Posted by: Christian | April 27, 2009

The Moderate Taliban in Action

Last summer The Independent newspaper ran an article titled “Afghan President pardons men convicted of bayonet gang rape.”

So what actually happened?

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has pardoned three men who had been found guilty of gang raping a woman in the northern province of Samangan. The woman, Sara, and her family found out about the pardon only when they saw the rapists back in their village.

“Everyone was shocked,” said Sara’s husband, Dilawar, who like many Afghans uses only one name. “These were men who had been sentenced and found guilty by the Supreme Court, walking around freely.” […]

Sara’s case highlights concerns about the close relationship between the Afghan president and men accused of war crimes and human rights abuses. The men were freed discreetly but the rape itself was public and brutal. It took place in September 2005, in the run up to Afghanistan’s first democratic parliamentary elections.

“It was evening, around the time for the last prayer, when armed men came and took my son, Islamuddin, by force. I have eye-witness statements from nine people that he was there. From that night until now, my son has never been seen.”

Dilawar said his wife publicly harangued the commander twice about their missing son. After the second time, he said, they came for her. “The commander and three of his fighters came and took my wife out of our home and took her to their house about 200 metres away and, in front of these witnesses, raped her.”

Dilawar has a sheaf of legal papers, including a doctors’ report, which said she had a 17mm wound in her private parts cut with a bayonet. Sara was left to stumble home, bleeding and without her trousers.

So at this point one may assume that this is the usual “Northern Alliance warlord” handiwork. It wouldn’t be surprising as local commanders affiliated with the various groups identified as the “Northern Alliance” [not a very helpful category these days] have done stuff like this before. I covered this ongoing phenomenon 2 years ago, and highlighted the story of a former Jamiat commander who punished a local for his public accusations by killing his two boys, putting their bodies in a bag and tossing them in a river. But he is an MP in the Afghan government so nothing was done about it.

Pic: One of the victims.

This all fits in with the official Taliban mythology of themselves as the saviors of Afghanistan, and their opposition as rapists, thieves, murderers, etc… However, there is a catch. The “bayonet” story has some extra details. The rapists in Samangan worked for a commander who had no “Northern Alliance” affiliations. In fact…

The most powerful local commander, Mawlawi Islam, was running for office despite being accused of scores of murders committed while he had been a mujahedeen commander in the 1980s and a Taliban governor in the 1990s, and since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Sara said one of his sub-commanders and body guards had been looking for young men to help in the election campaign.

Former Taliban? That doesn’t go very well with the ridiculous idea that is still being peddled of the asexual Taliban rescuing Afghanistan from evil warlords. It makes it seem like the Taliban has its share of evil. Looking into the background of this commander reveals some more interesting facts:

Mawlawi Islam Mohammadi, who represents Samangan Province in the Wolesi Jirga (People’s Council) of Afghanistan’s National Assembly,[…] Mohammadi, who was thought to be in his early 60s, once served as a provincial governor during the Taliban regime,[…] Mohammadi served as governor of Bamiyan
Province when the Taliban destroyed the colossal statues of Buddha […]

The Taliban is not remembered fondly in Bamiyan:

Human Rights Watch. 2001. ‘Massacres of Hazaras in Afghanistan’, Human Rights Watch Report, Vol. 13, No. 1(C). Available on line at:

And the Taliban do not remember Mawlawi Islam fondly either….

…the [Taliban]website claims that in 2001 he helped the U.S.-led coalition forces to close the main road between northern and southern Afghanistan to Taliban forces retreating southward.

So…a Taliban commander who can be persuaded to switch sides and join the democratic process, etc… Wouldn’t that make him part of the “Moderate Taliban” we hear so much about? And doesn’t this raise the possibility that many potential former Taliban commanders are just as bad as those commanders who have “Northern Alliance” affiliations? I took a look at some other former Taliban commanders who have jumped on board with the Afghan government. There are some truly horrible people in that group. If the plan is to get “moderate Taliban” to switch sides, it will be a process based on pragmatism (in its worst form) rather than on any moral standards.

Back to the rape pardon:

The MP, Mir Ahmad Joyenda, said cases similar to Sara’s were actually becoming more common. The police and the courts, he said, were usually under the sway of local commanders. “The commanders, the war criminals, still have armed groups,” he said. “They’re in the government. Karzai, the Americans, the British sit down with them. They have impunity. They’ve become very courageous and can do whatever crimes they like.”

They certainly can. And some of them used to be in the Taliban.

And as a post-script, some good (old) news concerning Mawlawi Islam:

27 January 2007 – H.E. Hamid Karzai, President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, strongly condemned the killing of Mawlawi Islam Muhammadi, a prominent religious scholar and member of the Afghan Parliament from the province of Samangan. According to reports, the enemies of Afghanistan killed Mawlawi Islam Muhammadi when he was on his way to attend Friday prayers at a mosque in Kart e Parwan area of Kabul.

