Recently, I participated in a discussion in Washington where I drew a lot of anger when I said that ‘kinetic’ house searches still alienate many Afghans – if they don’t push them into Taleban ranks. That’s not correct, I was told, the US and NATO forces have changed their approach. Here a first-hand story that shows that this malpractice is even spreading, now to Afghanistan’s North. Read a contribution by AAN member SUSANNE SCHMEIDL*.
This is the story of a man in Northern Afghanistan – let’s call him Ahmad (or Mahmud) – who simply was at the wrong place at the wrong time. And likely with the wrong name – also his real name is a pretty common one in Afghanistan.
Put yourself into the shoes of Ahmad (or Mahmud) who is minding his own business. Three of your brothers work with international organizations while you are looking after the family’s property. Then, the following happens:
One day in October or November 2009, 8:00 pm
Men with black turbans turn up at your doorstep. You know who they are. They are the Taliban. They used to be around until an international invasion expelled them in 2001. Now they are back, and nobody has stopped them from coming back. They may be armed or not, but you know what they can do. They ask for food and tea and request that you wash their car. You could refuse but that would likely get you killed, you know that. Who are you to turn these men away, especially as there is nobody to protect you? There are no police or soldiers—there is just you and them. So you do what everybody willing to survive would do: you serve them tea and food and wash their car. And hope they go away and leave you alone again. And eventually, with full bellies and shiny Ford Rangers, they go. You are relieved and go to sleep.
2:00 am, the same night
Baaaaaang! Your door is blown open and men — curiously bearded, though un-turbaned — storm into your house. They push you to the floor, handcuff you, ask you questions, search your sitting room, your kitchen, your toilet, even the women’s quarters that are taboo for any outsider. All that while you lie helplessly on the floor, not sure what is happening, not sure what these men want. They keep asking you about the Taliban. But the Taliban are gone, you tell them this. All you did was to serve them tea and food and wash their car to stay alive. And while you still lie on the floor and the foreigners continue searching your house, you see that one of them accidentally steps on your one-year old daughter. But there is nothing you can do, nothing to protect the honour of your women, your house, your one-year old daughter. Then they put a black hood over your head and as they march you outside your daughter’s sobbing is quickly drowned out by the sharp thudding of a rotor blade.
You don’t know where they have taken you… When the hood is removed you are in an empty room. It is terribly cold, there is cold air blowing from somewhere. All you have is your shalwar kamiz, no blanket and nothing. It is close to winter. Why is there cold air and not heat? You don’t know where you are, you don’t know what the time is, you are cold and hungry. There is a horrible noise in the background, the light is on, you cannot sleep and there is this one terrible image in your mind: the man with the big boots stepping on your daughter and you could do nothing. They take you out to be questioned every so often; always you are hooded so you don’t know where they are taking you. You don’t remember how often, you don’t know if it’s day or night. They ask you who the Taliban were, what they wanted, whether you are one of them etc. etc. etc. You keep telling them who you are and that all you did was give them tea and food and wash their car. They keep asking the same questions over and over again, several times a day – or maybe night. You don’t know how long you’ve been gone, what time of the day it is. You have barely slept, you are tired and cold and the strange music is driving you crazy.
2 weeks later
All of sudden you get hooded and again put in a helicopter. You are dropped in a pasture, given 2,000 Afghani and told to go home. The first questions you have are: What time is it? What day is it? Where am I? You find out that you have been held for two weeks and you are in a Southeastern province. And you have only 2,000 Afghani to get home. But somehow you manage to get home. You find your house. Your family was worried. They did not know if you were alive and, if alive, where you were. You are glad your family is okay and your daughter has recovered somewhat. All you want is to go to sleep and forget the past two weeks.
The next morning
The black-turbaned men are back. They want to know where you’ve been. What you have told the foreigners. You put them in your guesthouse and, afraid of another repeat, take your family and flee for the city. You have to leave your property behind because there is nobody to protect you against the Taliban, and those who are supposed to protect you think you are one of them. You were treated like a criminal – but of course you do not know that your treatment is considered torture and breaks the Geneva Conventions. How would you know? You still think of torture as being hung from the ceiling by your feet as some commanders used to do or the beatings of the Taliban. All they did was freeze you and keep you from sleeping and make you crazy with a strange sort of noise. And in the end, the worst thing for you was that they stepped on your daughter. The image stays with you and tortures you more than anything they did to you. And you cannot complain to anybody. Who would hear you out? You are only a simple man, called Ahmad (or Mahmud).
This is a true story, albeit the name of the person is changed and the places are kept general. I was told the story on a recent trip to Northern Afghanistan. And it was not the first time I’ve heard such a story. In fact, I’ve heard many like this but mostly in the Southeast and South so far. Now they’ve reached up to the North as well, with the increased ‘kinetic activities’ there during the past couple of months.
For some reason this one stuck in my memory and during one of these nights where I’m haunted by insomnia, I thought I wanted to share his story – as possibly nobody else was there to tell it.
There might be merit in trying to hunt down top leaders of the Taliban through house searches. Until you get the wrong Ahmad (or Mahmud), maybe because you got the wrong house, maybe because somebody gave you wrong information, maybe because somebody had a score to settle with that particular man, maybe because some military still does not understand that feeding the Taliban does not mean you sympathize with them but that you are just trying to stay alive.
This is a problem that affects more and more Afghans who are caught between a rock and a hard place. It gives them less and less choice. Our Ahmad (or Mahmud) only fled to the next city – to be left alone. Another one may decide to join the Taliban instead, to protect his honour, that of his woman, to revenge his daughter being stepped upon.
Is it enough to say “sorry” after we got the wrong Ahmad or Mahmud – in case we even bother to do so? Is it okay to say sorry, if we continue to break into the houses of other Ahmads and Mahmuds? If for every five or ten we do this to, we maybe get the one we wanted – what about the other four or nine? We always criticize the Taliban and Afghan government for acting with impunity, yet we do the same and justify it with international security and counter-terrorism.
Yes, there is a war in Afghanistan, yes there is an insurgency, and yes there are bad people who do bad things. But there are also reasons why there is are the Geneva Conventions and international conventions protecting human rights. They remind us that everybody has a right to be treated with dignity, even if he is called Ahmad (or Mahmud) and has hosted some Taliban. It is dangerous to continue justifying actions that denigrate unprotected human beings with national or international security – after Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bagram. As the late John F. Kennedy in his famed civil rights address noted: “the rights of all men are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
* Susanne Schmeidl, Senior Advisor, Research/Peacebuilding, The Liaison Office, Afghanistan
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020