Saturday 24 January 2009

Dostum still in Turkey. Return unlikely

Despite denials from the Turkish Foreign Ministry that he is in exile, General Abdur Rashid Dostum is still in the country and shows no signs of returning to Afghanistan any time soon (see my post of 4 Dec 2008 below for more details about his departure).
When Dostum left Afghanistan on a private jet in early December the official explanation was that he was visiting his wife and nine children (who live in Ankara) during Eid al Adha and that he would be returning soon after. But nearly two months later and there is no sign that he is about to leave Turkey.
According to one source I have spoken to, Dostum's departure was arranged by the CIA and the Turkish intelligence service. The source maintains that the General had become a serious thorn in the side of everyone in Kabul, where his outbursts and irrational behaviour were causing consternation.
It was already known that his kidnapping of and attack on Akbar Bai in February 2008 had left President Karzai with a serious problem.
Then it was announced by the Physicians for Human Rights group that in the summer of 2008 Dostum's men had destroyed the site of a mass grave at Dasht-e-Leili near Sheberghan in northern Afghanistan. To be more precise, they had cleared the site - where around 2,000 former Taliban fighters had been killed in November 2001 by Dostum's men - with bulldozers, depositing the remains into a local river.
The site was officially a war crimes site and disturbing it is a very serious offence.
Nor was Dostum the only Uzbek causing problems for Karzai's government. A former commander in Dostum's Jumbesh-e-Melli party, Abdul Rahim, was accused in August 2008 of rape and murder and levying illegal taxes. Residents of Sarang Cherak district in Sar-e-Pul, close to Balkh, took to the streets demanding action against Rahim. And in July 2008 another former Dostum commander, Kamaluddin, was arrested on charges of multiple murder and land expropriation.
So, it seems, a plan was drawn up to get rid of Dostum. As I previously reported, President Karzai - who has looked indecisive in this whole affair- agreed to drop charges against Dostum if he would leave the country, at least for a while.
My source says that after a few weeks in Turkey, Dostum telephoned former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani to complain that he had asked for a return flight to Afghanistan, but that it had been made clear to him he was not going anywhere. The penny finally dropped and Dostum realised he had been tricked and that there was little chance he would be returning to Kabul.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Human Rights Watch and The Azizabad Massacre

Last week's letter from Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch to outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert M Gates will, I hope, be remembered for marking the end of a US military policy that has brought nothing but disrepute to the armed services of that country.
His letter concerns the US night air attack on the small town of Azizabad, near Shindand in the West of the country that took place on 21-22 August last year and which has been the subject of much controversy.
The US military authorities have been accused of a cover-up over the incident in which it is thought around 80 civilians were killed. Initial statements denied any civilians were killed and even after a senior USAF officer was brought in to conduct an inquiry, the military would only accept that around 30 civilians had been killed - as a result of the Taliban using them as 'human shields'. No-one else places any credibility on this story.
In his open letter Adams noted the recent statements from senior military figures that in order to minimise civilian casualties, various tactical directives have been issued that should ensure actions are called off if there is any danger of civilians being killed. Why that was not the case right from the beginning of the conflict is in itself hard to understand.
But leaving that point aside, it is to be welcomed that the Coalition forces have at long last acknowledged the enormous damage done by indiscriminate airstrikes on civilians. The use of airstrikes has grown enormously in the last two years. According to John A Nagl and Nathaniel C Fick, writing in Foreign Policy magazine recently, "In 2005 the Coalition conducted 176 close air support missions in Afghanistan. In 2007 it completed 3,572 such missions." That's a 20-fold increase.
However, HRW is "deeply dismayed" by the investigation by USAF Brig Gen Michael W Callan into the bombing at Azizabad, a summary of which was made public on 1 October 2008. HRW has now investigated that report. Its verdict? "Instead of being an exemplary US investigation derived from a new operational mandate, the Callan Report Summary (the report itself is still classified - Ed) appears to be little more than a return to the discredited inquiries of recent years."
HRW says Callan dismisses the methodology used in the three other investigations - by the UN, the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. It also rejects information provided by villagers, exonerates the US forces of any wrongdoing and places the responsibility for preventable civilian deaths on the Taliban.
This is buck-passing of the worst kind. More to the point, it is the sort of denial that will strengthen the very forces the US military is fighting in Afghanistan. Nothing acts as a better recruitment sergeant than the deaths of innocent civilians.
Let us recall, very briefly, what happened at Azizabad on the night in question. US and Afghan forces entered the town to find a 'high value' target named as Mullah Sadiq. As they approached the village they were fired upon and responded with close air support, including an AC130H gunship (armed with M102 105mm howitzers and 40mm grenades) and an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned drone which at one point dropped a 500-lb bomb. Around 12-14 houses were completely destroyed. Five men were taken into custody, including three Afghan National police and two local residents. Four were released within a few days and the fifth spent three months in Bagram before he too was released without charge.
In the immediate aftermath the US military denied there had been any civilian casualties. A day later they admitted five deaths. The three investigations mentioned above came to very different conclusions: they said between 78 and 92 civilians had been killed, mostly children.
The military only began to change its story when video shot on a mobile phone by a local doctor clearly showed a large number of dead civilians lying in rows in the local mosque. A new inquiry, under Callan, was ordered.
Callan accepted that 33 civilians had been killed, but refused to confirm the higher figures found by the three other inquiries. His report failed to acknowledge an intelligence failure, suggested (without evidence) that the Taliban had used civilians as human shields and judged that the air attack was lawful.
The HRW report addresses all of these points. They note, for example, that five of the men killed were contractors working as security guards for the UK-based Armor Group. Only 15 weapons were found at the site by US forces, of which five were legally registered to the contractors. According to HRW: "The Callan Report Summary says that the presence of a small number of rifles, a box of mobile phones and some mines were evidence that all 22 men killed were 'Anti-government militia'." They strongly dispute this saying evidence on the presence of Taliban fighters is "problematic".
Brad Adams' letter states "The weaknesses in the Callan Report Summary call into question the depth of the Defense Department's commitment to institute reforms that would reduce civilian casualties. We are concerned that unless such reforms are urgently implemented, more unnecessary civilian deaths and injuries will result, generating greater public outrage and hostility towards the presence of international forces."
Azizabad was not the first time that large numbers of civilians have been killed in Afghanistan as a result of poor intelligence or (as may be the case on this occasion) internal Afghan rivalries.
Nothing could be more appropriate for attention by the new Secretary of Defense than he should publish the full Callan Report and take in hand the culture within sections of the military which appears to believe that dead civilians don't count. They do, Mr Secretary, they do.

Friday 16 January 2009

Remembering the Bamiyan buddhas

A coincidence has prompted me to write about the giant buddhas at Bamiyan that were destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001. First, while looking for something else, I came across the ticket shown above, hidden away in a drawer. It is my entrance ticket to the buddhas that I purchased during a visit in early March 1975. I still remember very well sitting on the head of the largest buddha and looking out over the green Bamiyan Valley 150 feet below. At that time the only accommodation was in a chai khana where I stayed for several nights.
My recollection is that I was on one of the first vehicles to get through to Bamiyan after the winter snows. Two men perched on the back of the lorry as we travelled from Kabul, holding huge wooden wedges over their shoulders which were placed under the back wheels as we negotiated the numerous steep slopes on the road. The wedges stopped the vehicle rolling back down the slopes, still covered in snow and ice.
Then a couple of nights ago I was reading Eastern Oddysey by Georges Le Fevre, published by Victor Gollancz in 1935. This account of a French expedition in tracked Citroen vehicles from Paris to Beijing, includes a brief mention of a visit to Bamiyan in May 1931. Amongst the expedition members was Joseph Hackin, curator of the Guimet Museum in Paris who was particularly interested in the buddhist sites along the route taken by the expedition. The Guimet Museum today has one of the greatest collections of buddhist art in the world.
Le Fevre revealed that the Taliban were not the first to attempt to destroy the buddhas. The legs of the larger one were used by Nadir Shah and the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as artillery targets, while in order to destroy the mural paintings they had coated them in tar and set fire to them. Le Fevre was clearly deeply moved by what remained:
"Such was Bamiyan, where the Expedition arrived after two and a half months of travel - a sort of cross-roads in the history of humanity, where formerly Greece, India and Sassandid Persia met.
"There, to the creative impulse which Rome had given to the world, the Orient had added the expression of its own philosophy - of contemplation and dreams of the Infinite. For us, so recently from the West, who so far had seen only the Islamised face of the East, the pilgrimage to this silent valley in the fastness of the Hindu Kush was not in vain, for it gave us the occasion for contemplation and meditation on the symbol of FAITH and LOVE (author's emphasis) deposited there by Time, the last and living traces of three past and gone civilisations."
Hackin pointed out to the others how the treatment of the wavy hair and the monastic cloak draped over the shoulders of the buddha was very much in the Greek style. The cave paintings, executed three centuries after the figures were carved, had borrowed from the Sassanid civilisation of Iran, he said. New rulers were in charge by then, nomads from central Asia who imposed new conventions in decorative art - floating ribbons, jewelled ornamentation, vases and diadems.
He noted that the family groups of princely figures of either side of the main buddha wore Sassanian headdresses crowned with globes and crescents and the buddhas were in full dress. Another ceiling decorated with medallions engraved with boars' heads was similar to decoration on the robes of one of the Persian emperors on the frescoes at Tak-i-Bostan near Kermanshah.
And so it was for around 1400 years - the statues were built at around the time that Islam came into existence. Until on a whim the Taliban decided to destroy the buddhas.
There has never been a full account of how the decision was taken to destroy the buddhas. It is known that in 1999 the Taliban leader mullah Omar issued a decree in favour of their preservation. That, of course, suggests there were already moves afoot to destroy them. His argument was that the statues would bring substantial tourist revenue into the country.
Over the next two years the argument continued and in the end it was Mowlawi Mohammad Islam Mohammadi, the Taliban governor of Bamiyan, who organised the destruction. Allegedly the decision was taken after a foreign aid group asked to restore the face of one of the buddhas. Personally I find this hard to believe. It is very clear today that this was an act aimed primarily at the Hazara people of the region, who were hated by the Taliban mainly because they were Shias. The Taliban had already carried out several massacres of Hazaras, both in Mazar-i-Sharif and in the Bamiyan Valley. Mohammadi, who was later elected to the Afghan Parliament, was assassinated in Kabul in January 2007.
Will the buddhas be rebuilt? Personally I very much doubt it. A much better case can be made for a campaign to preserve the remaining Gandharan sites in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of which have been pillaged and looted in recent years. This wanton destruction has nothing to do with Islam and more to do with greed and revenge.
At the same time, we should remember that the destruction of the buddhas was a crime against humanity. All of us suffered this loss. One day, perhaps, those responsible will face justice for their barbarism.

Monday 5 January 2009

Another Afghanistan

These images from Afghan photographer Najibullah Musafer serve to remind us that despite the unremittingly bad news that comes from Afghanistan every day, there is another Afghanistan that is a million miles away from the land of conflict and chaos we always hear about. If you would like copies of Najibullah's pictures - some from the Bamian Valley, others from Kabul and Band-e-Amir - please contact him directly at