price for what we did wrong from day one,” see here).
Yet it seemed to me at the time that it was impunity which Afghanistan could not afford.
Dr Abdul Rahman’s was only the most high-profile of many murders and other crimes committed allegedly by members of the new security forces or by officials who never went to trial. I spoke to businessmen who had been kidnapped for ransom by police and held in police lock-ups in Kabul in the summer of 2002. Many Afghans told me how initially they thought the coming of Karzai and the Americans meant the coming of justice. One family from Samangan described how they had tried to recover land which had been allegedly seized by the local strongman, Maulawi Islam (a Jamiat commander who became the Taleban governor of Bamyan). They said the men of the family were imprisoned in a cave for several months over the winter of 2003. The only male left free – a six year old boy – described how he had brought food every day, walking for an hour through the snow. The father was beaten to death; the older son was left with great suppurating, unhealed wounds on his legs. Maulawi Islam went on to become an MP in the 2005 parliament before being assassinated in 2007. His son was elected in his place in 2010.
In July 2003, Human Rights Watch (see here) – amongst others – documented the, ‘chronic insecurity…due to policies and depredations of local government actors… (including) violent criminal offenses – armed robbery, extortion, and kidnappings – committed by army troops, police, and intelligence agents.’ It warned that, ‘if allowed to continue with impunity, these abuses will make it impossible for Afghans to create a modern, democratic state.’
It was a dark, grim day in February 2002 when earth was shovelled onto the coffin of the Afghan civil aviation minister. Clouds hung over the hills near the graveyard where hundreds of mourners had gathered, including all the male members of the interim cabinet – a few of them suspected of having pleaded on behalf of the murder suspects. One of the other ministers whispered to me, “This has to be dealt with strongly, or we’ll all be at risk.” But it wasn’t. Instead, Dr Abdul Rahman’s murder encapsulated many of the dynamics that have undermined Afghanistan since 2001: impunity for officials, fine words, but ultimately a failure by the Afghan government to deal with well-connected, suspected criminals in its own ranks. And the utter reluctance by Afghanistan’s international backers to take such crimes seriously.
* A few months later, on 6 July 2002, the Vice President and Minister of Counter-Narcotics, Haji Qadir (brother of Abdul Haq who was killed by the Taleban in October 2001), was also killed. His murderers were also never brought to trial.
This article was last updated on 11 Feb 2022