The authors are independent research analysts. Ms. Daud is a Graduate in Public Policy and Mr. Sharma is a Doctoral Candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Germany
“Kore Khud, Bina-e-Mardom”
The release by the Dutch prosecutors office of a list of nearly 5,000 Afghans who were put to death between 1978-1979 has once again rekindled debate on dealing with the country’s tumultuous past. Demands for ‘justice’ for past war crimes have found a small but much needed stimulus. However the nature of the debate surrounding the engagement with Afghanistan’s past is well captured in the Afghan saying above, literally means ‘Blind for yourself, while seeing for others’.
Reconciling with Afghanistan’s torturous past three decades and their impact on the country’s social fabric will without an iota of doubt be an extremely excruciating process given the scale and intensity of the crimes committed; as also the rapid pace of change at the top. This blurred the line between the victim and the perpetrator; very often the victim under one regime became a perpetrator under the next.
The release of the list by the Dutch government should be treated not as an event but rather the beginning of a larger process of dealing with the country’s past. This is important for sensitizing a generation of Afghans who have grown up amidst conflict and displacement to past mistakes so as to avoid repeating them. However the Afghan government has chosen to treat this as an event. Ironically enough a meeting chaired by President Karzai and attended by key figures in his government- many of whom stand accused of grave crimes committed in the 1990’s- declared a day of national mourning in remembrance of those killed by the communists. The young generation would perhaps find the logic of this hard to comprehend given that the same government chose to simply strike off its school textbooks any mention of developments of the tumultuous four decades that followed Soviet military intervention.
Even the limited attempts at engaging with the past have been piece-meal at best. Take for instance the erection of a memorial and a small museum in remote Shahdak, Badakshan in memory of those killed under the communists. Though an important reminder of the horrors inflicted by conflict, it tells only one side of the story. Glaring absence of an acknowledgement crimes committed in the period of mujahideen rule (1992-1996). Given the anarchy that ensued in this period characterized by acts of wanton violence, rape, arson and torture and disappearances of thousands in prisons run by mujahideen commanders and the lack of any documentation of the kind that existed during the period of communist rule it would be exceedingly difficult if not impossible to obtain a closure for survivors or families of victims of war crimes committed in this period.
A common refrain dissuading any attempt to deal with the past, particularly those pertaining to the period of mujahideen rule, heard in Kabul and amongst its international backers is the extremely fraught relationship between ‘peace’ and ‘justice’ in Afghanistan. Many of those accused of committing ‘war crimes’ enjoy legal and political immunity and it’s argued any attempt to challenge the status quo would upset the fragile peace. This is attested to for instance by systematic efforts on part of the Afghan government to keep under wraps the investigative report “Conflict Mapping in Afghanistan Since 1978,” by the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Its findings indict many of those in power today. The only noticeable change has been in the use of terminology, whereby the mujahideen, vaporized in the West for taking on the ‘evil empire’ are today referred to as ‘warlords’.
The vexed task of dealing with the past assumes immense significance as the country braces for an uncertain military and political transition, underlined by an attempt to ‘reconcile’ with the Taliban. Understandably the move evokes extreme reactions, more so when the Afghan President addresses the Taliban as “our brothers”. It is not dialogue with the Taliban per se which is blasphemous, if anything the West should have engaged politically with the Taliban to consolidate their military gains in the early years of intervention.
But problems arise when such an initiative is taken from a position of distinct military and political weakness. Further, it remains unclear who will be reconciled with and what the terms of the so-called reconciliation would be? Striking in the discourse on so-called ‘reconciliation’ are the attempts to claim that the process is aimed at the so-called ‘good’ Taliban. It reminds one of the romanticization of the Taliban in early years of its rise, described amongst others by Nancy deWolf Smith reporting for the Wall Street Journal on 22 February 1995 as “…the best thing that’s happened to Afghanistan in years.”
Astounding in equal measure are voices opposing the process either on ethno-political grounds internally or on grounds of human rights abuses and lack of respect for women’s rights externally. The Taliban’s record on any of these fronts is certainly not defensible to say the least, but neither are the very cursory and discerning grounds for opposition. Consider for instance a story by the Telegraph published on 13 January 2013, entitled “ We Don’t want our burqas back: Women in Afghanistan on the Taliban’s return”. The story amongst several others that have appeared over the years selectively highlights the position of women under the Taliban, whilst conveniently ignoring the fact that the ball in this direction was set rolling by the very mujahideen leaders sitting in government today. One of the first steps in this direction was taken by Shibgatullah Mojaddedi’s government in May 1992 and reaffirmed under Ustad Rabbani. Similarly skewed is the Taliban’s portrayal of its position on the Hazaras who were also at the receiving end in Afshar in 1993 by the forces of national hero Ahmad Shah Massoud and Rasool Sayyaf. Public executions too began under the Rabbani government from September 1992. The justification in the words of then interior minister Younis Qanooni, present at the site of execution “ People have to know what will happen to people who commit crimes”.
Such selective engagement with Afghanistan’s past creates more problems than it seeks to resolve. The release of the death list should be seized upon as a point to mark a beginning of a process to honestly and comprehensively engage with the past. For only a society which is at peace with its past can possibly hope to negotiate what is turning out to be a rather difficult path towards building a secure, stable and inclusive future. In essence the process must not be vindictive nor should we hope for legal penalization of war crime offenders for that would be sheer utopia. However what we can hope for is that steps towards engaging with the past will at least provide some sort of closure for victims and survivors and help build pressure to at least politically marginalize those responsible for past war crimes.