Dereliction of Duty

Despite the rhetoric, the NATO summit offers no concrete plan to protect Afghan rights.


The just-completed NATO summit in Chicago highlighted two competing visions for Afghanistan. The first — focusing on the Afghan people — seeks democracy, civil rights, and the rule of law. The other, driven by NATO’s rush for the exits, settles for a modicum of security to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for attacking the West. Rhetoric at the summit embraced the grander vision, but the dearth of concrete commitments raised fears that the minimalist one will prevail.

Like the U.S.-Afghan strategic partnership agreement signed earlier this month in Kabul by U.S. President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai, many of the world leaders assembled in Chicago — though, notably, not Karzai — spoke eloquently about their commitment to human rights, particularly for women. But the test of that commitment is whether anybody cares enough to put in place a concrete plan to carry it out. The United States and its NATO partners have fallen disturbingly short on three key issues — ensuring that security forces abide by the law, marginalizing the warlords at the heart of the Karzai power structure, and providing meaningful protection for the rights of women. 

As the troops depart, NATO’s hopes for keeping the Taliban at bay rest in large part on organizing and arming villagers as members of the new Afghan Local Police (ALP). The program, begun in 2010, now counts some 13,000 ALP members, with plans for 30,000.

But simply handing an Afghan an AK-47 and a couple weeks of training is a recipe for disaster. Because villagers can so easily abuse their new power — mistreating suspects, pursuing private vendettas, stirring ethnic conflict — paramilitary forces of this sort are inherently dangerous. A Human Rights Watch report released in September 2011 documented many such abuses. An internal Pentagon study obtained last week by the Los Angeles Times found ALP units making little contribution to security while engaging in assault, rape, extortion, and drug trafficking. 

The Pentagon’s plan for avoiding such abuses is to vet would-be ALP members, train them, and hope the Afghan Interior Ministry will hold them accountable. But given the troublesome record of Afghanistan’s traditional security forces — torture by the intelligence services is rife, for example — there is little reason to think these measures will suffice.

One way to improve accountability for the ALP and other Afghan security forces would be to establish an independent mechanism — some sort of national ombudsman — where civilians could file complaints about the use of abusive force, and where officials would be authorized to investigate and, if appropriate, recommend prosecution. The respected Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission told me when I visited Kabul in March that it is willing and able to house such a mechanism. Several NATO governments said privately at the time that they liked the idea. But there was no evidence at the Chicago summit that these governments were pushing such oversight as a condition of the $3.6 billion in military aid that they hope to provide Afghanistan. A senior Defense Department official told me in Chicago that the Pentagon would prefer Afghans to adopt such a plan on their own. (Meaning: They like the idea in principle but don’t want to spend their time or capital fighting for it.) And given the resistance of Afghan security forces, that is unlikely to happen without a strong external push.

One reason the Afghan government finds discussion of accountability for abuses uncomfortable is that Karzai has built a political base that includes many powerbrokers and warlords, each with their own record of atrocities. A prime example is Vice President Mohamed Fahim, a former senior commander of the Northern Alliance who is implicated in war crimes from the 1990s and continues to face allegations of abuse and corruption. Any effort to remove these tainted and distrusted figures from a governance role must begin with official acknowledgment of their record. The Human Rights Commission has produced a detailed "mapping report" documenting these crimes, but Karzai has insisted that it not be published. NATO’s silence on the subject suggests it backs him, or at least is willing to look the other way. Like many of his colleagues in Kabul, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker left me thinking as much when he told me in March that the report "would not be helpful now."

Afghan women, having made important gains in the past 10 years, have the most to lose as NATO withdraws. Since the Taliban were overthrown, women, particularly in urban areas, have made real progress in access to healthcare, education, and employment opportunities. Yet those gains are under threat, not only from the Taliban, but also from the Karzai government. The government has sought to bolster its power base by appealing to socially conservative forces — such as when it recently endorsed a religious council’s guidance to the effect that women must work and study separately from men, must travel outside the home only with a male chaperone, and in certain circumstances, may be beaten.

In Chicago, a senior State Department official spoke passionately to me about the importance of respecting women’s rights in post-NATO Afghanistan. But there seems little beyond fervent desire — and a wish and a prayer — to make that happen. Washington seems to have a plan for Afghan troops once it leaves; it should also have a plan for the protection of Afghan women. 

No one expects any of this to be easy. But the United States and its NATO partners haven’t tried nearly hard enough. True, their influence decreases as NATO troops depart, but the promised delivery of massive military assistance — aid that will be essential to the Afghan government’s survival — still provides considerable leverage. It would have been nice if the NATO governments’ high-sounding rhetoric at the summit about their vision for Afghanistan were matched by some tough, no-nonsense pressure to realize it.   

Kenneth Roth is the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter: @KenRoth.

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