The President expressed his deep regret at the death of Mawlawi Islam Muhammadi and said, “Mawlawi Islam Muhammadi was a prominent Jihadi figure who has made great sacrifices during the years of Jihad against the Soviet invasion. The enemies of Afghanistan must understand that they will never achieve their malicious intentions by killing our innocent Ulema.”

The President expressed his deep condolences and sympathies to the families of Mawlawi Islam Muhammadi.

The Taliban claimed it was their doing:

…a website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — the name of the country under the Taliban — claimed on January 27 that mujahedin of the “Islamic Emirate” assassinated Mohammadi.

Maybe. It could also maybe have had something to do with power struggles up north. The Taliban, or sometimes their various enthusiastic supporters, have both claimed credit for and denied any role in certain attacks. And as a disclaimer I should add that Karzai’s spokesman said he was shocked that a pardon was granted and stated that President Karzai certainly wouldn’t have issued a pardon if he had actually known the details [it’s safe to assume that the pardon system is not as rigorous in Afghanistan as it is in the US where one must publicly apply for a pardon and then navigate numerous layers of lawyers and bureaucracy]. Poor spokesman:

When showed copies of the presidential pardon and court papers, President Karzai’s spokesman, Hamayun Hamidzada, was visibly shocked and said that if the documents proved genuine, Mr Karzai would be “upset and appalled.”

He said it was impossible that President Karzai could knowingly have signed a pardon for rapists, but refused to speculate on how the pardon could have come about. He promised an investigation into all aspects of the case, including the – as yet unsolved – mystery of Sara’s missing son.

The family of the rape victim also have their own problems:

Sara and Dilawar are again in hiding, having felt too vulnerable to stay in their village. Dilawar was prepared to discuss the case. In Afghanistan, speaking about rape means risking further dishonour, but when asked whether he minded Sara’s story being publicised, Dilawar said, “We’ve already lost our son, our honour, we’ve sold our land to pay for legal costs and we’ve lost our home – what else can we lose?”

So are former Taliban commanders like Mawlawi Islam and others of his type just aberrations? Will the “moderate Taliban” who we read about have a respect for the rule of law and human rights? Or are they just like so many men who rise to prominence with the gun; ready to settle every issue with violence and intimidation? Advocates of the “moderate Taliban” strategy haven’t addressed the issue of how to integrate violent men into a system that already has a serious problem with other violent men. They casually toss out “renounce violence” and “join the democratic process” as if the process of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration) has been perfected in Afghanistan.

At least the Taliban can be relied on. Don’t expect hordes of “moderate” (or “reconcilable” ) Taliban field commanders to be switching sides anytime soon.


  1. The American University of Afghanistan’s Student Free Press goes live.

  2. Agree with all of your points individually, but I think you may be missing the right emphasis – surely its not so much about whether commanders are former Taliban, ex-Northern Alliance, or non-aligned – its about the fact that the system is so flawed that
    a) A president can pardon the perpetrators and
    b) The lack of police/judicial capability to investigate (or even take seriously) these sort of crimes…


  3. Tim,

    I thought I needed the emphasis on the former Talib as there is (a) an opinion out there that the former “NA” commanders have a monopoly on horrible abuses and (b) a large body of op-eds pushing for accommodations with men who are very much “warlords” themselves as far as behaviors associated with that set go, just with a different semantic categorization. I thought I should point out that they (former Talibs) may behave quite badly themselves once integrated into the state apparatus.

    I’ve dedicated other entries to state capacity, human rights and rule of law, so I thought I would skip that discussion as the longer a blog entry is, the less people will read it.

  4. Christian,

    This is a pretty rhetorically loaded way to present an argument: “Want to talk to the Taliban? Then you must like child rapists!”

    I agree that the details of *how* to bring in reconciled Taliban are few and far between, and too many pundits are unaware of the complications involved when they call for it. But correct me if I’m wrong–isn’t there going to HAVE to be some form of bringing what you call “evil” people under the tent in order to get the shooting to stop?

    Cf. 90’s era Tajikistan, Georgia. What is the difference here? What moral standards were involved in ending those civil wars?

  5. Its like a fckin Mad Max movie at the moment, innit?

    I think if we want to have ex-talib folks to relate to we need to seriously start designing lifestyle-improvement packages in nice military modules for the valleys and towns, distributed evenly. A swimmingpool, a functioning dynamo, a local governance model and a very light touch from the central units, propagated over next 5 to 10 with extreme patience just may succeed yet. But except for that I dont get the Af/pak strategy of light COIN/engaged CT at. all.

  6. “This is a pretty rhetorically loaded way to present an argument: “Want to talk to the Taliban? Then you must like child rapists!””

    This article is more for the google crowd, I admit. But I have had some absurd conversations lately with people who still cling to the Taliban’s quasi-official mythology. I just wanted to poke a hole in their “lovers of law and order” stereotype.

    As for the integration of insurgents, Tajikistan did it with guys who were mostly sitting on their asses up the Qarategin, not on the march as the Taliban/insurgents are.

    And I have pointed out abuses by northern warlords, the Afghan government, the US military, the CIA, non-affiliated northern non-Pashtuns, etc… I think I’ve earned the right to take a shot at the Taliban.

  7. Ha, you’ve earned the right to say whatever–I agree that it’s worth acknowledging that, basically, if you are a person of prominence in 2009 Afghanistan, you’ve done awful things in your life. This fact, once acknowledged, shouldn’t get in the way of a strategy of dealing with those same people of prominence. I don’t mean to discount moral improvement, but it’s probably not going to be an immediate outcome whatever the path, reconciliation in fits and starts or grinding CT with a dash of COIN.

    I will now pull the standard move of a commenter to a Foust post and ask, if you don’t like reconciliation with moderate Taliban, what are you FOR? And don’t say a better application of COIN because it ain’t hapnin.

  8. I’m for not making former Taliban commanders the governor of Jauzjan who will then go on to massacre unarmed demonstrators (the equivalent absurdity would have been for Dostum to be appointed mayor of Kabul). I’m for a full scope DDR on these guys. They can have a pension or some fake government job or whatever. And they can’t roam the countryside/towns with an armed posse. “Reconciliation” will be a big F-u to Afghans (if one is to believe the polls) if any of these guys are handed real power in anywhere but their home village. Imagine a Gharmi UTO guy being appointed to a high level position in Kulob, or a Qurghonteppa Uzbek/Loqai being sent to GBAO to run the police.

    And if goodies are going to be handed out to insurgents, would that be an incentive to become an insurgent or at least fake-identify as one? “Join the insurgency: get a kick-ass government job!”?

    But really, “reconciliation” won’t happen unless the government gets stronger and the insurgency gets weaker. The PRIO/CMI report gave a sad list of those who had been “reconciled”: guys who had been out of the game since 2001-2 and needed a job or whatever.

    And if it does happen, there needs to be numerous safe-guards that haven’t really been mentioned.

  9. By DDR I’m assuming you mean Dance Dance Revolution (google).

    Got it, what you’re not for. Let’s agree not to appoint people to foreign locations (what Karzai does now even with people with no tendency to massacre).

    I don’t believe in the calculation you posit that ordinary young men will view reconciliation as an incentive to join the insurgency; couldn’t it also discourage joining it, because non-state actors won’t have any resources to hand out to captains? That is what I understand brought the end to shooting in Dushanbe–before the Qarateginis went back to their lairs in the mid 90s.

  10. If I could rephrase, it is an incentive to stay in the insurgency until the goods are offered. But some part of what I said could play out: if material incentives are offered to “insurgents,” people will start identifying as such. The reconciliation process that exists right now, even with feeble incentives, has such people. So what I guess I really meant is that right about when a local deal comes close to being made, the number of insurgents “identified” will swell if the incentives are “sweet”. Something like Dostum did when it became apparent he would get paid per militiaman who went over to the Communist side.

    As for the guys from Qarategin, I don’t think their “leadership” every really delivered much to them at all. They mostly generated resources locally, which is why they had such a high degree of autonomy from the “leadership.”

  11. the number of insurgents “identified” will swell if the incentives are “sweet”.

    Replace “insurgents” with “tribal leaders” and that’s what’s happening now. So I don’t deny that that dynamic would happen, I just wonder how you end conflict in localities if you don’t eventually spread the spoils around.

  12. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 04/28/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  13. I’m all for ending the zero-sum game and “spreading the spoils.” I just don’t have a formula at the moment that’s not morally reprehensible. Not that the current situation is not so in its own way.

    I would imagine a potential spreading of spoils would quickly separate the various motivations and we could see the rough breakdown in ideologically motivated and materially motivated.

  14. “I just don’t have a formula at the moment that’s not morally reprehensible. Not that the current situation is not so in its own way.”

    This debate has been really interesting so far, especially because both of you know Tajikistan so well. But the problem here is that this problem is endemic to all insurgencies: how do you offer a non-violent incentive to horrible men to put an end to the killing and promote a non-violent solution?

    I think the problem is made much less complicated by so many “pro-government” types already in power being inhuman monsters. Some of us were joking the other day that there really aren’t a lot of men in charge in Afghanistan who are not mass murderers and rapists. Abhorrent as it may seem from an office, it does make offering a deal to the Taliban easier from a moral standpoint.

    Now, structuring it so it doesn’t make things worse is the big challenge. But there, too, there should be at least a few lessons to be had from other insurgencies. Why not see what worked elsewhere, and mash that with what we know of social and political reality in Afghanistan?

  15. As for “what worked” in Tajikistan, the “soft” side could point to power-sharing and reconciliation – i.e., – just as the “hard” side could point to the crippled state of the insurgency (after it was downgraded from a civil war), thanks to some rather Tamerlanesque operations by the Popular Front. No neat formula there to be adopted.


%d bloggers like this: